Imagine you are walking past a tree and notice a crow perched peacefully on a low-hanging branch. You and the bird lock eyes. Then, the creature cocks its head to the side ever so slightly. “Hello,” it says. “Who’s out there?”
That is what Alex Cupeiro experiences nearly every day she volunteers at Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Ile des Chenes. Jet is a bird who lives at the centre and passes the time by playing, sorting colours, and learning English.
“Jet really does not recognize himself as a crow anymore, which is why he’s running around saying ‘hello’,” laughs Cupeiro, “and that he is a crow and not a person is not something we can really explain to him, so for that reasons he is going to stay with us.”
Wildlife Haven specializes in taking injured animals, nursing them back to health, and returning them to the wilderness. Sometimes though, as in Jet’s case, there is a disability that makes the animal unfit for its former lifestyle. As Cupeiro explains, Jet imprinted on a couple of well-intentioned people who found him with a broken wing when he was young and tried to take care of him. The bird's wing healed incorrectly and, as ironic as it sounds, Jet is no longer able to fly. The experience also made him unnaturally comfortable around people. If he was released back into the great outdoors again, he would be unable to fend for himself.
While it is unusual for a crow to learn such humanoid abilities as speech, Cupeiro says Jet belongs to a family of birds called corvids which are known for being highly observant.
“The corvid family which includes other species like ravens, jays, and a few others have immense problem-solving skills and social skills as well,” she offers. “They have the intelligence level of a seven-year-old human in some instances.”
Jet only has a few words and phrases he can say consistently and he does not understand the meaning, he just mimics what he hears. Interestingly, his voice sounds like a woman as all of his primary caregivers are female.
“He definitely has a preference for female trainers and is not the biggest fan of men,” Cupeiro remarks, “but we are working on that.”
For a bird that would instinctively be soaring through the skies, being trapped in a small cage can be depressing and demeaning. Aware of this, Wildlife Haven has an enrichment program that they use to try to bring excitement and stimulation to their permanent residents. Most of Jet’s talents are a result of this programming.
“He’s got particular ways he does things and everything we do is always on his terms and at his pace,” she comments. “Still, he is very eager to work on the things he wants to do and once he starts something he picks it up really quickly.”
Another one of Jet’s many talents is being able to sort colours. If Alex holds six or seven different coloured swatches in her hand and says “blue” Jet will confidently be able to select the blue one.
“He’s been able to sort four colours for quite a while, but in the last month or so we have worked on expanding that which is very exciting. We’ve added in three new colours: orange white and purple, and he picked that up like lightning.”
To train the bird, Cupeiro uses what she calls a “clicker” that makes an affirming clicking sound whenever Jet does the desired action. He also gets snacks and head-scratches as rewards.
Even more recently, Cupeiro is trying to teach Jet how to paint. She hopes the bird will be good enough by the end of the month to submit his own work into an art auction fundraiser the centre is putting on later this month.
“It is incredibly humbling and rewarding to have this chance to work with him,” says Cupeiro. “I am learning as much as he is learning, in many ways.”