Joshua Klein on the Intelligence of Crows

This 2008 TED talk is titled “A thought experiment on the intelligence of crows.” I don’t know why it’s called a thought experiment – the experiment Klein describes is an actual, physical experiment. But no matter. This is interesting stuff.

Some key points and quotes:

“I started noticing that we are very aware of all the species that are going extinct on the planet as a result of human habitation expansion, and no one seems to be paying attention to all the species that are actually living — that are surviving. And I’m talking specifically about synanthropic species, which are species that have adapted specifically for human ecologies, species like rats and cockroaches and crows. And as I started looking at them, I was finding that they had hyper-adapted. They’d become extremely adept at living with us. They’re found everywhere on the planet except for the Arctic and the southern tip of South America. And in all that area, they’re only rarely found breeding more than five kilometers away from human beings.”

“This is Betty. She’s a New Caledonian crow. And these crows use sticks in the wild to get insects and whatnot out of pieces of wood. Here, she’s trying to get a piece of meat out of a tube. But the researchers had a problem. They messed up and left just a stick of wire in there. You see, it wasn’t working very well. So she adapted. Now this is completely unprompted. She had never seen this done before. No one taught her to bend this into a hook, had shown her how it could happen. But she did it all on her own.”

“At University of Washington, they were doing an experiment where they captured some crows on campus. Some students went out and netted some crows, brought them in, and weighed them, and measured them and whatnot, and then let them back out again. For the rest of the week, whenever these particular students walked around campus, these crows would caw at them, and run around and make their life kind of miserable. This went on for the next week. And the next month. And after summer break. Until they finally graduated and left campus, and came back sometime later, and found the crows still remembered them. So now, students at the University of Washington that are studying these crows do so with a giant wig and a big mask.”

“In this Japanese city, they have devised a way of eating a food that normally they can’t manage: drop it among the traffic. The problem now is collecting the bits, without getting run over. Wait for the light to stop the traffic. Then, collect your cracked nut in safety. So what’s significant about this isn’t that crows are using cars to crack nuts. In fact, that’s old hat for crows. This happened about 10 years ago in a place called Sendai City, at a driving school in the suburbs of Tokyo. And since that time, all of the crows in the neighborhood are picking up this behavior. And now, every crow within five kilometers is standing by a sidewalk, waiting to collect its lunch. So, they’re learning from each other. And research bears this out. Parents seem to be teaching their young. They’ve learned from their peers.”

In the final segment of the talk, Klein explains how he built a vending machine for crows that would release a peanut when a coin was dropped into it, and how the crows figured out how to operate it.

Thoughts On Becoming Presiding Clerk of My Quaker Meeting

A couple of weeks ago I became the presiding clerk of Minneapolis Friends Meeting.

I didn’t run for this position. I didn’t win an election; I didn’t beat a list of competing candidates. In fact, there are several other people in the meeting who have fulfilled this role admirably in the past and would be at least as qualified as I am to do so again.

About two months ago, the Nominating Committee decided to ask me if I’d be willing to become the meeting’s next clerk. After giving it considerable thought, I said yes. So my name was submitted for approval at the February meeting for business, and those present approved me as clerk.

I’ve been attending this Quaker meeting for about 25 years, and I’ve contributed my time and energy in many ways. Among other things, I’ve taught children, served on various committees, designed the meeting’s web site, led the Stewardship & Finance Committee for five years and the Ministry & Counsel Committee for two years, and substituted for our paid director of ministry while she was on sabbatical. In other words, I’ve been deeply involved with Minneapolis Friends Meeting for a long time and in a lot of different roles.

Presiding clerk could be viewed as the top position in a Quaker meeting. But Quaker meetings don’t operate in a top-down fashion. Ultimate authority on all significant decisions rests not with any one person, but with the entire body.

So what does it mean to be the presiding clerk?

Does it mean I can assign other members to tasks or tell them what to do? No. I can ask people to do things, but whether they will is up to them.

Does it mean I know more about the Quaker faith, its history and practices, than anyone else? No. There are a number of people in our meeting who I’m sure have studied these things in much more depth than I have.

Does it mean I’m the most upstanding, the most righteous, the most spiritual member of the meeting? Certainly not.

What it really means is that the members of this meeting see me as being worthy of their trust and having the skills necessary for fulfilling this particular role. And it is just a role – one to be taken on for a limited amount of time and then turned over to someone else.

The very term “clerk” provides a clue that, although it’s a leadership position, it’s a different kind of leadership than would be implied by terms like “chair” or “president.” This is truly a leader-as-servant position.

The most visible role of the presiding clerk is to clerk our monthly meetings for business. There’s preparation involved: the clerk sets the meeting agenda, based mostly on issues and proposals brought forward by various committees.

Clerking a meeting is primarily a matter of being a good listener. It’s not about making unilateral decisions or exerting your own influence one way or the other on issues. Instead, you try to make sure that the full range of views on a question can be expressed. You discern when the group seems to be converging on a decision, and then ask the group if you’ve got it right. Sometimes you have to recognize that the group is not ready to make a decision, and it’s time to move on to something else and come back to the unresolved issue at a subsequent meeting. I’ve learned these skills by observing past presiding clerks in action, and by clerking committee meetings myself.

Being presiding clerk also means attending a lot of other meetings. I’m now an ex officio member of four other committees!

I do enjoy being at the center of things. But I’m not one to actively put myself there or deliberately make myself the focus of attention. I’m both sobered and gratified that the members of my meeting have chosen to trust me with this position.


Here’s an excellent summary of the role of the clerk in a Quaker meeting, based on material by Arthur Larrabee.

Robert Reeder: The 1,000 Mile Handcart Trek

I thought I would follow up my post about my Woolley ancestry with a story from my mother’s side of the family.

In the 1850s, my great-grandfather Robert Reeder’s family converted to Mormonism in Suffolk, England. Robert was 19 years old when he set out with his father and two sisters to make the trip from Suffolk to Salt Lake City, Utah. They didn’t know what they were in for. Robert wrote this account of their trek:

I was anxious to gather with the Saints in the valleys of the mountains where my brother George and sister Mary had gone in 1853. We were always talking and wishing to be with them, not having any idea of the trials and hardships to be endured along the way. But being moved by the spirit of gathering, my father David Reeder, my younger sister Caroline, my sister Eliza and her husband James Hurren with their three little girls from 2 to 8 years of age, started for Liverpool where we met with others from different parts. There were 721 persons very much all on the same errand. On the 5th of May 1856 we sailed out on the great ocean which took us a little over 6 weeks to cross. I was very sick on the way and could not eat such food as they had on “seafare” which consisted of what they called sea biscuits and salt pork and salt beef, also brown sugar and vinegar and very little other food. I got very feeble living principally on sugar and vinegar for 3 weeks. I was very glad when we arrived at Castle Gardens, New York, where we could get a piece of bread once more. We rested here for a few days then we pursued our journey by railroad and steamboats, changing from one to the other until we arrived at Iowa camping ground where we had to lay over 2 or 3 weeks waiting for our outfits. Eventually we got our outfits of four wagons with ox teams loaded with flour which was calculated to take us to Salt Lake City making calculations for 60 days and one pound of flour for each grown person per day and half that for all children under 12 years of age. Besides that we had one wagon with four mules loaded with bacon and groceries for the trip, and the rest were handcarts, about 120. As a general thing, one to each family, in some cases two young men and two young women to each. Those with handcarts were loaded with their baggage and children that were not able to walk. The company comprised of about 500 people.

There was one outfit belonging to A.W. Babbitt consisting of about five men, one woman, and one child about 3 or 4 years old, concluded to start two or three days before we were ready. I think we left this place about the 10th of September with an addition to our outfit of about thirty head of cows, some to give a little milk, others to kill for beef.

Our company came to where the Babbitt company had camped — the Indians having killed them all and burned their wagons, nothing being left only the irons and the bodies half buried. This looked very discouraging to us, but we travelled on looking back for nothing. We were surrounded by Indians on two or three occasions, but got out by giving them some flour and tobacco which some of our company had with them. When we got out about 300 miles on the road our cattle stampeded, most all of our best oxen leaving, which left us in a bad state to move any farther. We stayed there for several days hunting as far as we dared to go to find some of our cattle but could not find any, believing the Indians must have driven them away. Then some of the flour was taken out of the wagons and put on the handcarts according to the strength of the party drawing them. Some had one, others two or three, and, if my memory serves me right, Brother Hurren, being considered the strongest man the company had, had five sacks put on his cart besides two small girls that were not able to walk and all his baggage and cooking utensils. His wife helped in pulling the cart and walked the entire trail. We made up with the few cattle we had left, one yoke of cattle and one cow to each wagon, and on account of weak teams and handcarts loaded too heavy we travelled only a few miles each day. Our provisions were going fast while we were making but little headway. Our rations had to be cut down to half and some were sick with bowel and other sickness.

My father, David Reeder, would start out in the morning and pull his cart until he would drop on the road. He did this day after day until he did not arise early on 7 October. He was found dead in his bed and his fellow bedmate had not heard a thing during the night. Sister Eliza wrapped a cherished sheet around him and we placed him in a shallow grave hoping the wolves would not disturb. We must go on our way in silent mourning and in a weakened condition.

Our rations were growing shorter and we reduced them by common consent from day to day. Nights were getting colder and some would sit down by the roadside and die. My younger sister, Caroline, 17 years old, after traveling all day and seeing the camp being made for the night took off her apron to tie some sage brush in to bring into the camp. She sat down to rest, leaning on her bundle, exhausted. They found her chilled and dying and carried her to camp. She died without gaining consciousness. She, too, was placed in an unmarked grave near Three Crossings — Sweetwater. She died the evening of 15 October. Her death was another real loss to us but we must hurry on in threatening weather and colder nights on the Windriver Pass. So it was with others, as many as thirteen being buried in one grave at one time. I think fully 100 died on this trip.

On October 17 we awoke covered with 8 inches of snow and rations about gone. We pulled our carts in a blinding snow storm and arrived at Rock Creek where we sheltered against the hill as best we could to avoid the north wind and blowing snow. Weakened to such an extent and without food 13 died that night. All the able-bodied men dug one large grave, but not too deep. My brother-in-law James Hurren held out his 8-year old girl Mary to see her little playmate lying among the dead. They were laid in the clothes they wore, in a circle with feet to the center and heads out. We covered them with willows and then earth and slid rocks down the hill to keep the wolves from disturbing them. Two of the men who helped dig the grave died and were buried in another near by. We could go no further, the weather was severe and we had not a morsel of food in camp. We had heard assistance was on the road and we still had hopes.

We had one pony and one mule that were not entirely exhausted and two of the men took these animals and started out to find some relief which they did after traveling to Pacific Springs. The relief party had laid over at Pacific Springs, not knowing the dire straits in which the handcart company was at the time. When they heard the report, they left part of the wagons, doubled up teams and came to us as quickly as possible. They reached us after we had been in camp 48 hours. They dared not give us much food for fear of killing us all, which would most likely have done with the few that were left. Potato peelings and rawhide off old handcarts were good if we could get it. I, myself, sat by the campfire with Brother Hurren and scraped and singed the hair off a piece of hide, some that had been taken off discarded handcarts that had been pulled through the sands hundreds of miles. It was hard but we would boil and soften them and cut them in small pieces and put in our pockets to chew on the road the next day and it helped to keep life in us.

Through snow and wind we mostly walked behind the relief wagons about 300 miles to Salt Lake City and arrived on Public Square 9 November 1856.

After making it to Salt Lake City, Robert Reeder settled in Hyde Park, Utah. He became a successful cattle merchant, married two wives and fathered 14 children, one of whom, Martin Charles Reeder, was my mother’s father. Robert died in 1917 at the age of 80.

Quaker to Mormon, Mormon to Quaker

I’m fortunate to have a wealth of information about my ancestry at my fingertips, thanks to my mother and other relatives who have done a tremendous amount of genealogical research. As I look through the pedigree charts and personal histories I’ve inherited, the picture that emerges is remarkably clear: I am a product of the mingling of two waves of religious misfits.

Some of my ancestors were Quakers who came to Pennsylvania from England in the early 1700s to escape religious persecution. The rest were converts to Mormonism who came from the British Isles and Denmark in the 1850s to join the great Mormon migration. In the early years of Mormonism it was widely viewed as a cult, and friction with neighbors led to mass movements of Mormons from Ohio to Missouri, Missouri to Illinois, and finally from Illinois to Utah.

The first Woolley in America seems to have been one Thomas Woolley. It’s not clear how he got here, but since Woolley is an English name, we can surmise that he was from England. Maybe he was an English sailor who jumped ship. Anyhow, he appeared in Philadelphia in time to marry a 17-year old Quaker girl named Sarah Coppock in 1729.

And Thomas Woolley begat John Woolley, and John Woolley begat another John Woolley, and that John Woolley begat Edwin Dilworth Woolley, my great-great-great-grandfather.

Edwin D. was a pivotal character. He was born a Quaker in 1807, but converted to Mormonism in 1837, just seven years after its founding. He was already married when he converted, but afterwards he picked up a couple of extra wives (as the Mormons tended to do back then). He became a close associate of church founder Joseph Smith, loaning him money and financing church operations. After Smith was assassinated, Edwin became the business manager of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, and headed out to Utah with the rest of the Latter Day Saints.

As a polygamist, Edwin was a prolific procreator. Ultimately, he had five wives and twenty six children, born over a span of forty years.

One of Edwin’s grandsons, Spencer Woolley Kimball, eventually made it all the way to the top as president of the church (1973-1985). Another of his grandsons, Lorin C. Woolley, became the key founder of the breakaway Mormon fundamentalist movement which still practices polygamy today.

But I’m not descended from Spencer W. or Lorin C. I’m descended from another of Edwin’s grandsons, Jedediah Foss Woolley. Jed went on a mission to Germany, leaving his wife in charge of the family store in Salt Lake City. But he got pretty annoyed when he returned to find that the other Mormons had been taking advantage of his wife’s soft-heartedness, buying stuff on credit and never paying for it. So Jed dropped out of the church, and took his family with him — including his son (my grandfather) Cloyd.

So it was that my grandfather was a lapsed Mormon. Cloyd married another ex-Mormon from Utah, Florence Tarbet, and together they raised their three sons in Denver without any particular religion. Despite that, all three became strongly religious after they’d grown up. One joined the Episcopal church, one the Presbyterians, and my own father – Joseph Woolley – wouldn’t you know it, rejoined the Mormons.

There were no Quakers on my mother’s side of the family — and for that matter, none of this on-again, off-again business with Mormonism, either. Her English and Danish grandparents had converted to Mormonism and immigrated to the United States to join the Mormons in Utah. So my mom was about as 100% purebred Mormon as they come. Especially since she grew up in a small farming town in northern Utah where literally everyone was Mormon. Out there, Mormonism was in the air, in the water, in the ground. It was totally enveloping, and you just didn’t question it.

My parents-to-be met while my dad was attending Utah State University and my mother was working there. They married in 1951 and moved to Berkeley, California, where my dad finished a PhD in plant physiology. I was born there. About a year later we moved to Champaign, Illinois.

My dad became the bishop of Champaign ward when I was pretty young. Later he moved up the church hierarchy to become the stake president in charge of the central Illinois region. My mom was president of the local Relief Society, the Mormon women’s organization. I myself was ordained into the Mormon priesthood when I was 12 (which is not as dramatic as it may sound; this is standard practice for Mormon boys.)

Despite all this, the whole Mormon thing really did not work out too well for me. To my mother’s great disappointment and heartache, I left the church when I was 17, in time to avoid being sent on a mission.

Much later in life, I began to feel the need for some sort of spiritual practice again. So I became — what else — a Quaker.

My Quaker ancestry actually had nothing whatsoever to do with my choosing to become one. But that’s another story.

Head On

When I was about seven years old, my family was living in a small house in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Champaign, Illinois. The gray house behind ours was occupied by a family named the Canadays. Our back yards adjoined, with a hedge in between. Scotty Canaday was my age and we used to play together. He had an older sister, Gail, and an older brother, Bobby, who was in little league.

One summer the Canadays went on vacation. A week or so after they’d left, I was watching cartoons on TV one Saturday morning when my mother got a phone call. Afterwards, she called me in and told me the news. There’d been an accident. A head-on collision with a drunk driver. The entire family had been killed instantly.

I didn’t know what to do with myself then. It was the first time anyone I’d known well had died. I don’t remember what I felt. All I remember is that I didn’t want to watch cartoons anymore.

The rest of that summer, the accident was a frequent topic of conversation among the neighborhood kids. The girl next door had been best friends with Gail Canaday and had been invited to go with them on their trip, but had stayed home. This fascinated us – that she could so easily have died, but for some trivial reason she was still with us. We reenacted the accident endlessly with our toy cars, arguing about details of exactly how it had happened. Of course, none of us really knew.

But the image that sticks with me is the sight of those five caskets in the funeral home, with flowers, flowers all around. So many flowers.