Canberra is unusually bird-rich and of all the many bird species attracted to my garden (I choose to believe they are as attracted by my magnetic personality as by the bird baths and food I provide) the most impressive is the Australian raven, Corvus coronoides.
Canberra's ravens are distinguished representatives, in this city, of the crow family (coronoides means "crow-shaped") and one's already deep respect for the Canberra's ravens and crows per se is deepened by findings of new research.
Crows, their legendary special qualities (they are famous stars of folklore, myth and fiction) are extolled in a new piece "The More We Learn About Crow Brains the More Humanlike Their Intelligence Seems" in the online science magazine Discover.
To digress for a moment, the disgruntled who like to write indignant letters to the editor about potholed streets (potholes are one of the Grand Themes of the letters page) might like another Discover piece explaining how climate change is bringing us more potholes than were previously dreamt of in our imaginations.
"Think Cities Have Pothole Problems Now? Just Wait," Discover promises.
"Cold, heat, stress and moisture are some of asphalt's worst enemies. Roads are likely to see more damage as climate change brings higher temperatures and more extreme weather swings."
But I digress. Back to Discover, ravens and science.
My own unscientific appreciation of ravens has something to do with the ways in which, when they stare at you, their eyes and their body language suggest they are studying you, staring right through your facades, perhaps judging you.
It is almost unknown for me (so well-educated and cultured) to ever feel intellectually inferior to any human who looks me in the eye. But there is something haughty, superior about the raven gaze (and we have been blessed all summer by a big, black, glossy family of gazing ravens) that disconcerts.
I dare say our prime minister, not the sharpest of tools, has the same sensation when he gives a press conference and is surrounded by dashing, sceptical journalists he knows in his heart are twice as bright as he is. Does he see their quiet contempt for him on their bright, young, university-educated faces?
In the Discover piece Timothy Meinch chirrups: "We've long known that crows exhibit extraordinary intelligence ... but the more scientists unravel about their brain structure and behaviours, the more crows seem to resemble humans.
"Remarkable leaps in corvid research have captivated John Marzluff, ornithologist at the University of Washington, for decades. He's explored the exceptional size and function of crow brains, their long life spans (up to 30 years) and social lifestyle. The combination of these factors draws some striking similarities to humans. 'Big brain, long life and sociality, those are really linked features,' Marzluff says. 'You put those together, and it should sound pretty familiar'.
"To top that off, just last [north American autumn] other researchers determined crows seem to exhibit a level of consciousness only attributed to humans and very few of our mammal relatives, such as primates.
"The breakthrough study published in Science revealed crows show signs of perceptual consciousness and an ability to have subjective experiences unique to their individual minds. This means the birds keep new information, or memories, in the front of their brains for extended periodsand use it in reasoning and navigating new situations they encounter.
"The discovery piggybacks on new knowledge about the forebrain in crows, which has proven to be exceptionally large - another trait they share with humans. This region, known as the nidopallium, or NCL, closely resembles the prefrontal cortex in humans. For people and crows alike, the forebrain deals with higher cognitive tasks, including the synthesis of information, rational decision-making, problem-solving and executive function. Taken together, these findings help explain dynamic problem-solving and tool use in crows that humans have observed for years."
I share the writer's admiration of our crows but am uneasy with all these gushily anthropomorphic ways of discussing them, of saying how humanlike they are.
It is the essence of ravens, of their ravenism, that they are so very different from us. The best characterisations of them in fable, folklore and poetry dwell on this eeriness. They are so literally fabulous (fine subjects for fable) because they live in a very different world from ours and surely think in ways we cannot fathom.
Properly understood, properly appreciated, a visit of ravens to our gardens is less like a visit by humans (who can sometimes be so dull and numbskulled that it defames ravens to be called as "humanlike" as them) than a visit by fascinating extraterrestrials.
Or, perhaps, for they are mind-bogglingly ancient (science thinks they emerge in Australia four million years ago, in the early Pliocene) they seem like visitors from prehistory. Indeed, because they are so big and have such enormous wingspans (it is an exciting thing, in the garden, to have a raven make a gliding whoosh past one's head en route to its bird bath, the disturbed air ruffling one's flaxen curls) they suggest to me a prehistoric, Late Jurassic creature.
"There you go, dear pterodactyls," I say to them, my voice ringing with respect, as (with the ravens waiting, staring at me, looking right through me, from their perch on a bough of the garden's Chinese pittosporum) I dutifully fill the infinity pools of their bird baths with fresh, clean, ravenworthy water.
- Ian Warden is a regular columnist.