By Tobey Hiller
For some time—years, actually—I’ve been feeding a pair of crows on my backyard fence. Well, not the same pair. This seems to be a generational thing, with new crow companions replacing the old.
My reading has suggested to me that crow “culture” involves teaching the young ones about good places to feed as well as friendly and unfriendly neighborhood humans. Like us, they pass things along. So I figure I’ve got some kind of name in the local Crow nation archives. I’ve watched lots of corvid dramas and developed distinct relationships with these black and—to my mind, beautiful know-it-alls of the avian tribe. I know that many people—birders included so far as I can tell—consider crows noisome pests. But once you start watching corvids, it’s hard not to become fascinated. And, luckily, I don’t have a whole conclave settling in the oaks beyond the fence and carrying on in their gravel-tongued cacophony (pun intended) from 4:00 am. on (which has happened to my neighbor down the way). Just a twosome always, apparently protecting their territory. And these avian neighbors don’t seem to discourage the songbirds that visit our feeders just a few feet away (the crows can’t get into the feeders and have quit trying).
Over the years, I’ve read a lot about corvid and avian intelligence. I’m particularly fascinated by the animals that inhabit marginal common territories with us, come into our gardens, observe and adapt to our ways. Animals claiming territories, like us. And then there are the discoveries and pleasures of the playfulness, inventiveness and humor that crows and other animals exhibit. Their ways and means. I’ve watched a lot of videos of crows and ravens sliding down windshields in snow, ambushing dogs and ducks from behind, tweaking their tails, etc. We’re all animals together, and watching crows is instructive in thinking about our own species.
They’ve certainly got my number now, these crows. I have a large water dish I refresh daily for them, and I put out food, currently bread crusts with peanut butter, sometimes nuts, cut-up figs, a few blueberries. They fly in about breakfast time and hang around, bright eyes on my figure behind the sliding glass door. Ok, what about breakfast, then? Can’t you see I’m waiting? Supposedly omnivorous, these familiars are rather picky, and make their preferences known. Though grubs and dead mice—or maggots, which I understand are corvid favorites, are a bit outside the menu I want to provide, the crows are quite handy at teaching me their favorites. For a little while I put out a few raspberries every once in a while. They dried out in the sun, ignored by Mr. Crow and his culinary snob of a companion. And for some time I was putting out chunks of string cheese until I discovered birds are lactose-intolerant. Red alert! (Of course they loved the cheese.) Here’s what happened then: (from my CROW DIARY, which I post on my FB page everyone in a while):
So this morning, in light of my discoveries about cheese and crows, I put out bread-crusts with peanut-butter (scarfed up immediately by the crow pair) AND I put out some banana-bits with a smear of peanut-butter, in an attempt to fool Friend Crows into eating some fruit (supposedly good for them) by the use of color mimicking (white cheese, white banana). But no! They ate the peanut-butter off the banana and left the banana-bits untouched. Much cleaning up of beaks in the water basin. Soon after, the resident squirrel arrived, ate the banana and licked up all the p.b. remains! As he was bouncing along the fence after this unexpected bonanza, Crow flew in and dive-bombed him. Into a tree he went. These two have a very argumentative relationship, but each persists in frequent visits to this local hot spot of interest. (Now, just as an observation, squirrels are supposed to eat mainly nuts, but this guy (gal?) seems to be pretty good at expanding his culinary repertoire, too. Hmmm.)
I’ve also noticed, that as I watch them carefully, they watch me just as closely, learning my habits and paying attention to the variations of my behavior. Here’s another Crow Diary entry, on the subject of Crow’s astute research abilities:
They seem to have no trouble recognizing me, no matter whether my hair is all pulled back, I’m wearing a hat, different clothes, glasses or not, etc. Don’t know if that’s a matter of my familiar motions and behavior, or their general body movement sense, or what. Quite interesting. One of them, the more adventuresome of the two, has started to get pretty close to me, and make little responsive movements (cocking the head, moving closer, flying down to the arm of a deck chair etc.) when I say “hi, bud” or other little greetings. He knows that I bring out the food on a small green plate and set it down somewhere while I refresh the water, and he’s started to go over to the plate, wherever it is. Now I have to leave the plate inside while I fix the water, so he won’t tip it over or eat it all before his companion, who’s shyer, flies in. These days he actually sidles up within a foot or two of me as I put the food out on either side of the water-dish (trying to make sure each of the two has a side to go to), and a few days ago I put a nut down and waited without moving. The nut was about six inches from me. Very carefully, bit by bit, Mr. Crow sidestepped closer, eye on me, and then, in one fell swoop, grabbed the nut and flew off. This same crow, I believe, flew up to the sliding glass door one day, before I had put out food, and tapped on it. Hello, I’m here! Room service: where are you?!
One of the things that interests me about crows and other members of the corvid family is their likeness to us. They’re among the smartest birds, along with parrots. They’re social, and they fill every niche, adapting so well that they can drive out other birds. They flock together to protect their own, driving off hawks and other predators. They mate for life and raise fledglings together, but seem to have “friends with benefits,” and they mourn dead mates. Young crows take a long time to grow up, sticking around their families like our teenagers, trying to get mom and pop to keep feeding them. They’re tribal and territorial, and can be war-like and ruthless. They’re inventive (they can use cars as nutcrackers, for instance) and teach their young new tricks. Sound something like us? Stories and myths about crows and ravens exist in the lore of many first nations; they seem to have figured prominently as companion animals and spirits in Native American culture, for instance, and then of course there’s Edgar Allen Poe.
There’s a lot to be learned watching Friend Crow, and then there’s just the pleasure of their blue-black eloquence, their zoom-in landings and sailor struts, their clever caching behavior, their elegant silhouettes.
About Tobey: Tobey Hiller is a writer and poet, author of three books of poetry, one novel and numerous poems and prose in magazines and journals. She has a new book of poems called Crow Mind that was published by Finishing Line Press on June 5th. You may look at it or order it here: https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/crow-mind-by-tobey-hiller/