Friday, March 1, 2013

Why I Feed the Crows

     It began with good intentions, as so many obsessions do.
     Winter was on its way. The crow who came to the yard to pick at the cold ground beneath the hanging feeders wasn’t actually disabled. Though he dragged his left wing when he strode around, he could fly – to the fence, then to the maple, then to the line of trees along the river. 
     And he wasn’t alone. A pair of healthy crows kept him company, swooping down to join him in the search for fallen seed.
     But the poor crow’s plight worried me, despite the mild winter.  I bought bags of cracked corn and black sunflower seed and started tossing handfuls in the driveway. All three birds would converge to gobble up the meal, their black wings spread like widows’ shawls as they gracefully lighted upon the ground. They’d feast, fly away perhaps to cache their take, and return again until their ration was gone, chasing away the few mourning doves brazen enough to try to get in on the action.
     Feeding them became ritual, as vital as perking coffee and listening to Morning Edition on VPR.  The pleasure I found in watching the crows was something quite apart from witnessing the joyful twitting about of finches and sparrows. The smaller birds -- descending on the feeders sometimes by the dozen, perching on the iron posts awaiting their turn to nibble --entertained with their numbers and antics, their bright plumage and sweet songs.  Crows, however, are individuals to be reckoned with. They have gravitas.  They make their hulking presence known.
     But I got carried away. I became a little too zealous in my feeding. Leftover corn and seed remained in the drive too many nights. Returning home one evening, we saw several pairs of beady little eyeballs shining in the headlight’s beam.
     I didn’t take the first sighting seriously. I didn’t immediately suspend appropriations to the crows as a sane person surely would have.  Not long after, I saw several rats scampering about the driveway at high noon.
     The weeks that followed are still too painful to recount in detail. Suffice it to say that traps, poison, and prayer eventually prevailed.
     With no food around, though, the crows took off.  They’d launch the occasional reconnaissance, but wasted no time hanging about the yard.
     They didn’t need me, of course, not even in mid-winter. And they certainly don’t need me now that summer is here, and there are grubs galore, and road kill and refuse for the taking. But I need the crows.
     I’ve since planted a concrete column nearby to act as a platform feeder. Crows are cautious beings, and it took a while for them to decide that this was entirely acceptable.  In time they returned.
     Some of them have, that is. My crow with the hurt wing came back to the buffet, but soon left the scene. I’m convinced he’s visiting relatives in Kennebunk.  Other crows have taken his place. There’s one who knows I will deliver the goods if he caws long and loud outside the kitchen window. He’ll watch me from a branch just a few feet above my head, or retreat to the top of a skeletal cypress across the street, if he’s feeling vulnerable.
     A few young crows visit occasionally, and a matched pair with sleeker bodies and very, very long legs. They remind me of adolescent boys who’ve outgrown their pants.
      I’ve added a few offerings to their diet.  Peanuts, in and out of the shell, are a hit. They clean up on Kibbles and Bits, though they refuse to eat the pieces that look like skinny little twigs.  Of all the menu choices so far, the favorite is leftover pizza.
      Not content with one small square, the most frequent visitor will pile several on top of one another, forming a mozzarella triple decker; he grasps the sandwich in the vice-grip of his beak and flies off, perhaps to cache the bounty some distance away.
     In his fascinating new book, Gifts of the Crows, John Marzluff writes that crows, “ . . . cause us to briefly step away from our current technological, urban lifestyles to explore, understand, and appreciate nature. In so doing, they will continue to stir our souls and expand our minds.”
     I know when I feed the crows, I am in part seeking connection to a world that is largely lost.  Much as I enjoy the parade of the comely and cute in the bird world – the cherry bomb cardinal and his subtler mate, the cavalcade of dandy gold finches, the occasional red-breasted grosbeak – some ancient and mysterious aura seems to ride upon the wings of crows.
     For a few hypnotic moments, I’m transported to another time entirely, when we wore cloaks against the cold and built fires to keep the demons of the night at bay, when the wind in the trees was familiar music, and the phases of the moon vital knowledge.  Watching them from the safety and warmth of a modern kitchen sets my hungry imagination free.
     As I write this, a disgruntled grackle takes umbrage as one crow calmly eats his fill at the platform. From a droopy pine across the drive, the grackles scolds at length, then dive bombs at the monstrous bird’s long tail again and again. The crow merely shifts on his feet throughout the barrage, only once snapping back at the pest. Eventually, he stretches his wings lazily and flies off.
     The grackle immediately pursues, as if to brag to feathered friends watching from the sidelines, “Oh, yeah! I showed him!”
     For a few handfuls of corn and seed and kibble, I get a front row seat.

This column first appeared in The North Star Monthly in July 2012.  Woodcut, circa 1880 Yuki Yanagi Ni Karasu, Library of Congress.



  1. They're so amazing. Of course I want to say "human," but how arrogant or species-ist or tautological is that? Thanks for sharing these reflections. Your empathy makes your observations so absorbing and vivid.

  2. Oh, Britton! Thank you for this! Lots of research being done now that shows how intelligent crows are, how they use tools, recognize faces . . . Thank you for your thoughts here. We must talk wolves soon, right? Miss you -- lovely of you to pop on here.

  3. I completely understand. :-) Beautifully written.