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By Jill Riddell
I’m quizzing my husband Tim about his affection for crows. For him, crows are sort of a totem, an animal that shows up in his dreams and at pivotal times in his life. “They’re big, they’re black,” he says. “They’re mostly friendly.”
“So?” I say. “What else?”
“They’re not exotic with all sorts of beautiful feathers. They’re plain old birds.” He shrugs. “I find them comforting beings.”
I’m curious, because Tim’s way out on a limb on this one, sitting almost alone in his appreciation of crows. They’re right up there with pigeons as one of the most loathed birds in America.
Common. Loud. Unmannered. And as if this weren’t enough, crows are utterly undiscriminating in what they eat and where they live. When we humans deign to shower our collective love on a bird, we tend to select finicky species with strong tastes. Loons that need cold lakes surrounded by hemlock forests to keep them happy? Perfect. We’ll plaster their pictures on needlepoint pillows in gift shops all across America as testimony of our respect. Hummingbirds that feed only at crimson blossoms? Rubythroats are gracing the doormat of a home near you.
I can’t predict what animal fad will next capture the fancy of American shoppers, but I can tell you it won’t be crows. My conversations with other friends about their sense of crows elicited responses quite different from Tim’s. All had stories about some raucous specimen that woke them up every morning by squawking outside the window.
Crows’ voices are about as soothing as car alarms. Not only were the encounters my friends described unpleasant, but they told the stories with a venom generally reserved for landlords and telemarketers. Even Tim’s mother, generally a lover of all birds, dismisses crows as “downright irritating.”
And let’s just be honest: crows have plenty of bad habits. They kill young songbirds in their nests and take the corpses to feed their own young. At the base of a tree where a great horned owl nest was, Tim’s mother found two dead baby owls, probably the victims of her son’s vulgar feathered friends. A crow kept by writer Bil Gilbert as a pet developed a fondness for his cigarettes, about as nasty a habit as you can get. And many crows indulge in their version of drunkenness by squishing anthills and soaking their feathers in dead-ant juice, a substance that acts as a narcotic.
But here’s the rub–crows are also the most intelligent bird. Relative to body size, the mass and density of a crow brain is greater than that of any other bird and comparable to that of dolphins and humans. Crows not only use but make tools. Biologists view the ability to craft tools with great respect, even if it doesn’t improve an animal’s marketability in gift shops. According to a report in the January 20, 1996, Science News, crows strip the leaves and other rough points off twigs to make hooks they use to find bugs under bark and leaves. It’s also well-known that crows use automobiles as tools, setting down walnuts and clams on paved roads and waiting for cars to smash them open. (However, there’s no evidence that crows manufacture cars for this purpose.)
Scientists and amateur observers have also watched crows engage in what can only be described as play. They fly repeatedly over streams dropping stones in the water for no apparent purpose other than to hear the splash. In Russia crows slide down the cupolas of churches on their fannies. When flying, they sometimes indulge in showy aerobatics, performing back flips and barrel rolls. Cautious lest they be accused of anthropomorphism, the writers of some of these reports have cast around for evolutionary rationales for crow play, but these explanations sound more absurd than an admission of what’s obvious: crows do these things because they’re fun.
Unlike some meeker species that fly south when it’s cold, crows keep us company in Chicago all year long. This winter a band of them has been perching among the bare branches of a dying cottonwood a block from my house. (The correct name for a group of these birds is a “murder of crows,” more proof of how well loved they are.) The tree’s scratchy limbs poke out well above the brick two-flats, giving me a clear view of the murder.
On slow writing days I sometimes watch, waiting to see if they’ll do anything extraordinary. Basically all I’ve observed is that they caw and flap around a lot. If I were a member of the Corvus genus, perhaps I’d find meaning in what appears to be aimless. The average crow has a “vocabulary”–that is, a collection of meaningful sounds and gestures–of approximately 100 words. Individual crows fine-tune the basic repertoire and may come up with more “words.” Clever mimics, crows can imitate human speech, just as parrots do. But to my tin ear, ordinary crow talk is just a lot of noise.
Like so many other animals that have fared well surrounded by human civilization, crows owe at least part of their success to the very things that make us sniff with distaste: what they eat and where they live. Insects, small reptiles, bird eggs, other birds, rabbits, toads, mollusks, farmers’ chicks, fish, dead animals, most any kind of garbage, and more corn than you can possibly imagine make up a balanced diet for a crow.
While some crows still live, nest, and roost in rural areas, some of the biggest winter roosts have recently appeared in cities: Hagerstown, Pennsylvania; Alexandria, Virginia; and Yuba City, California, boast some of the larger roosts. Crows have to give up some corn when they go urban, but one advantage to boldly moving into cities is that they don’t get shot at or poisoned. And as a consolation prize there’s more garbage.
We can criticize the crassness of the bird all we want, but it does raise the question: In the face of all the changes wrought on the planet in the past hundred years, would you rather be a member of a species that’s adaptable, tacky, and alive? Or a member of a species that’s classy and dead?