Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ask a Zookeeper: Literary Crows?

I'm so excited to answer my very first "Ask a Zookeeper" question!  (I'm going to try to run this series every other Wednesday until I get the hang of it, and then I may increase to every week.)

This question comes from Jaye Robin Browne of Hanging on to Wonder. She writes MG and YA books, is represented by Steven Chudney at The Chudney Agency and also volunteers for her local Humane Society. She writes:

Q: "Could a crow be taught to read?"
A: Short answer: "Absolutely!" Long answer: "Define 'read'..."

Northwestern Crow, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
I love this question, because I didn't realize how intelligent members of the Corvid family--which also includes ravens, jays and magpies--were until a few years ago. I was working at a marine park in Florida at the time, and our Bird Department's pride and joy was a young African pied crow named Russell. (Get it? Russell Crow? *Pauses for obligatory chuckles.*) 

Russell was a star pupil, and our trainers successfully trained him an assortment of ridiculously complicated behaviors, including one where he buzzed the crowd in our theatre to the soundtrack of Top Gun. He retrieved donations and deposited them into an oversized piggy bank, and he "put himself to bed" at the end of every show, even shutting the door behind him.

African Pied Crow, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Later, at my zoo in Alaska, I met a magpie named George who possessed the apparently not-so-unique Corvid ability to mimic human speech.  She loved to blow kisses to her adoring fans, and she also said, "How are you doing?" and "Hi, George!" (Yeah, so we blew it with the gender thing. By the time we figured out she was a girl, she was already calling herself George.)

Black-Billed Magpie, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
My most amazing experience with Corvids, however, was the pair of ravens I also took care of in Alaska. Sam and Poe were both crippled with wing injuries, but that didn't stop them from maintaining a booming social life. They always vocalized and interacted with the wild ravens outside their enclosure, and I often caught them picking through their dinner, setting aside the good bits and passing the rest of their food out to their friends between the bars. This happened especially frequently during cold winter months when food was scarce.

I was floored by this, and I couldn't initially wrap my head around why on Earth Sam and Poe would engage in such an altruistic and selfless behavior. And then it occurred to me.  Sam and Poe had developed a mutually beneficial relationship with the wild ravens.  They provided the food, and the wild ravens provided the enrichment. It was a match made in Heaven.

Common Ravens, Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
But I digress. This realization inspired me to do some research, and I was stunned by the wealth of knowledge available on Corvid intelligence. Not only can Corvids manipulate tools, mimic human speech, display social reasoning and demonstrate extraordinary feats of spatial memory, but they have also been proven to "recognize and ascribe numerical meaning to symbols," which suggests they may be able to “read” numbers and simple icons. 

Here's an excerpt from a recent article by Sunanda Creagh of The Conversation Literary Group:

In the latest edition of the journal Animal Behaviour, Japanese researchers describe an experiment in which eight jungle crows were presented with two containers, one with “2” written on the lid and one with “5”. The “5” container had food inside, while the “2” did not. The crows soon learned to pick the “5” container at a 70% success rate.

Other experiments tested whether the crows could differentiate between containers marked with non-numerical symbols such as shapes. The birds scored a 70 to 90% success rate picking the food-filled container for 19 out of 20 non-numerical symbol tests.

...Dr Stephen Debus, a bird expert and honorary research associate in zoology at the University of New England, said the results were interesting but not surprising because crows were renowned for their superior intelligence.

It is unclear why the birds evolved such smarts, he said “but I gather that it is probably related to their complex social organisation and also, being omnivorous in complex environments, they need to be able to find food in novel situations and solve problems in obtaining that food.”

He said he expected the study of crows to reveal more of their skills in future.

So yes, Jaye Robin, I would DEFINITELY say a crow could be taught to "read" on some level, and they can certainly discriminate and retain the differences between symbols. Pretty wild, huh??

Thanks for tuning in for my first edition of my "Ask a Zookeeper" series, and please let me know if you have any questions for future posts. I have a short list of great ones already, and I can't wait to hear more!

(Wanna learn more about Corvid intelligence? Check out this informative--and very, very funny--article from, called "Six Terrifying Ways Crows Are Way Smarter Than You Think.")

Monday, November 21, 2011

What Would YOU Ask a Zookeeper? (+ Shout-Out to Lydia Kang!)

Have you guys discovered Lydia Kang's blog yet? She's a brand-new member of the Lucky 13's Blog of 2013 debut authors, and her YA sci-fi, THE FOUNTAIN, debuts in Spring 2013 from Dial Books for Young Readers.

In addition to being a writer, Lydia is also a doctor, and she generously shares her medical knowledge every Monday during an ongoing series she calls Medical Mondays. During this series, she takes reader questions about medical-related issues, and this is a GREAT resource for aspiring writers. Here are some examples of past questions:
  1. "Can you explain how a person might go blind after a severe trauma, rather than by disease?"
  2. "What kinds of effects can prescription drugs of abuse can a person have, and what are the withdrawal symptoms if they go off the drugs?"
  3. "What's the turnaround time for tests to prove illegal steroids were being used?"
Do you have a medical-related question in your work in progress? Take advantage of Lydia's expertise by emailing her at: MedicalMondays (at) gmail (dot) com!

I've been enjoying Lydia's "Medical Monday" posts so much lately that I feel inspired to try my hand at my own series. After thinking about it for a little while, I think I may have come up with something.

As many of you know, I'm a zookeeper and animal trainer by background, so I definitely have my share of random animal knowledge.  And occasionally, one of my writerly friends will have an animal-related question about the novel he or she is writing. (i.e., "What does dolphin skin feel like?" ... "If my protagonist killed an adult brown bear, could he carry the pelt by himself, or would it be too heavy?" etc.)

In the spirit of knowledge sharing, I'd love to start a new series on my blog called "Ask a Zookeeper," where I take any of those random questions you have about the animals in your stories. (I've worked with primarily North American animals and some Asian animals, but I know lots of others who can help with additional animals.) And look, I've even designed a pretty badge, using a pic I took of Lyutik the polar bear at the Alaska Zoo:

Do you have a question?  Shoot me an email at lisa.chickos (at) hotmail (dot) com or leave a comment, and please feel free to spread my post to others you think may be interested in participating. I look forward to reading your questions!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bella vs. Katniss?

I just read a really interesting article in the Atlantic called 'Twilight' vs. 'Hunger Games': Why Do So Many Grown-Ups Hate Bella? (Spoiler Alert: This article gives away both endings, so don't read it if you don't already know what happens in both series.)

Regardless of our personal stances on the pros and cons of each series (and I know we all have a favorite!), I think the article brings up a lot of interesting points. And whether or not we agree with all those points, it also gives all of us aspiring young adult writers something to think about. In particular, what do we want readers to take away from the values, attitudes and goals of our main characters?


Monday, November 14, 2011

Just a Little Zen... Starling-Style

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Have you ever heard of a starling? It's a non-descript, little black bird--fairly common and rather forgettable for the most part. I bottle-fed these guys all summer at the wildlife rehab center, and the only thing I found remarkable about them was their uncanny ability to escape from their pens and dive-bomb me during feeding time.

I was so unimpressed with starlings, in fact, that I recently smirked when I received an email with the subject line: A Murmuration of Starlings. (What can I say, my friends are animal nerds, too.  This is what we do for fun.)  Imagine my surprise when I followed the link and found myself spellbound by some truly gorgeous starling footage.  

Common starlings, apparently, sometimes congregate in huge flocks called "murmurations." These murmurations move in massive, coordinated, airborne dances, and scientists still struggle to explain exactly how these dances are possible.

I won't bore you with scientific theories (which you can find here, if you like).  Instead, I will simply leave you with this beautiful video, which was taken recently by two kayakers in Ireland. Turn up your speakers, relax and enjoy this beautiful, little moment of Zen.

How cool is Mother Nature??

Sunday, November 6, 2011

And the Winner Is...

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons just generated the winner of my 200-Follower Giveaway, and that winner is...

Rain Laaman of "Rain-On Sentence!!"

Thanks so much to everyone who entered; I love To Touch a Wild Dolphin so much that I just may be giving more away in the near future!  Stay tuned, Rain, for your shiny, new copy, and I hope you love it as much as I did! :)

In other news, who's on Twitter and Goodreads?  I know I'm following some of you, but I'm fairly new to the Twitter phenomenon, and I'm not exactly proficient yet.  I've been on Goodreads for awhile, but I mostly just rate the books I'm currently reading, and I could definitely expand my mind there as well.

I'd love it if you found me:

Twitter: @LisaAnnChickos
GoodReads: Lisa Chickos

Hope to see you there!!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

200-Follower Celebration & Giveaway!!

I remember cruising to an AbsoluteWrite member's blog early this spring and noticing that she had just hit the "200-Follower" mark. She wrote a post to celebrate the occasion, and I read it with amazement and envy, thinking to myself, "How in the world did she ever find 200 like-minded people to follow her??" (I meanwhile, had a whopping nine followers at that time, so you can certainly understand my awe.)

Now, here I am, seven months or so later, and I can't believe I have actually hit this amazing mark myself. Thank you SO much to everyone who has taken the time to hit that little "follow" button this year. You guys have cheered me through so many milestones, and you've enriched my life in so many ways.  I cannot imagine the fun and fantastic chaos that would occur if we were all somehow able to converge together on one spot.  Best conference / frat party ever!

In celebration of my "200-Follower" mark, I'm really excited to host my very first blog giveaway, where I'm giving away a copy of one of my very favorite books of all time: To Touch a Wild Dolphin by Rachel Smolker. Here's the cover, followed by Amazon's book description:

Photo Courtesy of
"In 1982, Rachel Smolker traveled to Monkey Mia, a remote spot in western Australia where she’d heard wild dolphins regularly interact with people. She had no intention of staying long; she simply wanted to see if the rumors were true. That initial trip changed Smolker’s life; it commenced a fifteen-year scientific obsession that has culminated in this fascinating scientific adventure story–the first-ever intimate account of dolphin life in the wild.

To Touch A Wild Dolphin is a seminal work that radically alters our fundamental understanding of these enigmatic creatures. Learning to identify scores of dolphins by their dorsal fin, Smolker and her team of scientists were able to conduct close and consistent studies that revealed the dolphin to be even more intelligent than we’d previously suspected. And while they were every bit as playful as we’ve known them to be, they also proved to have a dark and alarmingly violent side. But more than just a document on dolphins, this book is a touchingly personal look at the life of a scientist, at the rigors and sacrifices but also the wonders and joys of unending days in the field. Written with prose poetic and pristine, this book is nothing short of a landmark."
(Alright, it's a little random... Would you expect any less from me?? :)) 

I discovered this book in 2005, and it literally altered the course of my life, catipulting me from admiring dolphins from afar in a Disney-esque way to studying and working around them at marine mammal rehabilitation centers. I even give Rachel Smolker a cameo shout-out in my young adult novel BELOW THE SURFACE, and I highly recommend this book if you've ever wondered what's behind a dolphin's beaming smile or daydreamed about working with them. (And if you're worried that this book is too technical or science-heavy, no worries!  It reads a lot like a travelogue, and you don't need any existing knowledge to appreciate Smolker's research and discoveries.)

If you'd like to enter my giveaway, please leave your email address in my comment form. I will keep comments open until Saturday, November 5, and then I will randomly generate a winner from The winner will receive a sparkly new copy of To Touch a Wild Dolphin!

Thanks again to all of you for taking the time to stop by and support me this year.  I appreciate it more than you will ever know.

Dolphins Team Up to Get the Girl

I've been following wild dolphin research for years, and I remember feeling like my world had been rocked the first time I realized Shark Bay's male dolphins formed alliances to team up and get the girl--many times without any of the tenderness or affection we often associate with them. This article from Discovery News confirms what scientists have been saying for years: The importance of a good wingman can never be underestimated.

Photo Courtesy of Wiki Commons
Dolphins Team Up To Get the Girl
Male dolphins who formed an alliance of wingmen fathered more babies than those who worked the seas solo.
Wed Nov 2, 2011 11:57 AM ET
Content provided by
ABC Science

An alliance of four male dolphins, dubbed The Beatles have shown that when blokes co-operate, they have more sexual success.

The research by a team at Macquarie University is published in the Journal of Animal Ecology. The study found that male dolphins who form an alliance fathered far more babies than those who worked in smaller groups or alone.

The researchers studied a population of 70 male and 64 female Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins living in Port Stephens, New South Wales. They collected skin samples from males and calves and looked for genetic markers which would reveal the paternity of the calves.

They found that 14 different males had sired 32 calves. However, nearly half of the calves -- 13 individuals -- were sired by a single alliance of four dolphins known as The Beatles.

Three calves were sired by a three-male alliance and five calves were sired by another three-male alliance.

The remaining 11 calves sired by pairs or lone males.

Males are known to form alliances in a number of species, including lions, chimpanzees, horses and, some would argue, humans.

"But there has not been any evidence to show why an alliance might be preferable," says co-author Dr Jo Wiszniewski.

"This research shows that male dolphins need to cooperate with each other to maximise their reproductive success."

Up to 80 per cent of males form alliances to seek out and reproduce with females during the spring/summer breeding season, says Wiszniewski.

"Males in alliances have better control of the females - we often see the males swimming around the females one on each side, sometimes one at the back. The female can't get away from them," she says.

"They basically herd the female - they try to keep her away from other males. They would swim by her and when she was feeding, they would feed too."

"These kind of herding events can last just from a few hours up to a few weeks at a time," says Wiszniewski.

Female dolphins only have a calf every two to five years, so in any particular year there are very few females available and ready to mate with.

"That's why there's so much pressure for males to form alliances, to become more competitive," she says.

Previous research from Western Australia also found that male dolphins who form alliances breed more successfully. But in this case, forming cooperative alliances was less surprising, Wiszniewski says, because those dolphins were related.

"If one of those males helps another reproduce, he still gets benefits because his genes still get passed on," she says.

But in Port Stephens, the cooperating dolphins weren't related.

"That's what's so fascinating. By helping another male, they are actually risking the chance that they won't reproduce with a female. So they really need a high level of cooperation and trust so then the male knows that by helping another male, he's also going to get helped."

Wiszniewski points out that one of The Beatles - John - doesn't seem to have fathered any calves.

"We have a feeling he was not a full part of the alliance. He was what we call the odd male out -- he wasn't really 'in' with the group."