Lost caws

Watching crows watching us



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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.

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