Not a Pet Person: An Unexpected Courtship with Crows Brings the Gift of Wings

2,326 total words    

9 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Wheatfield with Crows, by Vincent van Gogh

After years of uneventfully observing crows out in the yard, there’s been a turn of events in my garden. Suddenly, they come bearing gifts. A murder of crows spends part of each year in the broad leafy canopy of trees that line my downtown street, but a crow I’ve come to call “Boxy” is an especially frequent visitor. I recognize his stout body, slightly boxy head, and the few grayish feathers running down his back that look as if they have been dusted in ash. Out my living room window, I can see him perched atop the fountain at the center of my garden with something in his long black beak. He pauses, cocking his head to the side, knowing that I’m watching. Boxy dips the object he’s carrying into the depression where the water burbles up at the top of the fountain and fusses over it a bit, then he drops down to the bottom basin to take a drink of water. He repeats this process several times. If it is food he has brought, usually he will eat whatever it is. On extra special occasions, though, he just waits for me to notice, then he leaves the object behind, mostly unscathed. I’m pretty sure he is leaving it for me.

Crows leave the kind of gifts that they would like to receive: a peanut, a moss-covered stick, a shiny bit of foil or a pretty pebble. If you aren’t paying attention, it is easy to mistake a crow’s gift for a bit of trash. Some gifts are so ridiculous that they can’t help but grab your attention, as I’ve recently found.

My interest in crows—or any animal really—is a new development. My encounters with wildlife have been limited, and I fall pretty solidly in the “not a pet person” category. I would never have described myself as an animal lover, but the crows have captivated my imagination. When they first showed up, they stirred distant memories of reading Poe as a child and being transported into a curious gothic landscape. Their glossy black presence brought an air of mystery to my world. Were they harbingers of doom or good omens? They seemed to know things.

I, on the other hand, was not even sure if the birds in my yard were ravens or crows (or if there was a difference between the two). My curiosity piqued, I turned to the internet for answers and stumbled across the work of John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington who has studied crows and ravens for more than twenty years. From New York Times coverage of his studies and a handful of other articles, I was able to confirm that yes, my birds were indeed crows. Their cries sound like a “caw” instead of a croak, their tail feathers end in more of a curve than a point, and they lack the ruff of feathers at the neck that common ravens have.[1] I also learned about crows’ ability to recognize human faces and to communicate to other crows their positive or negative experiences with those humans. In one article, Marzluff recalled that when an intern trapped crows on campus to band them for study, he had them obscure their face with a rubber caveman mask.[2] The crows came to recognize the mask and, even years later, if an intern wore that mask out in the field, crows responded by scolding the wearer loudly and flying menacingly close to them.

The crows in my garden seemed no less watchful and intelligent than the ones in Marzluff”s study. They perch in the trees, watching us check the mail, fuss about in the yard, leave for work. I wondered what they thought of our comings and goings. Did they find our sudden appearances in their landscape as jarring as we sometimes found theirs?

When I was reading up on the birds, I also came across a story in the BBC News about a little girl in Seattle who fed crows in her neighborhood every day. In return, they brought her little gifts.[3] She kept each gift organized by date and displayed in partitioned plastic boxes like the ones jewelry makers use to sort their beads. It was a peculiar assortment: colored pieces of glass, bits of foil, a button, a shiny rock, and even one half of a heart shaped “Best Friends” necklace. I was positively charmed. I remember thinking, “I wish a crow would bring me a gift.” I would be reminded later to be careful what I wish for.

At the beginning of the pandemic, my daily life changed drastically. I no longer left for work each morning; my world shrunk to a city lot. The neighborhood, bordered on all sides by main arteries of car traffic, became surprisingly still and quiet during long days alone. Since there was nowhere else to go and I really needed to get out of the house, my husband and I would embark on sightseeing walks in the neighborhoods adjacent to ours when he got home from work. During our sojourns we seldom saw other people, but while the whole world was cloistered, the crows continued to gather. We heard them overhead as we walked. “Looks like your crow kids are following us,” my husband would say, pretending to grumble. They split the silence with their socializing, squabbling, and audacious racket—just as they always had—and their presence was an unexpected comfort. Their continuation of simple daily life gave me hope that was invaluable.

Not everyone was as enthusiastic about my crow friends as I was. These bawdy underdogs were capable of inspiring as much ire as delight. In the fall, I was chatting on the phone with a friend when a handful of crows briefly descended on the ridge of my roof and cawed loudly. My friend could hear them on the other end. “What a menace!” she said. “You know, you can scare them off if you get a fake crow and hang it upside down somewhere they’ll see it. They’ll think it’s dead and stay away.”

Why on earth would I want to do that? I wondered. My friend’s advice sounded like an old wives’ tale, but it did give me pause as I regarded the Halloween decorations festooning the front of the house. Along with the tombstones, synthetic cobwebs, and skeletons, there was a pair of black plastic birds with glowing red eyes on my windowsill, and an old Styrofoam jack-o-lantern with a dilapidated crow perched on the stem sat on the porch railing. I’d had the jack-o-lantern decoration for several years, and now the bird’s feathers were patchy, one wing a bit askew. I regarded my decorations doubtfully, wondering what kind of message I might inadvertently be sending to the crows: home for demonically possessed, hobbled avian creatures? I took the jack-o-lantern off the porch railing and deposited it by a potted plant near the front door where it would be a little less conspicuous.

Not two days later, I opened my front door and found a small crow perched on the potted plant next to the dilapidated crow decoration. It startled, hopping and clumsily flapping away. The crow’s wing was badly damaged and drooped at an odd angle. By the time I made my way to the corner of the garden where the crow had retreated, two neighborhood cats had begun to circle. I chased off the cats and caught the crow in a box so that I could take it to a local bird rescue organization. As I loaded the crow into my car, I wondered if any of the other crows had witnessed this little drama. I thought about the mask-wearing interns who had trapped crows for the University of Washington and imagined myself being dive-bombed by angry birds protesting their disappeared one while I attempted to pick radishes.

I’d hoped that the wounded crow would heal and eventually be reintroduced into the neighborhood, but it did not survive its injuries. During the months that followed, whether intentionally or by coincidence, the murder of crows that inhabited my block made fewer and fewer appearances. When fall turned to winter, I emptied the fountain to protect it from freezing temperatures and heaped the raised beds with leaf mulch so the garden could hibernate for the season. It came as a surprise, then, when one November morning, I discovered a lone crow roosting atop the arbor that faced the house.

His feathers were fluffed up for warmth, making him appear much larger than he really was, and his boxy head was drawn in, close to his body. “Boxy” remained like this all day, sometimes sleeping, just right out in the open, exposed against the pale sky. It was such a peculiar sight. He did not appear to be injured but when he sat unmoving and alone for a second day, I began to worry that he was sick. Occasionally, he would make a feeble, rasping noise. I remembered how dehydrating the cold, dry air of winter could be. I fetched the hose from our storage shed, filled the fountain, and set it burbling. The crow looked down at it but did not move. I did a quick internet search, typing in “what to feed a sick crow” and then laid out what I hoped would be a tempting little smorgasbord of peanuts and fruit and dampened whole grain bread on the flagstones between the arbor and the fountain.[4] By day three, some of the food had disappeared, and Boxy the crow was sometimes standing on the fountain column or the arbor instead of sitting still. At the end of the third day, the crow alighted. His absence from the perch was bittersweet, but I would see him again.

By late spring of the following year, the whole neighborhood was budding with new life. Birds of all sorts were at the feeders, and even the crows were back, clustering in the trees across the street as they had before. Boxy, now in fine health, started making frequent appearances at the fountain, usually alone but sometimes with a friend or two in tow. It was around this same time that I began to notice the fountain occasionally taking on an odd, greasy-looking sheen. One afternoon I was reading, and I caught a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. I turned to the window just in time to see my favorite tearing at something unidentifiable atop the fountain. It was whitish, and browned at the edges—perhaps a piece of bread? But when Boxy dipped the morsel in the water and lifted it again it did not appear to be heavy with absorption. I continued watching his familiar routine: he flew off, returned with an unidentifiable object in his beak, and placed it in the depression at the top of the fountain where he would tear at the thing. Then Boxy would drop down to the basin of the fountain, take a drink, and alight to the trees to regard the scene from a distance before repeating the whole process. 

Normally my husband and I clean out the fountain and refill it with fresh water once or twice a month. But now it was getting to be every three or four days. Sometimes there would be shredded fleshy remains of whatever it was my crows were bringing floating in the water, and I could not identify what it was. Not bread. Maybe fish? Or squirrel guts? The thought made me positively squeamish. Even more perplexing, whatever they were bringing did not seem to break down the way something raw would. This mystery continued, unsolved, until finally we saw the crow in transit—with a spicy hot wing in his beak.

Yes, that’s right. A hot wing. As in, the popular football-party snack.

Boxy landed atop the fountain, enthusiastically partaking of the sparkling water as he dipped his treat. He cocked his head, putting on a little show for us, and repeated his routine. Alighting and returning. In appreciation for the fresh water, Boxy left a perfectly untouched hot wing out on the flagstones in the exact spot where I left the sick-crow smorgasbord laid out the winter before. It may not have been one half of a “Best Friends” locket, but it was a striking gift, all the same.

You may be wondering where these hot wings were coming from. A few blocks from my home there is a local joint called Hot Mama’s Wings, and it appears that my crow friend was airlifting these tasty snacks from the restaurant. I’m a little unclear on the mechanics of Operation Hot Wing. I wonder if crows were stealing them directly off the tables of outdoor diners, or if they were acquiring them by some other means. Either way, for me this was heartening news. At least it wasn’t squirrel guts I was fishing out of the fountain.

My husband, however, had some concerns about maintenance, especially with vacation on the horizon. Just what would a week of unmonitored wing deposit do to our fountain’s motor while we were away? We opted to empty the fountain for a week, but the wings kept coming.

So often we go forth, absorbed in our lives and concerns, without looking out into the world around us. Do we appear as the pill bugs who are focused downward and inward, creeping across the ground with a single-minded mission, curling inward in retreat when the world brushes too close? Or do these crows see the ways that we have things in common with them—our desire for social interaction and our commitments to family, our squabbles and loyalties, our ties to a place or routine? Whenever I go outdoors now, I turn my face skyward in the presence of crows so that they can see me well. As I fill the fountain with fresh water and look for savory gifts left behind, I wonder if we should just give up and fill the fountain with ranch dressing instead.

Notes

[1] BirdNote, “How to Tell a Raven from a Crow,” Audubon.org, October 22, 2012, https://www.audubon.org/news/how-tell-raven-crow.

[2] M. Nijhuis, “Friend or Foe? Crows Never Forget a Face, It Seems,” New York Times, August 25, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html.

[3] K. Sewall, “The Girl Who Gets Gifts from Birds,” BBC News, February 25, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31604026.

[4] M.J. Westerfield, “Food and Feeding Habits of the American Crow,” Crows.netwww.crows.net/food.html

  • Sallie Vandagrift

    Sallie Vandagrift is a writer and editor from Eugene, Oregon. Her work has previously been published in The Sun and Coffee Talk. She has worked as an assistant editor at Slant Books, as a program coordinator for Writers in the Schools, and as a writer-in-residence teaching creative writing at a treatment program for incarcerated youth. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.
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