by Scott C. McKee
A crow lands on the railing of the tiny balcony outside our apartment and takes a few cautious steps, peering intently toward the tinted glass. I’m not surprised to see him there. Yesterday, even before we were properly up and dressed, he perched and called until we appeared.
He doesn’t know us well yet, though he has seen us many times on the sidewalk a hundred feet below. Over the summer we sometimes left little bits of food in sight for him to find, and he has not forgotten.
He flies away as I approach. I open the window, reach out as far along the railing as I can, and carefully place a bite of salmon that I saved from our dinner two nights ago; then I close the window. After a moment he’s back again, and rather than flying away with the food he pauses to tear off bites of the fish, clamping the morsel to the rail with one foot, still watching the window carefully.
How puzzling is this for him? I like to think that I understand this moment better than he does. Does he see me as a superior being who will reward his supplications?
Or is he the winged deity who chooses to accept tribute? What I do know about this relationship I learned years ago from other birds. This is a story about them.
Cathy was the first crow we knew by name.
Toward the end of the day, if the sun was shining beneath the clouds, we might see two big black birds in our young mimosa tree, one of them muttering to herself in a collection of clicks, rattles and rasps. We knew she wasn’t really talking to us, but she did seem to enjoy visiting. It wasn’t like she was addressing her partner either though — her beak was down next to her breast and her attention was focused close. Was she rehearsing a lullaby for a future nestling, maybe a song that she had heard her own mother sing?
Since all we really knew about her was her chattiness we named her after a talking doll, a toy once popular among children. We couldn’t hope to find a name she would understand. We wanted only a way to refer to her, not a call that she might answer.
After a while you would look up and her mate would be gone, headed north to the park where they were then roosting. You might notice her turn around on the branch in a shuffle of black satin, to face away from the house. Then, if you looked again, there would be no crows. The next thing that happened was that the sun would set.
At first there was no reason for a bird to notice our garden, among the hundreds of early-20th-century houses in our part of Seattle, a backwater now entering its second childhood. The house itself had recently been renovated, brought back practically from the dead, just before we bought it. The yard was a mixture of a few old specimens, including a prolific pear tree and a big chestnut, bordering a lawn that was there simply by default. And cats came with us and so we would not have thought to entice other little animals.
After a decade of so we were ready for some changes. The cats were gone, the lawn was embarrassing, and we were feeling something that we thought might be creativity. It was just then that our lives were disrupted by a bird called a Red-Shafted Flicker.
Flickers are handsome woodpeckers that can be found in most parts of the United States throughout the year. They have beige bodies and wings dotted and barred with black. They don’t have red crests like their cartoon cousins, but ours have patches of red, especially the red cheeks of the adult males. Their undulating flight is typical of woodpeckers: enroute, they give a few flaps and then go ballistic for an instant and then flap again. While their wings are spread for flapping their surprising white rumps are briefly visible. They tend to perch vertically on trunks rather than horizontally on branches like most other birds, though they do often feed on the ground. They use their long, sharp beaks to pry insects from bark.
Flickers also use their long, sharp beaks for communication. A male flicker will proclaim dominion over his territory by hammering on a hollow object. The traditional choice was a dead tree but, now that there are humans, things like metal sheds or tractors may be used. Or the roof-peak of a house.
The drawbacks to using the roof-peak, at least from the standpoint of those inside the home, are two. First, sleep may be compromised. Second, there may eventually be a flicker-sized hole in the siding, which either the flicker or another bird may use to make a terrible mess in the attic.
There are a couple of popular ways to distract a flicker from hammering on your house. I first tried the more complex strategy, building a nesting box of the exact dimensions preferred by flickers, as shown in a how-to article. If successful, this gives the flicker something else both to hammer on and to nest in, sparing the house and its occupants. How excited I was to watch a flicker actually pop in the regulation-size hole and then pop back out! We didn’t have a good place to mount the box though (the birds would have preferred an isolated 16-foot pole) and so, while others may have nested there, the flickers kept chipping away at the siding instead.
The second, counter-intuitive, method is to supply food that the flicker can’t resist. This idea sounds self-defeating, but it works because most animals are smart enough not to make their nests near a food supply. We bought a cake of suet and seed from the hardware store and a little rectangular cage to hang it in, and dangled it from a branch in the new ornamental cherry tree. We got to watch the flickers close-up. They might visit the suet several times a day. We would sometimes see five of them on a phone pole across the alley, lined up one above the other, shifting positions with the wind to stay on the dry side. But the hammering had moved elsewhere.
We bought a second, larger cage to keep the first suet cage in, because once you start feeding somebody, you will be feeding a lot of others you hadn’t counted on. We found ourselves making friends with the local squirrels; and that is how our yard began to become a paradise for all sorts of creatures.
In the part of Seattle where we lived, near the top of the north slope of Queen Anne Hill, a crow family would expect to defend a territory amounting in size to the greater part of a city block. With its mixture of gardens, garbage cans, lawns and gutters, birdbaths and bird feeders, this area would provide enough resources early in the year for at least a couple of adults. By the end of the summer it might need to support four or five individuals.
The territory’s size and shape are determined by the crows’ intentions — and those of their neighbors. Boundaries represent an equilibrium among competing factions, and they are established the same way that humans, in the absence of authority, would decide disputes: by force, threat, or, mostly, by a whole lot of squawking. Much of the day is spent proclaiming ownership. Neighboring crows are very aware of each other; even a stranger flying overhead on some innocent errand will be warned away. Birds take this stuff seriously.
Excluding other crows from your territory does not mean keeping all the resources for yourself. Squirrels will get most of the nuts, raccoons will get a head start on the garbage, birdseed is mostly for smaller birds, and insects, the most fulsome component of the food supply, are totally up for grabs. Those early robins get their share of the worms, but they are not a threat to crows. Crows may allow even other corvids like jays to coexist. Gulls are strictly excluded, although considerable effort may be required.
When we started deliberately feeding birds we began to notice entire species that we had not been aware of before. The suet cake attracted a fleet of bushtits, tweety little long-tailed beige cottonballs that would come around a couple of times a day. The seed knocked on the ground beneath the feeder brought dark-eyed juncos, handsome little birds without much use for altitude. Chickadees became plentiful.
Across our alley, to the west and slightly to the south, there was a tall conifer, a spruce or a hemlock, where sometimes a pair of crows could be seen ducking in among the branches. We called them the Westons, to distinguish them from another pair now nesting across our street to the east. The Westons would fly over, or perch on the utility pole or on the wire that led to our house. I didn’t see why we shouldn’t be able to get a better look at them, like all the other birds. When I was a child I had watched a crow perch on a similar pole at the far end of my old block back home, and imagined what a fine pet it would make; but it didn’t seem to pay much attention when I called to it, as I would to a dog or cat, the other pets I knew. I had not yet understood that most inter-species communication is based on food.
On a trip down the hill one day I met a bunch of crows happily feeding on some grain or pet food that had been spilled in the parking lot of the photo lab, possibly left for them intentionally. Back home again, I prepared what I imagined would be a gourmet crow snack, a bit of salmon atop a small slice of bread, and placed it on a folding café chair in the middle of the yard. The bread would make the fish clearly visible and the chair-back would provide a perch from which to examine it. I needed only observe from the comfort of my kitchen or living-room.
It was a long time before I got to see much activity at my little lunch-stand. It turns out that, noisy and boisterous as they are, crows are not particularly keen on being observed, at least at their essential business. I had hoped that they would accept my little offering as a gift, but, at least until they know you pretty well, crows prefer theft to charity. They would not enjoy feeling obliged.
Thus my gift was greeted with much more suspicion than a random spill or roadkill would have met. Mr. Weston, on those occasions when I managed to see him, would first overfly my offering, getting as close a look as he could without compromising aerodynamic efficiency. He would then view it from another perch, returning to grab it in a kind of touch-and-go. He would never come near the food if he knew that I was watching. Crows, I thought to myself, were going to be a surprisingly tough nut to crack.
Butch wasn’t the least bit shy about introducing himself.
One day I heard a commotion in our back yard and looked out to see a big black bird strutting along our wide porch rail. At first I wasn’t sure that it was a crow at all, since it seemed about three times the size of the ones I had been watching. Its head appeared massive, it looked like it was wearing big, baggy trousers, its breast was wide and long and flat and its wings were held out to its sides and low. I was standing just on the other side of a pair of French doors and the bird must have been aware of my presence but he seemed nonchalant.
This is the way that a male crow makes a threat, like a pose that a body-builder strikes. The puffed-up feathers are just for show, just to look bigger, but the wings really do mean business. If one crow can knock another to the ground, then its beak can go to work.
I called Alex to tell her about my encounter with Butch. I guess that Spike might have done as well, or Rocky, but he deserved a name that somebody might associate with truculence.
This display was an act of aggression. It wasn’t aimed at me, it was meant for another crow nearby; but in fact my presence was important. Within the reach of a human there is the risk of losing all; but there is also protection from other creatures. I was now an element in the balance of power. Our garden paradise had become a battlefield.
6. The Eastons
When not dressed for combat, Butch was not a particularly imposing crow. I think that he may have been fairly young when we first met him. He was inquisitive and not fearful of us. In his aerial battles he never seemed to have the upper hand. He would evade, or elude, or side-step, but seldom attack or strike. His opponent, always Mr. Weston I suppose, would climb steeply, turn to find his target and then dive, as a crow will when protecting its young. Butch would be watching the whole time, ready to get out of the way.
I thought at first that this defensive posture might be due to inexperience, or weakness. Butch had one distinctive physical feature, which allowed us to pick him out among all the uniform shapes: one of the feathers on his right wing grew out at an odd angle. For a long time I expected this feather to be corrected by preening, or to molt and be replaced, but it was there year after year. I imagined that he might have been wounded once, for crows are favorite prey among little boys with bows and arrows, and then nursed back to health by someone kinder who would have given him some familiarity with humans. Butch didn’t wear a band, though, as a former captive should. His flying was probably fine. I think he simply understood that he didn’t need to waste energy winning battles, he just needed to avoid being driven away. Power was not required, just persistence. His nest was further from our garden, but as long as there were people around, he could have his share of the suet, the corn cakes and the nuts that were left out for the squirrels, and the occasional special treat, because Mr. Weston would not dare to approach then.
It was the twisted feather that let us recognize Butch as Cathy’s mate. As they spent more time with us we became more interested in their behavior. I am still amazed that they would come in the evenings just to chat and preen. Even if we sat out on the back porch a few yards from them, the Eastons usually didn’t acknowledge our presence, so when they flew away there was no particular farewell. Cathy would always let Butch leave first.
7. Our Crows
The Eastons were our crows only in a very limited sense. We would have had no business telling them what to do, or putting them in a cage and taking them to the vet, or clipping their little toenails. Showing up at their nest would have been a grave breach of etiquette, nor would they have imagined spending the night with us.
But in the sense of association they were our crows, in the sense that I can talk about my hometown, or my dental hygienist, or my favorite restaurant. They knew who we were and they treated us differently from other people. They might not come when called, but, on the other hand, if crows were called and did come, it would be they.
When they began showing interest, I began putting treats out on the porch rail for them. It took some time to get the menu right. At that time our best customers were squirrels, and among suburban wildlife the peanut in the shell is the coin of the realm. It is nutritious, apparently tasty, recognizable at a distance, fairly portable, and may be consumed almost immediately or kept until later. Most folks would be surprised how many peanuts a jay can pack into its pointy little face.
Animals seem to enjoy unwrapping these little presents, but the shells can be a nuisance as they begin to clog your rain gutters and those of your neighbors as well. Food that is storable may not feed the intended recipients very efficiently. The random-access filing system used by squirrels (hide food randomly now, search for food randomly later) means that a lot of nutrition is going directly into the landscape. Once there, it can have unintended consequences. It is said that if you are feeding birds you are feeding rats; if you are giving squirrels free access to a bag of peanuts then you could have a Hamlin-sized population fairly soon.
I tried to think of things that crows would particularly enjoy. Farmers have made crows famous as thieves of corn, so I bought some big kernels of dried corn, probably intended for posole; but they were too tough to be popular. Frozen corn from the supermarket was accepted, but timing was important, and storage meant extra work and delay. Shelled almonds turned out to be nearly ideal. The crows liked them, the squirrels would take them if the crows didn’t, they didn’t make a mess, and in fact a few could be carried in a pocket or concealed in a handy spot in case a crow appeared unexpectedly. We bought them in large quantities.
Though it was a bit more work, we also fed our crows cheese. Alex was keeping string cheese for her own snacks, six-inch long individually-wrapped sticks of mozzarella. One could reach into the fridge and grab one of these and either cut or tear off a few quarter-inch pieces, or even keep a bag with pre-cut bits. These were more likely to be consumed in the moment, and I’m sure they were quicker to prepare as a meal for nestlings than the almonds. By the way, a squirrel may occasionally eat a piece of cheese if it believes that it can cheat a crow by doing so.
We also tried cat treats, as a convenient way of having right-sized non-perishable bits readily available. The crows seemed to like these well enough but I got to looking at the ingredients and the packaging and decided that maybe home-cooking would be better after all.
I am sure that Butch and Cathy came to like us, but this was not the same thing as eating out of our hands. At first we would leave food on the porch rail and go inside and they would come and get it, and if they didn’t go far away we would come out and leave more and they would wait for us to go in and then they would come and stuff the next batch into their gullets. After some practice with this, they wouldn’t fly away in between, but would simply hop down to the other end of the porch to wait. I would always make as many piles of food as there were birds, so that everyone could eat at the same time. I imagine that a bird further down the pecking order would appreciate this a great deal.
Cathy was always more diffident, but Butch would come literally within reach of me. I would sit on the top step, then stretch as far as I could along the porch rail to my left, and after I withdrew my hand, and possibly looked away, he would swagger over in that particular swinging gait that crows have, pick up the food, and return to his spot. On the porch rail waiting for food, or even just perched in a little apple tree out in the yard on a sunny afternoon, he would sometimes let me walk up quite close to him. There were times as I sat out on the wooden bench at the far corner of our yard that I thought he might join me, but he never did.
Near that bench though, as I walked out to prop open the garage doors for Alex as she drove home from work, I might hear a feathery rustle just before feeling a wing-beat as Butch flew by my head. It might be an hour later that Alex actually turned up, but I would often know in advance, because the crows recognized the sound of her little blue roadster from blocks away and would return to see if her arrival spelled a treat for them.
If you were to list the world’s songbirds, and assuming that you chose to order them not alphabetically but by size, starting with the largest, you would begin with the corvids. It is true that, aside from the one mockingbird-related crossover hit, they’re not popular for their singing; membership in this category has more to do with the structure of their feet, which allows a songbird to sleep on a branch without falling off. Still, crows are enthusiastic vocalists, whether charming a mate, claiming a territory, threatening an enemy, warning a friend, asking for help, or begging for food.
The chorus begins with first light. At midsummer, in a city at the latitude of Seattle, that’s before five in the morning. Humans, having the technology to extend their activities beyond nightfall, are not always happy to be awakened at this hour. But crows, aware of their limited ability to see in low light, have been immobilized since nine the night before and are eager to begin their day.
Among the first voices heard in this season are those of the crows’ newly-hatched youngsters. A week-old bird has little understanding of nuance and has approximately one thing on its mind, that being food. It needs to have food pushed down its throat at least twice every hour and wouldn’t mind more often still. It will beg any time it sees an adult or any other likely food provider. It does so with a tuneless, desperate rasping squawk. Nutrition is pretty important.
Adult crows are compelled to respond to these cries. They work all day long at finding bits of food to poke into their children’s little red mouths. The stuffing doesn’t silence the cries for long; mostly, it just changes the rasp briefly into a frantic gargle.
Like a human, a crow has a long childhood. Parents feed their babies for weeks after they have begun to fly. Thus the sound of pleading, at first confined to the area of the nest, begins to be heard throughout the neighborhood during the day. Full-sized but slightly odd-looking youngsters follow their parents around to learn the family business. They are surprisingly obedient and can be left quietly on their own for long periods. They spend a lot of their time just preening.
This new mobility provides another opportunity for interaction between crows and people. Since before the babies hatched, their parents have protected them by a combination of two methods: hoping they are invisible, and chasing away any creature that might want to see them. The former works for long periods, but the parents of a bird about to test its wings will try to keep a good-sized area clear all day, repeatedly climbing and then diving at any intruder. Pedestrians are likely to take these attacks personally and may see the crows as a nuisance
Though these newly-minted crows pretty much know how to fly, they don’t always know exactly where. A young crow may follow a parent from one tree to another, but land on a branch too slender for support. After a moment of uncertainty it may head to another prospective perch that proves too far away, and then turn back toward the original goal. Altitude is more likely lost than gained. Soon there is the familiar situation of a baby crow on the ground. All it needs is food and rest, but it needs to get those things before a predator notices. A pedestrian who happens to walk by now may be physically wounded by a frantic adult crow. Crows don’t particularly want to hurt people, but they do need them to be somewhere else. Understanding that there’s a baby in danger may make it easier to sympathize, and to remember to find an alternate route.
We were always glad to receive visits from our crows, but after a while everybody got bored with just dispensing food in the same old place. So we invented a game that used more of our skills.
The mimosa tree outside the kitchen window, just a big stick when we planted it, was starting to show signs of dominating the garden. There was one particular branch, maybe six feet long, that had lost its importance and was drooping a bit, sticking out toward the middle of the patio. At the end of this branch, no more than seven feet above the ground, was a little fork between two twigs. It was here that the game of Cheese was first played.
I have since realized that all birds are lactose-intolerant, which makes sense because milk production is one of the things that defines the difference between them and us mammals. If I had it to do over again, I would protect them from this potential problem. Would they have been as enthusiastic about tofu treats? At the time, though, nobody was thinking about this.
Cheese was a game for any number of crows, though typically there were only two. A bit of mozzarella was wedged in the fork of the branch, and the goal was to snatch it away. Strategy might involve being closer to the prize at the start. Tactics were important too, as it was necessary to hop or fly around various side-branches. As a practical matter Butch usually won, except when he sat out a round due to inattention or an already overpacked gullet.
After the end of the first or second season, the branch died and was blown down in a winter storm. A rule change resulted and play moved to a trellis that I had attached to a post at the corner of the house. Here, until a clematis grew up to close off the space, crows vied for bits of cheese placed on a cross-member. This new wicket was a rectangle that may have been as much as a foot high, but cannot have been more than ten inches wide. Some fancy flapping was required. The birds never seemed to tire of it though. I think that crows enjoy a little challenge, as long as they’re not too busy.
Sport was not our only change of pace. On weekdays our interaction centered around the back yard, but on Sundays Alex and I would arise late, sometimes preparing waffles, and eat breakfast and read the paper in our dining room, around on the other, eastern, side of the house. On those days the crows would come and find us there, and might receive a treat placed out on the front porch. I don’t know whether they bothered to look for us first in the back.
Our routine became pretty well established during the first year we knew our crows. At one or more times on most days I would see or hear a crow waiting to be fed, and I would find some treats, step out the back door, and place them on the porch rail. On warmer days I would linger a bit. When it was cooler I would have the door open as little as possible. Brashly or cautiously, ordered by group precedence, crows would descend, skitter around on the flat railing, pick up irregular stacks of differently shaped bits of food, and then depart when they saw fit.
Then one day, the day that workers began noisily replacing our neighbor’s roof, the crows stopped showing up.
After the first winter we didn’t know whether to expect to see our crows again. Then one day I glanced out through the back door and there was a bird standing casually on the porch rail, waiting to be fed, just as though nothing had happened.
As we became a reliable source of food, and showed that we were not a threat, Butch and Cathy began to feel comfortable bringing their babies to see us. The first year we weren’t even properly introduced: we might notice a fledgling parked on our telephone wire while the parents attended to other matters. In time, though, we became more involved in child care.
How tempting for an adult, rather than carting food all day from its source to the demanding offspring, just to bring the youngster to the chow line in person. And for the babies, shown the treats there on the porch rail — are the parents reduced to middlemen, no longer needed? I do know that the young crows were excited to see me. On summer mornings, when I finally got out of bed and opened up the window shades, they might fly over and try to hover outside next to the glass.
Though the food on offer was familiar, it was still necessary for the youngsters to learn to pick it up for themselves. Butch had a simple method for teaching this lesson, which may very well be universal. Once the food appeared, he would pretend to race for it. The novice would be allowed arrive first, and carry it away for himself. For the parent, it’s kind of like playing the familiar game of Cheese, but taking a dive at the last instant. Crows may not actually mind seeing food go to waste, but they do seem to have scruples about letting someone else have it.
As it still lay on the border between two territories, our garden served as a school for others as well. Mr. Weston, with a very different curriculum in mind, brought his youngsters too. He would show them his routine of overflying an offering to check for traps. But how, with a limited vocabulary, to teach them wariness? If they showed too little caution he would attack them to scare them away from the food. Sufficiently suspicious, they were allowed to take the food for themselves; but again, never if a human were in sight.
Butch’s willingness to teach extended beyond his family. One day I had noticed that a youngster, while waiting for food, might toy with the pull-cord of a blind that shaded our porch on sunny afternoons. I had heard that crows enjoyed playing with shiny objects and I got the idea of making a little gewgaw for them. Later that day I proudly produced my gift, a piece of metal twisted into a shape, and hung it on a bit of sage growing out on our patio, where the current youngsters were spending a lot of their time.
Butch had watched all this and flew down to examine the foreign thing for himself. He did not like what he saw. He flew to a branch in the cherry tree, as close as possible to where I was then standing, and began scolding me as he would a raccoon that was approaching his nest. I stooped and removed the toy and concealed it in my pocket and retreated submissively. After a moment all was fine between us, as it had been before; but I had a new respect for his judgment, determination, and ability to communicate with a member of another species.
Later, I had a chance to try the same method of instruction myself. One day while a juvenile crow was playing in our patio, digging interesting things out from the thyme between the paving stones, I saw our neighbor’s big fluffy cat, Hairy Potter, amble over and propose a game of tag. I yelled as loud as I could and then ran out the back door, waving my arms. Both bird and cat departed, but I could not tell that the either had learned the desired lesson.
11. The Bird and the Hand
Crows were our favorite birds, but they were not the only ones who would interact with us. Our neighborhood was a good place for Stellar’s Jays too, another street-smart bird and one with gorgeous plumage. Jays are brash and talkative like crows, though their discussions seem to be more about territory and less about food. A bit higher-pitched, their voices seldom match the volume of crow voices. Still, they have their detractors.
Our jays were flightier than the crows and lacked the patience to pose on the porch rail. Their faith in their flying ability let them perform one very neat trick though: the young ones, at least before they acquired much sense, would land, just barely, on your hand, grab an almond, and leave.
Crows, unlike jays, are entirely comfortable with walking places. Standing ever so near me on the porch rail, Butch couldn’t take food from my hand, but after a while I noticed that he didn’t try to warn his babies from getting close to me. I guessed that with care I could get one to walk over and take food directly from my hand. With the jays this wouldn’t have meant much, since their attention didn’t seem at all personal. To win the trust of one of our crow friends would be something else.
One morning, covering as much skin as I could, dressed in a black shirt and watch cap, and wearing thin black gloves, I went out to the back porch with the hopes of hand-feeding a wild crow. After providing some treats for the whole family, I sat on the porch steps and, eyes averted, I reached over my left shoulder holding a small piece of cheese. Five of us were very quiet as the bolder of the two youngsters, stepping into uncharted territory, edged his way along the rail. After some scrabbling and a long wait, I felt a tiny, gentle tug and heard a quick retreat. After a moment I looked around and there a few feet away was a surprised-looking baby crow holding a bit of cheese.
I’ve wondered what Cathy must have thought of this. She certainly wasn’t raised this way. If she had mated with someone other than Butch, a lot of things would have been different. But she didn’t object when she had the chance. Everyone in fact seemed pleased, probably none more than I. I had dreamed of that moment before it happened, and I have dreamed of it since.
The threshold crossed, trust came ever easier, and the other sibling, though never quite so brave, would come close to me too.
It’s easy to imagine that all crows look alike, and even that they enjoy the anonymity that their coloration gives them in the eyes of others. Though we learned to identify our local crows through their behavior, and in Butch’s case by his quirky feather, mistakes were still possible.
One year we noticed that we were already hearing the begging cries of baby crows, even though we were still visited regularly by a couple of adults every day. Who, we wondered, was guarding the nest? I thought that maybe our friends had not bred successfully that season. But the truth was revealed when two adults arrived with a new fledgling: one of the crows I had been seeing may not have been Cathy, but instead a youngster from the previous year, who had stayed with the family to help out and to learn more about being an adult. This behavior is not unusual among crows and ravens. Interestingly, it is only male offspring who are accepted for this post-graduate year as a helper at the nest. A day or two after this revelation, by the way, a second baby appeared with the others and it was obvious that the family’s gnarly little hands had been quite full with child-rearing that year.
Baby crows are pretty much full-size by the time they fly, but they’re distinguishable from adults at some distance even if they happen to be silent. If their bewildered, moth-like fluttering does not give them away, their very shape does. Their tail feathers are not yet as long as they ought to be, for one thing. And if you can see them close up, their heads are rounder in profile, like the heads of ducks. As suited as a grown-up crow’s face seems for expressing skepticism, so full of wonder is that of a fledgling.
The beak of a baby crow is at first symmetrical, and conical, only later taking on the hooked shape of the adult’s. From a short distance the yellow color can still be seen where the lips would be, and the baby’s tongue and mouth are bright red, an appealing target for the adult whose job is to shovel in sustenance tirelessly. As with many animals, the eyes darken during infancy; one may be lucky enough to see them when they are a movie-star, to-die-for indigo. There is one more color surprise. The feathers of adult crows are a colorless black; a baby’s first real feathers are an improbably dark brown.
Our first close-up encounter with a baby crow occurred not at our house but on a walk downtown. We had gone to visit Seattle’s fancy new Central Library for the first time, but as we approached University Street along Fourth Avenue we were mobbed by a pair of crows. Knowing to look on the ground, we found a youngster huddled next to the wall of a building, near a stairway leading to a basement. For a while we tried just steering foot traffic around the scene, but when a large dog, without a leash, trotted cluelessly by, we knew that something more was needed. Alex had her phone, and she talked for a bit with the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, the organization that looks after strays in these parts, and concluded that a rescue was appropriate.
Having a youngster on the ground isn’t a totally unexpected event for crows. They’ll feed it there for as long as necessary until it can be coaxed to an appropriate spot. Only if the bird appears ill or injured should it make a trip to a licensed rehabilitator. Otherwise, a boost to a tree limb or other perch, with as little contact as possible, is the most that is called for.
13. Independence Day
Fireworks: hard enough on humans, who are always blowing their own thumbs off or setting each others’ roofs on fire. Worse still for their pets, slinking around, looking miserable, hiding under the furniture. How about wild animals, generally left out of the loop, two or more times a year?
This is what I was thinking one Independence Day weekend, looking out my bedroom window at what appeared to be a charred spot in our garden. Target zone? Illicit launch site? There had certainly been enough noise the night before to explain any amount of devastation. We went off to visit some friends and I didn’t take a closer look until we got back.
What it was, was what I wouldn’t let myself believe. Not scorched earth, but a circle of black feathers on the ground. A crow had been killed here, or at least apparently eaten here, right in our back yard. There wasn’t much left, a skull, just a few bones.
For a tracker there was probably plenty of evidence about what happened – maybe teeth marks from a raccoon or other mammal, a pattern to indicate whether the carcass was carried or dragged. Other suspects could be named. The victim could have been knocked from the air by a hawk or, more likely, by the insidious West Nile Virus.
There were probably still more clues about the identity of the victim, but I didn’t want to look closely. It was not clear to me that the feathers belonged to a youngster, though of course babies are the most likely targets. I could have found a shoebox and performed a burial, but the part of the crow that we loved was already gone.
Besides, there would have been a funeral already — crows do that for each other. The family would have been there, of course; but this time of year maybe the neighbors too. There would have been a survey of the territory, an acknowledgement of the life lost, and then a deliberate turning away.
Our crows were gone for that year. There were crows again the next season, and I assumed at first that Butch and Cathy were back; but their behavior seemed more restrained and, when I looked for it, I didn’t see Butch’s twisted flight feather. For a long time I didn’t know where these birds nested. When I walked over to the park to wait for the bus downtown, crows would greet me if they happened to be there. A neighbor saw me handing out almonds and asked me if I recognized those crows. I had to admit that really, it was more like they recognized me.
Without knowing more about the killing, it is hard to say exactly what to conclude; but Butch’s experiment in self-domestication was at an end. For a long time I remembered the day that I had seen the cat and the bird together and supposed that a baby crow’s trust of other species had brought about its end; but there are plenty of other things that could have happened. No matter what the facts, it’s probably true that predator and prey were more likely to meet there because of our choice to provide food for animals. Our yard was, in the words of my naturalist friend Jim Hudson, a “baited hole.”
Views on the deliberate feeding of birds reach across a broad spectrum. At one end is a very defensible belief that we have already modified the world of birds more than we should have, and they ought to be left alone as much as possible. Trust is certainly a big issue. Almost everyone agrees that it’s wrong to feed birds inconsistently. If they change their migratory habits to suit us, for instance, we are going to have a hard time insuring that our children will keep up our end of the bargain. And this is for our protection as well. Seattle now has a population of what we still call Canada geese, though they’ve stopped commuting and are starting to wear out their welcome.
We are fascinated by crows, but that doesn’t mean that we want to tame them. We don’t want crows to start acting like pigeons. That difference is what we like about them. Part of the difference, I think, is that crows are creatures you can interact with as individuals. But it’s now several years since I have seen Butch, and for all I know, he is of a different mind.
It is not always in a family group that we see a crow. A juvenile bird, for instance, unless asked to stay on to help with the next brood, is eventually left to his or her own devices. These individuals, like human adolescents, tend to band together in roving gangs, attracting attention and getting into trouble.
Once the nesting season is over, all the crows, even Mom and Pop, become social again. Territories no longer need defending, and the adults and their new children are free to travel wherever they like. In our old neighborhood, crows, like vacationing humans, are likely to head for the beach.
During this time, old relationships are renewed and new ones are created. This must be another exciting period for the youngsters, who until now have known only their immediate families. They are not ready to mate yet, but they may meet their future mates this year, among the crowds that spend the days flapping and gabbing and pecking at things.
This is a time for crows to sleep communally too, for warmth or security or to exchange information. Our local corvid expert, John Marzluff, suggests that a crow who goes to sleep hungry might consider shadowing a fat neighbor the next day.
Again, the best eating spots are not the same as the best sleeping spots. In the autumn, we might look up at the sky an hour before dark and see rivers of crows, flying from the beaches of Magnolia toward their roosting places near Bothell or Issaquah. They aren’t silent by any means, but if you’re inside a building or in a car or doing something else you may not notice them. Seeing them for the first time, you may be astonished.
Once a year, our yard filled up with crows, dozens of them. I don’t know how long this had been going on — in the early years, when Alex and I were both working, we may have missed their visits. Our neighbor Mr. Dahm told me that crows used to flock to the house across the street from him, where bread was put out for them.
It was only the one day, but they came with the idea of staying for a while. Some would wait on the utility wires across the alley and others would perch in various trees. All seemed strangely confident, as though the usual rules for engagement with humans had been suspended. Some would come right up to the porch and maybe those were the crows who knew us from before — but of course there was no way to tell.
The last year that we lived in the house, the crows’ visit came on Halloween. I had a box of breakfast cereal that I had lost interest in, and I took it outside and gave it to them, a bit at a time. Some birds were content just to watch, while others played the game of racing for the food. For a little variety, I led some of them around into the front yard with my treats. Despite all the commotion, I didn’t see any of my neighbors watching or pointing or stopping to gawk at the spectacle. I may actually have been the only person aware of their visit. As the sky began to grow darker I hoped that they would stay long enough for young trick-or-treaters to see them and to sense some occult connection, some mysterious wicked covenant; but before even the littlest goblin arrived, it was time for the birds to leave.