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Avian individuals

Crows make me smile

May 1st, 2016

BY LANE BROWNING

It’s come to this. I bought mealworms.

No, not live ones — dried ones. I blame the store; had I not seen them on the shelf next to bird food I never would have thought of mealworms. What did I know from mealworms? Crispy brown slender parenthesis-shaped things that might as well be husks, though the bag promised protein and other nutrients. The text assured me that “unusual” birds would be drawn to my property. Right, not your garden variety sparrows, wrens, chickadees and jays, but exotic atypical birds. Really desirable birds.

crow*The bag didn’t mention crows. Birdseed bags never do (though I suspect ammo boxes do). No one wants to lure crows. During World War II they were labeled “black bandits” and citizens used any possible method — shooting, trapping, poisoning, dynamite, voodoo — to dispatch them. King Henry VIII declared them “despicable predators” and urged Brits to decrow (well, more accurately “derook”) the whole island. For centuries crows have been maligned. A sampling of their sobriquets: trash birds, menaces, scourges, nemeses, grim reapers, marauders, filthy scavengers, flying rodents, pseudobuzzards, and dirty #!&*#@! (I won’t get started on Jim Crow, crow’s feet, eating crow, and other pejoratives associated with these birds.) Crowbusters.com celebrates seasonal “shoots” and “mass kills.”


And the term “murder” to refer to a group of them did arise in the fifteenth century due to the superstition that they were associated with violent death or impending doom. The label faded into disuse but was revived last century. Poets (and hoi polloi aspiring to impress) use it, but scientists do not. A group of crows is nothing more than a flock. Try calling a flock a “murder” in front of an ornithologist, and you’ll get an eye roll or dismissive stare. And why not a murder of hawks or falcons? Sheesh.

But crows are revered in India, and First Americans in the northern hemisphere cherish the memory of a spirit crow, a rapscallion who in one legend (usually as a raven) created all humans (after several tries) and then condemned them to death.

King Henry be damned; I love crows. I wanted to thrill them, so I bought mealworms.

They like the mealworms — and shelled walnuts, and black oil sunflower seeds, dog kibble, dry cat food, and peanuts. These are the things that “my” crows (despite what experts recommend) will not eat: grapes, orange sections, gummy spongy cat food nuggets, shredded wheat, bread, baked potato, almonds, corn, dead rodents, banana, dead snakes. I haven’t tried Purina Crow Chow because there is no such thing — and why the hell not???
Many people know that crows (and others in the Corvus genus) are “intelligent,” to apply the best word humans have for their abilities and behavior. They can solve mechanical problems, they can retain and transfer information, they communicate in complex ways, and they distinguish one person — I assume discounting identical twins — from another. (Perhaps they can also distinguish one star-nosed mole from another, but there’s no funding for that study.) Their “cleverness” — I am so wary of anthropomorphizing — is part of what makes them despised; traps and decoys and strychnine can fail spectacularly against their wiles. They don’t simply learn from experience; they conjure and forecast and actively avoid first-time sabotage attempts by humans.

My commute from home to office is about a mile, and I do it on foot. Crows, along with songbirds and squirrels and mice and herons and flickers and snakes and ducks and cats and dogs, abound in the area. Just last month a buck appeared beside my deck, less than fifteen feet from me, its still-budding antlers resplendent atop its glorious brown head and impossibly large shiny eyes. And a couple of months earlier I had a visit from a coyote so beautiful it seemed lifted from a fairy tale; the silver slashes on its coat literally shimmered. A raccoon twice sauntered by the sliding door to my living room last week, during the middle of the day no less. There are owls and rabbits and geese; the bats have moved on since houses went in across the creek, and I haven’t seen a coypu in about seventeen years. My neighbor’s rooster crows (that’s “crows-the-verb”) from dawn until dusk, and at the hill’s bottom have lived goats and horses. Last month four firefighters (hubba) helped me rescue a stranded duckling.

At night all is silence. It’s exquisite.

I’ve made this walking-to-work trek for more than a decade now, but I started feeding the crows only this year. Soon after I leave my driveway, at least one crow appears on a tree or wire overhead. They know my voice as well as my gait. I have a couple of basic communications. I can do a really good crow call, better than the store-bought tool — I sound just like a crow. But I don’t use that sound often.

My crows don’t caw (or “awk,” if you prefer) when they want food. They are silent. They arrive and wait, like ebony sentries. I say “Hello.” Always with the same pitch and inflection. When I say “You’re welcome” it means the mealworms, nuts, kibble and seeds are in the air — and so are the crows. When the birds eat I say “You’re welcome!” again.

Peanuts in particular they covet. Sometimes a crow swallows the shell whole, sometimes it flies off (carrying two if it gets a chance), but most often it leaves the nut on a hard surface and pecks it open. This is an extremely efficient process. I’ve noticed that the pecking tempo is unvarying. Always the same cadence. The “carried off” peanuts are sometimes buried as I watch. It amuses me to know that beneath the manicured lawns and carefully arranged barkdust are crow food caches. And you can be darned sure they remember where they put them.

They are very distinctive creatures, with individual traits, and I don’t label them. I want only to observe and enjoy. They puzzle me at times, seeming “wary” for no reason, and being “bold” without explanation. Sometimes they violate patterns I had thought hard-wired. They are more afraid of pedestrians than of cars . (I can say this with confidence, but using the word “afraid” is taking license, because I don’t know why they race away.)

When I toss the food, I generally keep walking. They don’t like to be watched. In fact, if I turn my head, they sidle to the food with darting glances in my direction. (Crows are really good at sidling; it’s one of the things they do best. They never swoop down and snag food the way an eagle snags a fish from water or an owl descends on a mouse; they land nearby and then hop/sidle, or they simply walk.) This is a charming dance we do: they skip, but if I have stopped, I move not at all. I have tried watching with a mirror, and it doesn’t work; they know I’m looking. But if I turn my back, they hasten to grab the snacks. They can see me through nearly closed window blinds, too. So I toss and walk. They “trust” me after months of this. Sometimes — more often every week — one lands directly beside me, and that is like a gift of gems.

They don’t — yet — come within two feet. But I can wait. By the time this essay runs (I’m writing in mid-June), I might have a crow on my shoulder, repeating, “You’re welcome, you’re welcome.”

No, I don’t anticipate or even want that. We have a respectful compatibility, and I like it.

I have experimented with “shaping,” letting them know that landing closer to me, or alone, generates a faster peanut toss. I always want to say “Good job” or “Nice going” after an impressive grab, but I usually refrain, and so far I have not attempted any high-fives.

I can’t tell one from another (except just today I saw one with symmetrical white slashes on its wings). Occasionally I see juveniles — they sport telltale Mohawks atop their heads and are in general rounder — but never a newly-fledged youngster. That would be a treat: When they leave the nest, they still have the blue eyes they were born with, and they stagger as they learn to walk. (Walking is very important to crows; despite being flight-ready, they spend a lot of time on the ground.) Their parents, or family members, are nearby, and the “babies” are cautious. But the new crows need to eat a lot so in the spring, all the birds are more aggressive about seeking food.

I have gradually started saying other things to them. If they are in the road and a car is approaching, I say, as if to a small child, “Hurry up, hurry up.” I am quite sure they don’t understand those words, and they know more about avoiding cars than I do. In fact, my habit of feeding them might get me killed one day, because I am too often looking up rather than ahead, or I am looking back rather than beyond. I nearly collide with parked vehicles or power poles, and I weave into the road.

The crows themselves taught me another phrase, because I realized they understood the wave I use to beckon them to a better feeding spot. I said “Come on” by accident a few times, and then I saw they knew what it means. So now I say “Come on,” even without the wave, and along they come.
It’s just the coolest thing!

They offer me drama, comedy, and surprise. Yesterday I tossed a peanut to one, and when a second crow landed, I tossed a second nut. But the first crow hopped over and snagged the one intended for crow #2. Well, survival of the bolder, I thought, and I walked on: “Too bad, you missed out,” I muttered, but I turned back a moment later, and crow #2 made an abrupt move toward the double-nut crow, who promptly dropped one of the nuts.
They don’t really need me to do long or short division.

I have stood beside a group of as many as thirty crows, and the feeling is both powerful and startling. I do have the sense that one day I will become poor Tippi Hedren, my eyes pecked out and my skin pierced, my lungs punctured and deflated by a black bevy. When one swooped close to my hair, it felt a little like a pterosaur flyby. I think of Edgar Allan Poe at least a few times a month.

I feed them just outside my office door, and on the roads, and in the grocery store parking lot. I feed them next to the creek and next to parked cars, and out my car window. I watch and am still but for my smile. Some days, I walk a lonely while before they show up, but then there’s a whip of wind and the status crow is restored, and I am ebullient.

I smile, and I smile, and I smile. It’s like an umbilical from crow bodies to my face — they always always make me smile. I grin like a brainless fool. I am soooo happy since I pulled these birds into my orbit. When I look at their treetop congregations I feel almost dizzy with awe.

Feeding crows is nothing like feeding, for example, pigeons. Pigeons will just scuttle and flap and bubble around, totally devoid of class and contemplation. You can almost step on them, so drunken are their scootings. Seagulls hold no appeal either — seagulls will kill crows, but the reverse is also true — with their grating calls and pretentious gangly strutting. I have fed many types of birds, from woodpeckers to hummers to towhees to chickadees to Canadian geese to ducks to finches to swans to parrots and parakeets and cockatiels and lorikeets.

But feeding crows fulfills something that feeding wrens and robins and bluejays and swallows and swifts never did for me. The smaller birds are very endearing, but there is not much planning in their actions. I have seen the way a cat captures small birds, and I am always mindful that they are but morsels, like field mice and moths.

Crows have gravitas. They are majestic, they are glossy, they are insistent, they are versatile and opportunistic and omnivorous and monochromatic and multidimensional.

And crows know stuff.

A woman who rescues injured or abandoned fledgling crows said they are the only birds that try to talk and eat at the same time. How can you not love that?

I was lucky enough to experience this just today. As I passed my mailbox I heard a duck, or a goose, or…? It was a crow, quacking and honking in what sounded to me like a persuasive imitation of water fowl. The crow looked no different from any of its peers, and I did my usual food toss, and the group was on the ground eating. The “faux duck” landed very close to another crow and made the quack sound right next to its ear, about an inch away, over and over and over and over again, and as I watched, the hounded crow pecked apart a peanut and put the morsel into the other crow’s mouth. This happened several times, and during one of the “food transfers” the fake fowl crow was making the loud quack sound as it swallowed. HAHAHAHAHA! What a moment. The bird definitely didn’t look incapable of getting its own food, so I can’t say what the dynamic there was.

My crows exact a price, and not just a monetary one. (The food costs really accumulate; I might as well own an aviary.) A neighbor threatened me when I tossed a peanut onto the driveway of another neighbor, and the business owner adjacent to my office called the police. The responding cop was very congenial and in fact brought up the fact that crows identify faces and solve multi-step problems. I was lucky he’s a fan of public broadcasting. I wonder if I have a police record now. If I do, it cites bird poop and my videotaped comings and goings. We’re all on film, the corvids and I.

I expect to have more complaints, if not more conversations with armed law enforcement personnel, but… we’ll see. I was very dim-witted not to consider how unwelcome crows can be. My “crow woman” (no tribal affiliation) role isn’t universally applauded, but I am far from alone as a crow groupie. Try crows.net.

The crow language I developed has limited application, of course. It’s as if you trained a group of Dalmatians to respond to “Bring cookies!” and you go to another city and expect any Dalmatian to trot over with Oreos. I have to squelch my “You’re welcome!” when I see crows in other neighborhoods; it would be like mimicking sea lions. I tried it once, and the crow did not come down. What a blow! I mean, don’t they teach each other? Isn’t there some kind of network? Quoth the raven, nuh-uh.
Actually, that’s an untruth. Copious evidence shows that although crows have unique regional dialects, they DO teach each other; if a particular person traps or kills crows, word spreads not just to surrounding crow communities but to subsequent generations. If I keep feeding crows, eventually thousands of crows will know about it. It sounds like nonsense, but the science is authentic. There is a lot going on in their bird brains. They mate for life, they can mimic human language, they connive and scheme and plan and anticipate, and they have time to learn and retain and transfer knowledge: in captivity one lived for fiftnine years. In the wild their longevity is significantly compromised; hatchlings have a fifty-fifty survival rate, and adults generally live seven to fifteen years, though one feral crow was known to have lived longer than two decades.

But no, they don’t really drop nuts on roads and wait for cars to crack them open; that dearly-held assumption has been debunked (darn it). However, they do use tools to get tools, and that’s not a mere parlor trick. And communication? Researchers have identified more than 64,000 distinct crow vocalizations and within a group 84 different calls; and individual pairs have their own oral repertoires, which they change for new situations. And crows sing: elaborate arias improvised and adapted. One crow song might be four coos, followed by two grating rattles, then a caw/rattle hybrid, then five caws; another time it might be a single caw followed by seven short coos, and in a sequence of five caws, each note will differ from the net in both pitch and duration. The song might continue for an hour. Within families, siblings vocalize together, in unison or in turns. And the sounds are regional or situational; a family might have utterances that no other crows use.

My favorite sound so far is the one the male crows make: a throaty kind of gurgle/chirp/warble. Enchanting!

Crows are not endangered, although West Nile virus has dramatically reduced their numbers, and it’s tough to perfect an adaptation that will blunt that effect. Humans are their most efficient predator; beyond us (and our toys), they need fear only owls, hawks, eagles, and other crows.
If you’re out and about in any city, they are there, too.

I have no idea how far my reach extends. I don’t know if the crows I see in one place are the same as (or related to) crows I see half a kilometer later. I don’t know if they actually follow me from home to work, or if different contingents wait in designated areas, or if some come in from the coast. There do seem to be two, always, by my mailbox and on my street, both mornings and evenings, and there are two others on the artery street I take, but is it the same two? I have no clue. And it is my curse (or gift) now that I hear crows cawing wherever I go and I feel they are calling to ME, but of course they are not. I don’t think.

They have schedules, my crows. There is a dramatic change at about 7:00 pm. Before that time, they are right over my head, or beside me, but after, they are cawing and diving and dashing and swooping. I call this “high time” because they stay high, very high. They dip and screech and flap and soar and billow an — this is my best word for it — cavort. It’s a grand display, and I am very small and very envious, grounded by gravity.
But ah, when morning comes, they will be mine again. •

From the July 2014 issue

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Animal Issue, Browning | Link to this Entry

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