Tim Roxborogh’s travel bugs: How do crows know to be afraid of empty slingshots?

A weekly ode to the joys of moaning about your holidays.

I came to love Slingshot Man. I feel guilty I never got his name, but I made sure I thanked him for his vigilance because there was no doubt in my mind that Slingshot Man had the most important job in the entire hotel. The hotel in question was the more than 200-year-old Mount Lavinia Hotel, just south of Colombo in Sri Lanka. Most famous for being the former clifftop mansion of a British governor who constructed a secret tunnel under the property so he could whisk his local lover in without suspicion, the hotel isn’t short on stories.

It isn’t short on crows either. I have a thing about birds that goes back to some childhood trauma involving a bird getting stuck inside the house and going berserk trying to get out. It was dive-bombing my head and I have vague memories of blood, feathers and faeces everywhere (bird faeces, I should point out).

I say “vague” because while this episode has given me a lifelong fear of birds inside buildings, I can’t say for certain that it wasn’t just a very, very terrifying dream.

Regardless, birds and me aren’t always the best of chums, especially if they’re enclosed by four walls and hard to find windows or doors. Outside I’m usually fine, but as last week’s column about the catastrophic avian overpopulation problems at Auckland’s Western Springs probably revealed, I’m not immune to outdoor anxieties either. As was the case at Mount Lavinia.

To paint the picture, Mount Lavinia Hotel is a grand old colonial gem that sits on a cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. There’s a large swimming pool surrounded by palm trees positioned above the beach and the crashing waves far below. After a week of high-energy adventures and exploring Sri Lanka, our couple of days at Mount Lavinia were more about the relaxation.

Lunch and poolside cocktails were ordered, towels were laid out on sun-loungers and life was good. Good, that is, until I realised just how many crows were flying around the pool area. As soon as other people would turn their backs on their plates of food, swoosh! A crow would be there, getting stuck in to the leftover chippies or club sandwiches. Nobody else seemed to mind too much, but I was there to do some serious sunbathing and load-off-taking and the crows were so blase about people that they’d perch by your feet if you had your eyes closed.

I’d do a kick of my leg to shoo them away and they’d flutter half-heartedly before either settling down in the same spot or treating me to a metre or so of space. This was before our food had even arrived. I was fearing any relaxation would now have to be done in our suite, until I saw Slingshot Man. A properly uniformed hotel employee, his job was to patrol the pool area and semi-outdoor restaurant and protect slightly pathetic guests like me.

If Slingshot Man was close, the crows would disperse. Picking up on my anxiety (it was possibly when I said to him, “thanks so much, these crows make me anxious!”), Slingshot Man decided to base himself close to our sunloungers. It was fascinating seeing him work because the slingshot was never loaded. If crows got too close either to me and my wife or to other guests, all it would take was a pull-back of the slingshot and the birds would get the message.

This intrigued me. How often would the slingshot have to have a pebble in it for the crows not to call the shooter’s bluff? All the crows were scared of the slingshot which means they all knew that it could be dangerous, suggesting these most unpleasant of birds must communicate with each other about slingshots. “Careful of that man with the thingee that pulls back! It occasionally really hurts!”

Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB’s Weekend Collective Saturdays and Sundays 3pm-6pm and blogs at RoxboroghReport.com.

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