01 May 2009

(117) "Hello", the pet crow

December 19, 1988
Good Bye, Hello
Bil Gilbert

This is about crows and ravens in general and several individual ones I have known personally. There are about 40 species of what ornithologists call common crows, all members of the genus Corvus. They are distributed over most of the world, have developed some odd local customs and vary a bit in appearance. But functionally they are about as similar as Swedes and Swahilis, and here all of them will be called crows unless there is reason to do otherwise.

Crows, like humans, are omnivorous, able to eat more or less anything that does not eat them first; they are hardy and clever enough to prosper in virtually any environment on the planet, from polar to tropical regions. Since they have always been around us in substantial numbers and have a good many behavior patterns quite similar to our own, we have been keeping crows under surveillance for a long time (and, very likely, vice versa). To give our side first, here are some observations and thoughts about crows:

They have big brains, larger in proportion to their size, than any other avian species. Behavioral investigators in laboratories have given many laudatory testimonials to how well crows solve puzzles, manipulate locks and keys and learn to do simple counting exercises. In the field, where they are free to do as they please, crows have been found using tools and weapons held in their beaks. They employ sticks and spines as picks and probes. British bird-watchers trying to get at ravens' nests have been repeatedly showered with stones intentionally aimed at them by the dive-bombing birds.

Crows are obviously, incessantly and raucously communicative. Ordinarily, they employ a hundred or so meaningful expressions and gestures, but individual birds will creatively alter these root sounds and movements to expand their working vocabularies. Many crows are talented, enthusiastic mimics and, like PBS commentators or wine critics, are apt to sprinkle their conversations with foreign mots. I have known crows who used phrases they have picked up from cicadas, ducks, dogs and humans. That they can do the last is well known. There is no reason to believe that the raven did not quoth "Nevermore." And if indeed the bird did, the poet probably took it too seriously. I am persuaded that ravens don't know or much care what they are saying in such cases, but that they shout things like "Hello, Jake," mostly for the gaudy effect.

At times crows are notably, even hysterically, social. In the part of the world where I live—central Pennsylvania along the Mason-Dixon line—at the end of the working day during the fall and winter most of them gather in large flocks, sometimes consisting of as many as 75,000 birds. Then they roost together in clusters of trees, cheek by jowl, and spend the night gossiping, wrangling and sometimes sleeping. Come spring, however, the birds go off to look for single-family nesting territories. Once established in a nest, they are very secretive about its location. In the manner of New Jerseyites who have come by a ranchette retreat on a quarter of an acre in the Poconos, they belligerently drive off all trespassers, regardless of size, species, color or creed.

In principle, crows are monogamous, mating for life, which can last 20 years or more. Males and females both work at nest building and may take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the young. However, their principles, like ours, are sometimes violated, and at times they will do things that would be called adultery or rape if, say, a TV evangelist did likewise.

We can only guess at the motives of other creatures and can describe them only by making figurative analogies based on our own experience. It is therefore impossible to say with certainty why a crow will lie flat on its back and juggle a pinecone or toss and retrieve stones or perform acrobatics in the air or on the ground. It certainly looks as if it is playing, as we might say, engaged in an impractical and unnecessary, but agreeable, activity. Also, crows are known to do drugs, apparently (one must admit, in keeping with the foregoing reservations) for fun. Case studies of sporting and junkie crows will be provided in due course, but before that, some consideration should be given to the reverse perspective—what crows may know about us.

As is apparent to anyone who has tried to approach these birds, they clearly have learned that humans can be dangerous. However, this information does not terrify crows as it does many less bold and astute beasts. To the contrary, judging from their actions, they may well regard people in the way it is thought early people regarded fire—as a tricky but, on balance, magnificent gift of the gods.

The spread of what is sometimes referred to as civilization has been a disaster for some species, and even we have at times had doubts about whether its rewards are worth the price it exacts. In pursuit of our various agricultural, commercial and domestic interests, however, we have turned vast tracts of the planet into habitat that is much more attractive and richer for crows than was the howling wilderness. Thanks to us, the short-term prospects are that this world will become a better and better one for these birds.

In Arctic regions where I have sometimes gone, there are days when the only other living things to be seen are ravens, glumly pecking away at ice floes or glaciers, trying to get at frozen lemming scraps and such. The toughness and ingenuity of these Arctic-dwelling birds is impressive, but these ravens are atypical. To see many more—and more adaptable—ravens than are found in the Arctic wilderness, go to Fairbanks, Alaska, or Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, or similar modern northland communities that have dumpsters and landfills. In addition to the abundant refuse they offer, the streets of such towns are paved with the equivalent of raven's gold: road kills, mashed pizza, french fries, kiwi fruit parings and other loose garbage, which ravens find as nourishing as iced lemmings and much easier to get at.

Within 60 miles of where I live, I know of seven crow roosts, those big winter bedroom complexes. One of them is in a genuinely rural area, a woodlot surrounded by dairy farms, which are always good sources of crow chow. The other six are either in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area—the largest, a roost of about 10,000 birds, is hard by the Capital Beltway—or in sizable outlying towns such as the Maryland communities of Frederick and Hagerstown. Each of the urban roosts is close to a shopping center, and in each place the birds perch at night in trees left standing or planted by developers.

Besides being convenient to rich deposits of food, these roosts are especially secure ones for the birds. You can say what you want about crime in our cities, but the authorities there have pretty much stamped out recreational gunning, which traditionally is a much greater threat to crows than are shoot-outs between cops and robbers. In contrast, that old-fashioned rural roost I know has old-fashioned country problems. Fairly regularly, by the look of the carcasses on the ground, it is visited by people who have so little excitement in their lives that they can find nothing better to do than blast away at crows with shotguns. Longtime residents of the area say the roost has been there for decades but seems to be decreasing in size, presumedly because of the sport shooters. Since the environs of Baltimore are rapidly pushing in this direction, however, things may be looking up for these rural birds. Quite possibly there will soon be a nice shopping mall with security guards near the woods.

Our cities and suburbs are beautifully, if unintentionally, laid out for crows—open glades, good for foraging, mixed with nicely spaced trees, which provide protection and nest sites. On the ground below are windrows of paper, plastic and fabric remnants that are suitable for nest building. (Some crows' nests I have seen suggest that Styrofoam cup scraps are currently a fashionable construction material.) Richard Banks, an ornithologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Washington, has become avocationally interested in this matter. He thinks that there may be more crows' nests in his neighborhood of Alexandria, Va., than are found in any other comparably sized area in the U.S.

The movement of crows from the country to the city is of major consequence to them, but the rural birds have also made some minor idiosyncratic adaptations. For example, certain English crows have taken to hanging around English ice fishermen. When the anglers go off to warm up, leaving the holes in the ice unguarded, the birds come down, haul up the lines, beak over claw, and take whatever bait or fish they find on the end of them.

There are some aggravating gaps in a report from Moscow published last summer, but according to the dispatch, authorities in Moscow decided back in the 1970s that there were too many pigeons in their city and, for reasons inexplicable to them, too few crows. In hopes that crows would destroy some of the pigeon eggs and nestlings—as they tend to do—some crows normally found in Siberia were brought to the more temperate Moscow region. As of 1987, Pravda reported, the Muscovites had a new and peculiar set of problems: "Since their introduction the crows have proliferated...and have taken to sliding down the gilded cupolas in the Kremlin's historic churches, inflicting serious damage on several of them." The account goes on to say that the crows also have begun "bombing the glass roof of the GUM department store in Red Square...." The ammunition? "Heavy stones," Pravda reported. "The store has tried replacing the glass covering with a specially reinforced transparent roof."

Not to mock Soviet science, but the activities of the Moscow crows reflect some of the normal interests of crows. There is a trout stream running through the property where I live, and crows who have shared the premises often occupy themselves by picking up stones and dropping them into the creek. Now, it is well known that crows will throw shellfish on rocks in order to break them open and get at the meat, but they plainly do not consider the pebbles ingestible items. Rather, it seems that they drop the pebbles for about the same reason we sometimes idly toss stones into the water—because it is entertaining. Perhaps the Moscow crows at first mistook the GUM roof for a pond, but unable to create splashes, they continued to drop stones on it because the bounces and thuds were amusing.

One time, outside a cabin in southeastern Alaska, I watched a raven repeatedly slide down the side of an ice-covered woodpile. A dozen times or so the bird spread its wings for balance, sat on what passes in a raven for its butt and careened to the ground, then picked itself up and did it again. For creatures of such tastes, the golden dome of an ancient church would be to a frozen woodpile more or less as Lake Placid is to a backyard sled run.

On the face of it, the relationship between crows and humans is very one-sided. We provide them with good food, residential areas and, apparently, recreational facilities. In return we sometimes kill them for sport and, less often, eat them. However, there is another aspect to the relationship, which tends to balance the equation. It is the nature of crows that they are among the best and easiest of wild animals for people to know and become attached to intimately. According to cuneiform notes left on clay tablets around 2500 B.C. and attributed to Gilgamesh, the legendary Mesopotamian leader, he had a companion raven. So did Eric the Red, the Viking explorer-hero. Legend has it that Eric and his men, rowing furiously, followed their bird across the North Atlantic to discover Greenland.

These ancients were probably not the first—and were certainly not the last—to live voluntarily with crows or ravens. Everyone I have known or heard about who has had such an experience with one of these birds seems to remember it vividly and consider it exceptionally gratifying. I, for one, have had—and been had by—crows for more than 50 years. There are a number of people and three dogs who have meant more to me than any of the crows, but I have liked all of the crows better than most dogs and some people.

Take, for example, the crow of this past summer. The bird was hatched in a box elder that stands about half a mile from the end of one of the runways of Washington's National Airport. He had apparently fallen from the nest a week or so before he could fly. An old friend of mine, a good one, was walking nearby and came upon this bird, and knowing that I was without crow, brought the bird to me in Pennsylvania.

Young crows are much easier to take care of than are most wildlife orphans. They do not cower or cringe but from the beginning are bold, noisy creatures with enormous appetites. This one arrived on a late May morning in a large cardboard carton. When the box was opened the bird immediately started squawking for food. Knowing he was coming, I had mixed up a batch of crow chow—hard-boiled eggs, canned dog food and oatmeal—which is as good as anything else for young birds and convenient to get into them. The way to feed a young crow is to put a gob of chow on a finger and shove it down the bird's more or less perpetually gaping gullet. The finger approximates the beak of a parent bird and triggers the swallowing reflex. While stuffing young birds in this fashion, my custom is to yell "Hello!" at them. If cackled a bit, this word has a crowish ring to it. In a day or two they recognize and respond to "Hello," which has therefore been the working name of most of the crows with whom I have lived.

Crow formula is easy to make, but young birds will ravenously consume—and thrive on—anything reasonably edible. A few weeks after Hello was up and about, the various people feeding him added up what they had given him in a two-hour period—seven fingers of basic crow mix, a dozen white grapes, two bits of peanut-butter sandwich, seven earthworms and parts of two crawfish fetched for him from the creek.

Another good thing about the management of crows: They do not need to be confined or restrained. I have known possessive people who, fearful of losing crows, have kept them throughout their lifetimes in cages or with clipped wings, which prevents them from flying. I consider this wrong for practical, rather than moral, reasons. The birds may adjust and make the best of their imprisonment or mutilation, but they are never fully crows. Therefore the people around them are not so fully rewarded and instructed as they might be.

During Hello's first few days with me and my family in Pennsylvania, an effort was made to keep him inside a workshop so that, while still flightless, he would not fall victim to a car or to dogs and cats, who were still learning about his protected status. In the shop he built up his strength by hopping and flapping around the room, picking up and throwing down nails, small screwdrivers and anything else he could lift. Although he would have had a less varied array of things to fiddle with in the wild, he would have been doing about the same had he been leading an ordinary crow's life.

The wing feathers of a young crow, which power flight, develop more rapidly than do those of the tail, which serves as a steering and braking device. Consequently, when the birds first leave the nest they can fly to nearby trees, but because of their still imperfect navigational equipment, they are not able or inclined to go very far. This is convenient for the parent birds, who continue to feed and instruct them for several weeks after the youngsters have left the nest. Birds in this stage of their development are aptly called branchers. (No systems, not even natural ones, are perfect. Young crows, by accident or because of overconfidence, regularly stray too far too fast, and end up—like Hello—on the ground, where they are vulnerable to predators.)

By the time he was six weeks old. Hello was an advanced brancher, active around the yard throughout the day. He was strong enough of wing to fly fairly well in a straight line or a bit upward, but still so short of tail as to be awkward and uneasy about landings. Because of his special circumstances, this created some problems. He would get himself into the upper branches of a 40-foot spruce, for example, then do what he would have done had he still been in the box elders near National Airport: open his mouth and squall pitifully, demanding that someone fly up with food. None of us did, of course, and driven by the desperate fear that starvation was imminent (a fear that grips young crows every hour or so), Hello would finally screw up his courage and attempt to come down to the shoulder or arm of a potential feeder. Sometimes he hit the mark, but just as often, because of his stubby tail, he did not. To avoid getting smacked in the face by a flailing crow and to keep him from crashing to the ground, it became the standard practice to stand alongside a clipped boxwood hedge when offering food to him. The bushes made a soft pad for his crash landings.

Though not generally fancy fliers, crows are very strong, enduring ones, as Hello became by midsummer. Even so, they are among the most terrestrial of birds, spending a great deal of time on the ground, where they do a lot of feeding, and where they are agile and seem much at ease. Even after he was a competent flier, Hello remained a willing and able walker. His home here was a 10-acre clearing on the side of an undeveloped, heavily wooded mountain. If Hello chose to follow somebody into the woods, he did so by flying from tree to tree, where the going was easier for him than on the brushy ground. In the clearing, however, he usually went on foot at a brisk waddle, which was good enough to keep pace with a person walking slowly. If the crow fell behind, he would take a few flaps to catch up or would land on a head or shoulder and ride along for a while. In part, this was a foraging tactic, a method for staying close to prime food sources, but some sociability may also have been involved. Among themselves, crows are habitually gregarious and we were, at the time. Hello's crows. Since we showed no inclination to join him in the air, he stayed with us on the ground.

I have a large German shepherd, Zenas, who seldom is more than a few paces away from me. Thus, Hello often walked with Zenas or—after they became well acquainted—rode on him. A crow and a hundred-pound dog strolling side by side are attention-getters; even more so is a dog walking along with an anxious expression on his face and a crow balanced between his ears. First thoughts tend to dwell on what an unnatural thing this is; second thoughts are quite the opposite. A crow riding on a dog's head, like the tip of an iceberg, only hints at the complex of natural elements upon which this uncommon relationship is based.

Zenas is a steady dog, a fine example of the kind of willing, servant-companion that 10,000 years or more of domestication has produced. One characteristic of a good dog is that he will put up with improbable fellow beasts—and even people—who he has been given to understand enjoy the protection of the human who has the dog's loyalty. Thus Zenas can be absolutely trusted with two house cats, though they sometimes tease and taunt him. There are also some barn cats around, working rodent hunters, who do not have household status or immunity, and the dog will chase and kill them as prey when he can. He tolerated the crow simply because it was another of my unfathomable idiosyncrasies. If I had somehow come by a companion bumblebee—an insect that Zenas especially despises—he would have probably done the same.

As for crows, they may become companionable, but this is a matter of individual adaptation, not genetic programming. Hello had come to accept us and, to an extent, Zenas, as odd crows (he had been imprinted, as behaviorists say). The dog, not being much good as a source of food, was considered an inferior but safe and sometimes entertaining crow in drag. Beyond using him as a mount, Hello pulled Zenas's tail and ears with his beak, fiddled with his collar and sometimes groomed him. (An English fancier of crows and dogs reports that when the three of them went walking, the crow, if permitted, would carry the spaniel's leash in its beak.)

Then there is the third party to this interspecies byplay, the person, who is the necessary catalyst. Though we have sometimes abused other creatures shamefully, for as long as there have been stories or reports of the human race, we have yearned to know what C.S. Lewis once called affectionately the "other bloods." The why of it is too large a question but the fact of it, our urge to have compassionate relationships with other animals, is as definitive a characteristic of our species as is our ability to do sums and build shopping centers. Crows are so bright and brassy that they often make you laugh and feel good. But they are also forever making you wonder—about them, about yourself and, if you keep at it, about the world in general.

After Hello began rounding up much of his own grub in the woods and fields and was no longer incessantly begging, he would sometimes fly down, sit alongside one of us and flatten out so that he could be gently rubbed. If someone obliged him and continued for 15 minutes or so, it induced in him what appeared to be a trancelike state—his eyes closed, his head lolled and his wings drooped. Among themselves, crows will often preen each other but so far as I know, nothing they can do approximates this sort of stroking. Yet there was something in the nature of Hello which enabled him to put this all together—that we had the proper hands and inclinations to produce a sensation he found agreeable.

When things were quiet, Hello would fly down to a convenient shoulder and make gurgling, clucking, even cooing sounds, which were quite different from the ones he used in conducting ordinary business. He kept at this longer and seemed more interested if the person responded by murmuring things like "Where have you been, Hello? That's a good crow. Say it again, Hello." Eventually, he began to experiment with, but never quite mastered, the magic sound of his own name. As noted, crows are mimics by nature. Even so, this voluntary, seemingly purposeful behavior is another wonder.

Crows are great baublists. They appear to covet and will certainly snatch and carry off bright, shiny objects, including, in my experience, spoons, spark plugs, coins, pencils, eyeglasses, rings and beads. Ethologists (students of animal behavior) say this apparent fondness for trinkets is simply an example of misguided foraging activity. Being omnivores, the argument goes, crows peck away at everything, testing for edibility. They also habitually create caches of excess food, as squirrels do with nuts. This theory is true and explanatory up to a point; but I happen to think it underestimates the learning ability of crows. All the crows I have known can clearly tell, after a few experiments, the difference between, say, a small pair of pliers and a crawfish. Yet they will go on messing with the inedible pliers.

Early on, Hello discovered that I always carry cigarettes in my shirt pocket. He thought much better of this habit than many people do these days. He would sit casually on my shoulder at first, as if he were there for some other purpose; then he would drive his beak into my pocket, spear a Kent III and fly off with it dangling from his beak. (Crows seldom carry objects in their talons.) As a defensive measure, I took to turning the cigarette package upside down. This worked until he became strong enough to grab and fly off with the whole pack, scattering Kents, which cost eight cents each, as he went. Then I began carrying the cigarettes in my pants, which somewhat curtailed the loss but taught him to pry into these pockets, where he was sometimes able to find and extract even better objects, on the order of car keys. While he still had his cigarette habit, though, he tried eating them, but soon found tobacco unappetizing. Thereafter, he simply played with them, tossing Kents in the air, catching them in his beak or talons, dropping them when he tired of the game. Perhaps, like a smoker, he was perpetually hopeful that the next cigarette would be tasty, but there is no evidence of that. What seems from observation more plausible (if anthropomorphic), is that the cigarettes and perhaps the act of getting them gave Hello satisfaction roughly related to that which we think of in ourselves as aesthetic.

One Sunday afternoon toward the end of July, when a good many people were coming and going, Hello did two bizarre but thought-provoking things that may or may not have been causally connected. Having frisked several visitors and been suitably admired, the crow lost interest in the party, which by then amounted to half a dozen people sitting around in lawn chairs talking. Hello flew off and was not seen for an hour or so. Later somebody who had gone for a walk came back and said we should look at the crow who was doing something weird in a patch of sand along a driveway. What he was doing was anting, which most crows occasionally do, but which Hello had not been seen doing before. Anting commences when a crow finds an anthill, squats down and wriggles around on it. Hello had apparently been at this for some time when we found him, for there were crawling, wounded and smashed ants all over his body.

Ants produce and will exude—when they are crushed, for example—formic acid, a pungent, acrid substance. One school of thought holds that crows roll in ants in order to smear themselves with this acid, which may act as a repellant to body parasites. Others speculate that the substance has a strong sensual, or even consciousness-altering, effect on the birds. Derek Goodwin, a leading British ornithologist and author of Crows of the World, the standard reference on the species, has written that when "anting at high intensity [crows] do so with great apparent concentration...and give the impression of being less alert than usual to other stimuli."

To put it another way, if a teenager showed up looking like Hello did as he ecstatically writhed in the hill of red ants next to the driveway, a parent would start delivering lectures about just saying no. (There is a natural historian named David Quammen, whom I know to be a fine essayist and who mutual acquaintances say is personally a good guy; I have never liked the man, however, because he has made a lot of clever, insightful comments about crows that I wish I had thought of first. About anting crows, Quammen has written in his book Natural Acts: "They revel in formication." He has also said—damn him!—that crows may be overqualified for their evolutionary station in life, and thus boredom accounts for some of their odd behavior.)

After using up the anthill, for all intents and purposes, Hello rejoined the social circle in the yard. However, he was so quiet and subdued that for a time no one paid any attention to what he commenced doing next—hopping around to drinking glasses, sipping the dregs of Fuzzy Navels, a refreshing orange juice and peach schnapps beverage popular in these parts. By the time he was noticed, the crow was wobbly and he'd had, as the expression goes, a snootful. Cut off from the sauce, the crow went unsteadily to the creek, splashed himself and drank a little pure water. Then he flew off and was not seen for the rest of the day. Nor did he appear in the morning, as had always been his custom. The unusual absence was a matter of concern and guilt because of our negligence in allowing a bird already stoned on ants to overindulge in Fuzzy Navels. But he showed up at about noon, apparently in good health and spirits.

The timing was probably coincidental, but soon after his fling Hello's routine began to change. During his first months he had always been close at hand during the day and had spent the nights in a spruce near the house. As the summer passed he began to disappear during the middle of the day, and the periods of absence expanded to the point where, by the middle of August, he was usually around the house for only a couple of hours each evening and morning. When he was with us he was social, chatty and affectionate, as always, but clearly our activities were no longer enough to hold his undivided attention. This pattern of behavior generally develops in free-ranging companion crows. Probably it is connected with a seasonal restlessness that affects all crows. As the summer wanes, the separate family groups merge and there is a shift of territory as the birds begin forming the large winter roosting flocks.

The breaking-away process is hard on those who know they are being left behind—like watching the last days of a youngster's childhood—but it tends to sharpen the appreciation of what remains of things as they once were. This was particularly true in the case of Hello, who began doing something that any crow can undoubtedly do but none I have known has done so memorably. After Hello began roaming, my wife and I got in the habit of drinking our morning coffee while sitting on a stone wall by the creek, calling him to join us. "Hello, Hello," we'd call to him, and at first he came in conventionally, banking through the trees. Then one morning we first saw (but could not immediately identify) him half a mile or so up in the air as a small black spot against the mountain. Maintaining his altitude, he swung directly overhead and then started down, turning tight spirals, making back flips and side slips, until he dropped lightly onto the wall beside us. Thereafter, about two mornings out of three until the last one, he made the same sort of dramatic entrance.

There was no practical need for these acrobatics or, for that matter, for him to join us in any fashion. Perhaps doing so was simply his pleasure. Certainly it was ours. The aerial display was in itself a marvelous thing, but there was something else. Having a crow—so much another blood—dive out of a high sky to sit down beside you creates a powerful feeling of connection, a sense that there can be and has been a natural mingling of naturally alien essences. Something of you is in the consciousness of a crow up in the air as something of him stays with you on the ground.

There are risks inherent in these relationships, not the least of which is the fear that they will end tragically. Various companion crows I have known, precisely because they were companions, have roosted in ill-chosen places and been eaten by raccoons; have been trapped in cars and smothered: have been so innocent as to make sitting targets for a mindless stranger with a .22. But as far as any of us knows, the end of Hello came about as it should have. He dropped down one morning and then went off with our son and granddaughter, who were taking a hike on the mountain. Hello stayed with them, flying from tree to tree, now and then riding on their shoulders until they returned to the house. He had a bite to eat and flew off again. None of us has seen him since.

For a few weeks after Hello left, I would shout "Hello!"—not so much hopefully but reflexively—at passing crows, none of which acknowledged me. As with a great summer vacation, though, the sense of loss, which is very strong immediately after a crow has gone, passes. What remains are memories and feelings of gratitude about what a fine time was had.