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Watching crows watching us

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I went to Missoula's Northside recently to visit Brian Donahue, a construction worker originally from central Illinois, to hear about the celebrated crow-hunting season back where he comes from. As one thing led to another, he told me about the time he found a dead crow in his backyard in Missoula and how, as he was trying to dispose of it, other crows circled him and dove for his head. He had to summon his roommate home to fend them off long enough for him to scoop the dead bird into a garbage bag, he said.

"But why were they attacking you?" I asked.

"Well, I shoot them off my front porch with an air rifle," he said.

The words didn't compute. What good is a rifle that shoots air? My knowledge of weapons is not vast. "What's an air rifle?" I asked, and then, in the same breath, "Why do you shoot crows?"

Donahue was eager to explain the way his gun worked and went into another room to show it to me. It looked like a normal rifle, with a scope attached that reminded me a little of Super Soaker water guns. "It's like a BB gun, basically," he explained. Instead of gunpowder, the pellets are expended with a whoosh of air. At close enough range, it packs enough power to take out a 1.5 lb. bird.

"But why do you shoot crows?" I asked again.

He looked at me as though the answer were in the question. "I just hate them," he said.

Tattletales

Crows and humans have some history. Depending on the time and place, we've regarded them both as soothsayers and as malevolent, dirty animals—or worse. The Norse god Odin, for instance, had two ravens, Thought and Memory, that travelled the world collecting intelligence for him. They were talented animals. Also, tattletales. When Noah sent a bird out from his ark to scout for land after the flood, he sent a raven the first time—but black birds do what they want and the raven never returned, so Noah had to contract a second mission, this time with the more virtuous dove. As Christ suffered on Calvary, crows were said to have croaked above the dead and dying, but what does that mean? Whose side were they on?

These black birds seem to have an ancient amorality.

They evolved from dinosaurs, like all birds; you can see it in their feet and the shapes of their bones. A feather isn't anything more than a modified scale. Crows, like ravens, are in the corvid family, along with their cousins, jackdaws, rooks, bluejays and magpies. Like humans, crows are warm-blooded, omnivorous scavengers. Technically, corvids are all songbirds, but more in the tradition of Tom Waits than Al Green. Crows can crudely mimic human speech or the dripping of a faucet.

These birds have come to depend on our towns and cities. It's rare to find crows in the wild, or, for that mater, more than a few miles from human establishments. In Missoula, they have more than enough food to scavenge, plus green lawns to pull worms from, roadkill to eat and prime nesting real estate in neighborhoods and on the University of Montana campus. No one's counted the crows in Missoula, but given their numbers in similar cities, there are likely tens of thousands here.

And here's something: It's not illegal for Brian Donahue to shoot crows off his front porch. Nearly all birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, including their nests, feathers and eggs, but crows are a weird exception. According to federal guidelines, "Individuals may kill crows without a hunting license or permit when [crows] are found committing, or about to commit, depredations on agricultural crops, or when concentrated in such numbers and manner as to constitute a health hazard or other nuisance."

How many crows constitutes a nuisance?

Picture a crow about to commit a depredation: Note the look in her shiny black eye.

There are practical reasons to regard crows as pests. A farmer worried about his crops has grounds to erect a scarecrow or take them down with a shotgun—but what about the rest of us? What is it about crows we find so unnerving?

Vague ideas that they spread diseases are mostly the stuff of overprotective mothers. Is it something about their blackness? Workers at animal shelters will sometimes tell you that black dogs are the hardest to get adopted. Why would we disdain black animals? Perhaps for reasons as witless as that darkness is unknowable and frightening; so too, therefore, are black things. During the Black Plague, in the 14th century, crows were seen feasting on human bodies. For all their intelligence, they've learned nothing about reverence—and for that, we blame them. Crows don't kill humans. Still, we call a group of crows a "murder." (Ravens fare a little better. Three or more are merely an "unkindness.")

The speaker of Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven" calls his midnight visitor a "grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore." At the start, we find the narrator alone and listless, pining for a woman, Lenore, who is forever lost to him. The raven raps on the door like a person and steps inside. The bird's behavior is maddening because it's so subtle and inexplicable. "Never flitting," it does nothing but sit, stare and repeat the word "Nevermore." Maybe it means that Lenore will never return. It could be deeper, that there's no escape from the clinging, unknowable dissatisfaction that lives in the hearts of men. Or it could truly mean nothing. In any case, the agony comes from the raven's merciless taunting, that he knows something we don't. And he's not going to tell us.

Perhaps crows appear smug because they're so successful. The key to their success is their resourcefulness, adaptability—in short, their intelligence. Humans have long-held antagonistic relationships with such persistent creatures. We hate rats, pigeons ("rats with wings"), Canada geese, roaches. We get bored of seeing the same few animals. Floating down the Clark Fork River on a recent Sunday, my friends and I saw a bald eagle perched in a tree along the riverbank and were awed and humbled. We saw what may have been the same bird the following Wednesday, and half-mocking, half-serious, we rolled our eyes and said, "God, a bald eagle again. Boring!"

Consider the panda, a stubbornly unsuccessful animal—more giant raccoon than bear. Pandas seem to hate sex and refuse to eat anything but bamboo. Yet we root for pandas and spend millions of dollars yearly on spirited campaigns to keep them breeding. Meanwhile, crows and other corvids are wildly successful, present on just about every continent in record numbers every year, and we resent them. It seems unfair. We crave the rationed symmetry of zoos and arks. Too many of one kind of animal means ecological imbalance. It makes us feel as though we've done something wrong. It makes us think the crows are winning.

Crows have thrived by borrowing many of our same strategies. They roost on our lampposts and fences and largely eat what we throw away. It could be that they're a little too close for comfort.

Think back to the anti-drug commercial in which the mustached father bursts into his son's room, demanding to know where his son learned that drugs were an effective way to manage pain and boredom, and the son shouts back, "I learned it from you, Dad!" Watching crows fighting one another for the discarded french fries we were too stuffed to finish reminds us of something we don't like about ourselves, and we can't help but blame them for it.

Our relationship with crows wouldn't be so complicated if they weren't so damn smart. Mosquitos swarm in the millions, you kill them with a bloody, satisfying smack and you forget about them. But there's something about crows that makes them impossible to ignore: The gears in their heads keep turning.

We're not that cool.

Erick Greene is a wildlife biologist and has been a professor at the University of Montana for the last 20 years. As part of his current research, Greene has been analyzing crow calls in the wild. For this, he works along the Kim Williams Trail with a falconer. The falconer lets loose predatory birds, mostly hawks, who fly through the woods and return to the falconer's gloved hand. Greene and his associates then record and analyze the crows' alarm calls and how they're heard and interpreted by the surrounding wildlife. The calls can be very specific. Crows have different sounds for "hawk flying," "hawk sitting," etc., which is alarmingly like syntax. When a predatory bird flies by and a crow detects it, what follows is something Greene describes as a "wave of information" through the forest. Within seconds, all the animals—the chickadees, the squirrels, the rabbits, the deer—know a predator is coming and appropriately panic.

Greene's work illustrates another aspect of crow intelligence, which is their ability to recognize and remember human faces. It only takes one or two trials before crows in the area come to recognize the falconer and identify him as an enemy. Inelegant but true: Scientists solve the problem with disguises.

Not only do crows recognize the experimenters who have taunted them, they tell all of their friends. In 2006, researcher John Marzluff and his team began an experiment on the University of Washington campus in Seattle. Wearing rubber masks, the team banded seven crows—a brief, humiliating experience, but one that's ultimately harmless. One of the human experimenters, wearing a caveman mask, was antagonistic to the birds, while another, wearing a Dick Cheney mask, behaved neutrally. When experimenters walked through the campus again wearing the masks, the crows reacted aggressively toward anyone wearing the caveman mask—and not just the crows that were banded, but dozens of crows throughout the campus. The experiment demonstrates not only the crows' ability to recognize our faces, but also that they were able to somehow describe the caveman mask to other birds in the area. And they remembered the villain up to six months later.

Dustin Gliko, who works at the Albertson's supermarket on East Broadway, has had ominous encounters with crows. One day, on a cigarette break, Gliko spotted a lonely crow in the parking lot, he says, and fed him some leftover popcorn chicken. It became a standing date, and when Gliko was without popcorn chicken, the crow harassed him. Now, Gliko isn't like Brian Donahue. He likes crows; he's always noticed their odd behavior and admired them. So he knew about the two crows that hang around outside his girlfriend's house. They eat from a garbage can around the corner and roost on the fence.

One night, Gliko rode his bike home from the Albertson's to his girlfriend's place, about a mile north. Inside, he looked out her window and—here's a third crow, looking him right in the face and cawing. Did the crow follow him home?

"Dustin, Dustin," quoth the third bird. "Popcorn chicken. Popcorn chicken."

The crows' ability to remember faces and caw distinctively at one another is a matter of survival. A baby crow isn't born knowing to fear moving cars or great horned owls. Their parents have to tell them. One might almost call it a cultural tradition. They use facial recognition to differentiate not only humans, but also one another. Crows can hold up to 50 distinct relationships in their heads at once. They're likely telling each other apart by physical characteristics, body language and voice. In this way, they seem to have a lot more in common with primates, elephants and dolphins than with most other birds.

So, crows have language and the primitive makings of a society. As humans, we're starting to run out of things that make us special. Nobody thinks that using tools is exclusive to humans anymore; tool use can be found among all those aforementioned smart animals, as well as among otters and octopuses. There are even species of fish that use rocks as anvils to crack shells.

We're really not that cool.

A crow's use of tools is particularly inventive. Independent of Archimedes's discovery of displacement as a way of measuring volume in the bathtub, there's the story about a crow filling a pitcher of water with stones in order to raise the level and get a sip. They know how to pull up a fisherman's line with their talons, eat the fish and, frighteningly, replace the hook.

Where food is plentiful and natural predators are scarce, some crows are perhaps getting a little too comfortable. Like squirrels, they keep caches of food in various places, so abundance isn't wasted. We imagine wild animals living a hard-knock life of scarcity, braving the elements and fighting tooth and nail for survival. But watch a crow waddle down the street without an agenda or swoop down from the air to land in a puddle. It can almost start to look like leisure. Crows in Russia have been videotaped sliding down wintry slopes with cardboard, carrying the cardboard back up to the top of the hill and then sliding down again. Crows have invented sledding!

Like so many Missoulians, they seem to be underemployed.

Where do the children go?

Bob Wire, the Missoula humorist, once wrote, apropos of not much, "How come nobody's ever seen a baby crow?"

This struck me as profound. I told everybody about the sentence and went looking for exceptions.

Of course, it's not true that no one has ever seen a baby crow. But I'd never seen one, and I really wanted to. And then, one recent Saturday, when my head hurt and I'd fallen asleep on the porch under the blistering sun, my friend Mackenzie Cole called and said, "I found a baby crow. Do you want to come see a baby crow?"

I was on the south side, off Brooks Avenue, and the baby crow was near the north end of the UM campus. I'd have to ride my bike quickly to get there, but this was my big chance to see a baby crow and I wasn't going to miss it.

Cole told me to be quiet. I set my bike in the grass and tiptoed over to where he was crouched over the sidewalk. Three feet in front of him was a crow, and a few feet farther, a squirrel, harassing the crow about who knows what.

"It's just a crow," I said.

"It's a baby," Cole said. He pointed out the smaller beak and the sort of fluffy feathers. Erick Greene told me later that you can tell a baby crow by the pink skin at the corners of their mouths, called "the gape." Compared to weathered, molting parents, Greene says, the babies have "good-looking clothes on."

Baby crows fledge the nest after about a month, and they hop to the ground nearly full-sized. That's why everybody thinks they've never seen a baby crow. You probably have. If you've ever seen crow road kill, it was probably a fledgling. The adults are too smart.

This fledgeling was just inches from us. It seemed helpless and lost. Cole shooed the pestering squirrel away. The crow's parents must have abandoned him, he said. "There were two babies last night. Do you want to see the second one?"

He took me around to his friend's backyard and showed me a mass of black feathers, a few bones licked clean and two dismembered feet curled up in a last embrace with the air. A cat must have gotten it. This was my second time seeing a young crow and it was even more unsatisfying than the first.

Cole asked if I wanted one of the crow's feet. He plucked them from the carnage and started tenderly cleaning them. I said I didn't.

Meanwhile, the first young crow stood in the center of the sidewalk, cawing. I don't know how to describe how it felt. It hurts to think about now. "Why doesn't his mother come?" I asked Cole.

"I don't know," he said. "They're bad parents." He looked up and down 6th Street. "This one probably won't make it through the night either."

The young crow cawed and cawed and cawed. We heard an adult, calling back in the distance. "Maybe that's its mother," I said.

"I think so," Cole said.

"Maybe it's not coming around because we're here. Maybe we should leave it."

And we did. We rode our bikes downtown, but Cole couldn't stop thinking about that crow. He trains dogs and horses for a living and he writes poetry. I've never met anyone who understands or cares for animals better than he. "Getting a crow at that age is the perfect time to train them and raise them as pets," he said.

Interesting fact: While it's legal to shoot a crow in Montana, it's illegal to raise a wild bird yourself unless you're a licensed bird handler.

I try not to be sentimental. Birds come, and then they go. In a nest of eggs, only half are likely to make it into adulthood. I told Cole about as much.

"Yeah," he said. "But I also think that sometimes you come across an animal for a reason."

It was a hot, sticky day that got away from us. Cole went rock climbing and I had writing to do. We never went back to check on the young crow.

Nature takes care of itself. It's got nothing to do with us. Still, we both wonder.

The world in its mouth

In some Native American cultures, black is the color of creation and the crow epitomizes the cycle of life and death. Ravens are magicians and shapeshifters. In this way, they're closely aligned with coyotes, which are also known as tricksters and wise beings both.

Earlier this year, I was with some friends about an hour outside of Missoula when a coyote jumped out from the woods and ran in front of our car. I'd never seen a coyote so close before, and it thrilled me. To anyone who would listen, I wouldn't shut up about that coyote I'd seen. The memory changed with so much retelling. Soon the coyote had something in its mouth.

The next day, I told a girl at a party about what had happened. Her eyes got wide and she gasped. "It's really bad luck to have a coyote run in front of your car." Two coyotes once leaped in front of her car just moments before a terrible accident, she said. She spoke with a frightening conviction.

"What if the coyote had a crow in its mouth?" I asked. Because suddenly, I pulled out the memory and there it was, black and dead in the coyote's jaws. I don't know if the coyote actually had a crow in its mouth or not. It seemed as though the crows were rearranging the thoughts in my head.

The girl and I decided that if there was in fact a crow in the coyote's mouth, two wrongs made a right, canceling out the bad omen.

Nothing particularly bad has happened to me since the beginning of the summer. Then again, nothing good has happened, either.

Sorrow, joy, marriage

"Have you heard the thing about crows following you home?" Dustin Gliko asked me. "One crow is supposed to mean sorrow." He sort of shrugged this off. He couldn't remember what two crows meant. (I looked it up later: It means joy.) "And three crows means marriage." Gliko talked about his girlfriend with a shy smile. I hoped three crows outside her window meant they're going to get married.

The crows of Missoula are tuned into our movements, waiting for us to attack, get married or just drop a Dorito on the sidewalk. The more I noticed them, the more I couldn't shake the feeling that the crows of Missoula were wielding their indifference over me like a sword.

It was time to get my head out of the clouds, so I went to get a more definitive answer to what Brian Donahue had against crows. On a recent late morning, I found him in his front yard, scanning the lawn with a metal detector. "I lost a screw to a machine," he explained.

"Why do you hate crows so much?" I asked yet again.

"Because they attack me!" he said. "I've been attacked by crows on multiple occasions."

"Did they start attacking you before or after you started shooting them?"

"Probably after," he said. "But like I said, crow hunting season is a big thing in Illinois. Let me think, what are some other reasons I hate crows. ... They will destroy a corn field."

Throughout our conversation, it became more and more clear that Donahue doesn't really hate crows. "I just like shooting birds," he said with a charming, Midwest contrition. His favorite birds to hunt are ducks and doves.

"Why doves?" I cried.

"They taste the best!"

"Oh, okay." I hadn't known people ate doves.

"I've eaten crow, too," he said. Crows are one of the Bible's many forbidden foods, but they're not as bad as people say, he told me. "They're pretty oily."

Edgar Allan Poe's protagonist took a raven waddling through his front door as a confrontation with his soul. That's pretty goth. Poe and I have this in common: Our imaginations get the better of us. At the site of smart black birds, we let billow inside of us a terrifying and unspecified dread.

Donahue just likes to shoot moving targets. The same way a crow remembers his face, Donahue remembers the crows messing with his family's crops back in Illinois and takes revenge.

"How many crows have you gotten off of your front porch?" I asked him.

He smiled and signed "zero" with his fingers. "The scope on my air rifle isn't sighted in right," he said. "I'm missing. But once I sight my scope right, they're done for."

Crows' feet

I thought Mackenzie Cole had left the crow's talons with the corpse on the day we met the stranded youngster, but I was mistaken. A couple of weeks after our encounter with the fledglings, he texted me: "Do you want one of those crow's feet?"

This time, I said yes.

He met me at the café in Hastings and set the foot down on the table next to my coffee. It was just as I remembered, black and scaled like a dinosaur, with powerful-looking claws. The base of the foot met a tuft of black feathers and white bone.

"What did you do to clean it off?"

"Not much," he said.

"It creeps me out a little."

"It makes me sad," he said.

When you hold a crow's foot in your hand, you can see its black talons ripping through a squirrel's heart on the side of the road. You think that that's the way the world works, and it's fine, and what's the use of wanting to change it? But when you turn the foot around, underneath the curled talons are soft, black pads to stand on, just like a dog's.

Out in the parking lot, a murder awaits. Or is it an unkindness? They flit back and forth overhead, among the telephone wires. They recognize your face and they're talking about you.

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