The Crafty Crow
by Colin Campbell
Last February I sat reading in my back yard on a Sunday afternoon, catching some winter sun, and saw a crow in action. The orange feline thug co-resident at my house brought a dead lizard to my feet for admiration. I told him he was a fine cat and he bashed the lizard around for a while, re-enacting the chase for me, no doubt. Eventually he stopped and lay sprawling, dozing with one proprietary paw resting on the lizard. Suddenly a crow plummeted from the tree, snatched the lizard in its beak, and flapped blackly into the sky. The cat gave short chase, then retired under the house in spitting and snarling confusion.
The same crow came back later. I'm sure it was the same crow. It sat on a low branch and cawed at the cat every time it caught sight of him for the rest of the afternoon. The cat seemed embarrassed. But it's no disgrace to be outwitted by a crow: "If men wore feathers and wings," Henry Ward Beecher-once said, "a very few of them would be clever enough to be crows."
There's nothing more familiar than crows. From Maine to Mexico, from China to India, to Africa-and the Phillipines, crows practice their crafty depredations, increasing in numbers despite Man's disruptions,of the ecology. Or, rather, because of Man's disruptions: crows are clever enough to adapt just as fast as Man builds new habitats. Superbly generalized, with all of the most practical features of birds and few of the liabilities, t hey have keen perception, a low sense of humor, and a reluctance to earn an honest living.
Throughout history men have looked at crows with wonder and awe and credited them with powers beyond the ordinary. The Romans saw omens in their flights; Aristotle described their uncanny wars with owls. (Crows spread through Greece along with civilization; once the country was deforested, Greece collapsed, but the crows had easy living.) In Norse mythology the crow was sacred to the supreme god Odin. His two big black birds, Thought and Memory, flew about the world by day and at evening returned to their master's shoulders to tell him all that was going on. But the reputation of the crow has been on a long decline ever since Henry the Eighth passed an act requiring all landowners to destroy crows on sight. Parishes containing more than ten households had to provide nets and other devices for catching the adults; annual meetings were held to discover new methods of destroying the young in their nests. Queen Elizabeth I added a provision for bounties to be paid on delivery of crow carcasses.
There was a reason for this genocide: crows pull up seedling crops and, when roosting, can do major damage to fruits and grains. They've been known to mob and kill newborn lambs and calves, pecking incessantly while the mother is still giving birth. And.their tendency to gather at battlefields.in advance of the battle, and to caw with anticipatory relish as the men march toward the fight, has made them unpopular, too: crows love to eat eyeballs.
Crows act as individuals, as in stealing lizards, but their great achievement is their language, which allows them to work closely with each other at the expense of whatever suckers are available. They may be bird-brains, but they are not dumb. Likemost songbirds, they have seven muscles in their version of a larynx, the syrinx; they can make some very complex sounds. Twelve basic calls make up the crow "alphabet". Crows even seem to have personal names in their language: the "rattling call". used when approaching the nest, is different for every crow and seems to be an identification, a password.
Until recently all bird calls were considered to be the product of inborn genetic programming, because some birds learn their own specie's song even if they never hear it. Spectrographic evidence seemed to bear this out. The spectrograph makes a visual record of bird song, and is invaluable in analyzing exactly what birds are saying because the tonal quality of their song is more than a matter of fundamentals and harmonics, pure notes and noises; the notes follow in such rapid succession that what we hear is not the sequence of individual notes but a summation of them. Crow calls,slowed down and transferred to graph.paper, seemed identical from bird to bird. But the old methods of analysis were tedious; three seconds of bird song might take months to chart and study. Today computers process the raw data almost ,instantly; scientists are finding subtle variations in the calls that once seemed so stereotyped. Crows have a wide vocabulary, and nobody knows any longer exactly how wide.
It gets the job done, however wide it is. I was at a friend's house watching football one afternoon and dogs and children romped indoors because the day was blustery and chill. Kip, a large Golden Retriever, made a nuisance of himself begging for food and dropping tennis balls in my lap. Finally somebody gave him a chicken leg and booted him out. I sat by the window and watched him settle down for a good chew. But a crow landed on the roof of the garage, flapped its wings and stalked to the edge. It stared down at Kip for a while, then flew to the telephone pole calling, "Caa-AH! Caa-AH!"
Within minutes two other crows showed up, skidding sideways in the wind. "AHA! AHA!" they said. The three of them discussed the situation at length, then went into what looked to me like the Bowery Boys' "Routine Seven." Crows A and B landed in front of Kip, who leaped to his feet with bone in teeth. The crows discussed the weather and the fine-looking bone and tried to engage Kip in the discussion; dimly, Kip sensed Something Was Up, dropped the bone, and planted a paw firmly on top of it. (Kip is a good enough retriever, but he is a rotten giver-backer.) The two crows flew into his face and he growled and snapped at them, standing his ground. Then crow C, who had been waiting in the bushes, strolled up unseen behind him and.delivered one precisely-placed peck. Kip whirled around, yelping, crow A snatched the bone, and the three crows flapped away to a tall palm to divvy their prize. The dog was forlorn; the crows came back several times yelling "HAW! HAW!"
Watch the disdainful strut of a crow at lunchtime in the park. As it heads across the lawn toward an abandoned chunk of sandwich, you see the gait of the dinosaurs.
The two-legged stalking dinosaurs invented warm blood long before the mammals thought of it. The bipedal stance freed the front limbs for specialization; birds are one result of that line of evolution. One branch of the line--sauronithoides--had stereo vision, manipulative fingers, and a large brain. Possibly it could have evolved into intelligence, but it died along with the rest of the dinosaurs in the great dieoff of 65 million years ago. The species that survived were either small, like lizards and insects; hairy, like the shrewlike mammals; or feathered, like birds. About ten million years after the dinosaurs passed, the order of Passerines, or perching birds, arose. Today nearly two-thirds of the world's birds are passerines; while such ancient specialized types as ostriches, pelicans, and cranes are on their way out,,the perching birds are still ascendent. And that relative newcomer, Coryus Brachyrhynchos, is today acknowledged to be the top of the family tree. Its cousins are the ravens and jays, but those birds have never attained the social advantages the crow enjoys because of its intelligence and ability to communicate.
While a newly-hatched chicken can feed itself within hours and can function virtually on its own within a-day, a crow is born naked and helpless. It demands nearly ceaseless feeding for a week. Crow parents make hundreds of trips each day to find enough food for their four or five babies, and only meat will do: insects preferred. Unlike most other birds, crows recognize their own young and so avoid the, common birdbrain mistake of feeding any gaping mouth that comes into view.
Crow babies enjoy an extended childhood, just as humans do. Like human babies, they use this time to learn. By the time a crow is grown, it can cope with just about any situation that turns up, and probably will end up making a profit on the deal. They are curious, which grown chickens are not, and a little deviation from the norm is intensely interesting to them. Once a crow learns that certain rare events are linked with food it will never forget, and the advanced crow language lets one bird pass on the information to another.
Crows are always up early. Before people are awake and stirring up trouble, crows are out in the fields using their beaks, turning over stones for grubs, poking down into brush for beetles, digging through loose soil for mealworms. Crows will eat almost anything, but they prefer animal food: insects, baby birds, eggs, mice-- whatever they can get their beaks on. Young birds require animal food because they are growing at an explosive rate, but full-grown crows can (and do) eat carrion, seeds, corn, grains, and wild or cultivated fruit as well. In nesting time, in spring and early summer, the pickings are good and the baby crows thrive; when days-are short in winter, the crows eat whatever they can find or move on to the next county. They're migratory birds, but their migrations seem more an intelligent decision than a mindless flocking; if the local food supply remains adequate, they won't migrate at all.
Sometimes that can get to be a problem for the suffering humans in the neighborhood. One summer our neighbor went on vacation for a month and nobody picked the cherry tree in his back yard when it came ripe. The neighbor had sprayed, pruned and pampered it for one week in a fit of enthusiasm in May., and it produced mightily. The fruit lay in heaps on the ground. After a couple of weeks the smell was high and crows started hanging out. They hopped around on the moldy pile, stopping with cocked head to stare at certain spots, then plunging their beaks under the surface.
They were noisier than I'd ever heard crows be before.They filled the branches of the tree, arguing and debating with branchmates from dawn till dusk. They flew like amateurs, crashing into each other and the tree trunk and the nearby garage. They had the most trouble when they.tried to fly up and away from the cherry pile. It was a crow bar, and they were all drunk as skunks and twice as obnoxious.
Those sneering and squabbling crows plagued our every waking moment. They tricked bright playthings from children and sent them sobbing into the house, befouled every car parked under a tree, ruined prized gardens, and kept everybody's nerves on edge for three days. The day the neighbor returned, the whole neighborhood came out and helped shovel dirt over the cherry pile.
This was nothing compared to the swarms of the Plains States earlier in the century. Before Columbus, the endless grassy prairies had neither nestworthy tall trees nor an adequate food supply for crows; the pioneers supplied both. Roosts of literally hundreds of thousands of crows arrived at harvest time to feast on fields of grain, and I can sympathize with the farmers of the day, who were inspired to invention by these attacks.
The way todiscourage crows from flocking in your favorite tree is simple: take your garbage can and fill it three inches deep with ball bearings, then put in a layer of dynamite four inches deep. Add another three inches of ball bearings, then another four inches of dynamite, etc, until the can is full. Hook all the detonator caps to one electrical lead, then hang the whole damned can up in the tree. Retire to a prudent distance, wait until all the crows gather, then push the plunger. Works every time.
Today crows are protected by Federal laws, since they are technically migratory songbirds, and I'm sure they laugh themselves to sleep about that at night. But they still have some natural enemies, chief among them the Owl. When crows spot a day-sleeping owl, a great hurrah arises, audible for miles. Great numbers of crows swiftly gather to peck and shriek at the owl, but rarely do much damage. Usually, the owl stands its ground, great eyes blinking and fearsome claws at the ready, and refuses to come out into the open where the crows could rip it apart. The crows are reluctant to get too close, and eventually give up the attack.
One observer has an explanation for this: "To Crow, a large owl is every dark and fearful dream come true. All of Crow's wit and wisdom is no avail against the onslaught of owl, and all crows know it. In the black midwatches of the night, a great horned owl will sweep through a roost like the Angel of Death, soft and silent and consumately deadly. Nor is it just a matter of one owl seizing one crow: the owl may strike repeatedly, feasting only on head and brains. It is a nightmare that Crow remembers thorugh all the daytimes of his life, regarding owls with a primal dread that most men.have happily forgotten."
But crows have few other enemies. Mockingbirds may swarm upward to battle crows like World War II fighter planes harassing a bomber, but if you look closely you will probably see a baby bird or an egg in the crow's beak. And crows enjoy bedeviling big birds of prey like eagles and hawks, vultures and buzzards. Crows are aggressors, stealing food from the larger birds and driving them from crow turf. The grating scream of an attacking crow indicates his lack of fear: it is a samurai war cry.
Crows stick together. Though they nest independently, they gather at night and talk the day over. on a midsummer evening they're apt to meet in Micheltorena Park and pre-empt the place-for themselves, filling tree after tree with squabbling black quasi-reptilian conniving individualists. Cliqueish groups break off and head to other trees, and eventually more of the crowd moves to the fashionable new tree. This disgusts the trend-setters, who move to still newer roosts or batter away newcomers. Feathers fly and outcast individuals are sometimes pecked to death. Birds with the lowest community status must rest in the bottom branches of the tree, and a lot of the time they wake up white in the morning.
But it is probably as individuals that crows make their greatest impression on us. Loren Eisely captured the essence of one crow in The Immense Journey:
"The whole countryside was buried in one of the thickest fogs in years. The ceiling was absolutely zero. All planes were grounded, and even a pedestrian could hardly see his own outstretched hand.
"I was groping across a field in the general direction of the railroad station, following a climly outlined path. Suddenly, out of "the fog, at about the level of my eyes, and so closely I flinched, there flashed a pair of immense black wings and a huge beak. The whole bird rushed over my head with a frantic cawing outcry of such hideous terror as I have.never heard in a crow's voice before, and never expect to hear again.
"Merely being lost in a fog seemed scarcely to account for the great awkward cry--especially in a tough, intelligent old bandit such as I knew that particular crow to be. I even looked in a mirror to see what it might be.about me that had so revolted him that he had cried out in such protest.
"Finally, as I worked my way homeward along the path, the solution came to me. The borders of our worlds had shifted. It was the fog that had done it. That crow, and I knew him well, never under any circumstances flew low near men. He had been lost, all right, but it was more than that. He had thought he was high up, and.when he encountered me looming gigantically through the fog, he had perceived.a ghastly and, to the crow mind, unnatural sight. He had seen a man walking on air, desecrating the very heart of the crow kingdom, a harbinger of the most profound evil a crow mind could conceive: air-walking men.
"He caws now when he sees me leaving for the station in the morning, and I fancy that in that note I catch the uncertainty of a mind that has come to know that things are not always what they seem. He has seen a marvel in his heights of air and is no longer as other crows."
They're an alien race, crows. As different from us as dolphins are, in their own way. If they seem more familiar, it is only because their intelligence has evolved in tandem with ours, just as that of dogs and rats has. The crow is so smart and adaptable that it will continue to fit into the world of man, despite our objections. They have their own plan, and tolerate man in it. While other birds falter in the face of our constructions and depredations, crows prosper. They're itinerants, wandering where they will and concentrating where the living is easy.
Their brain is not the equal of ours, but it is parallel. It is a shrewd biological computer with its own special intelligence, its own sense of time and space. And the most disconcerting thing about studying Crow is that you find a cold, calculating gaze studying you back.