It’s because of a crow that I became who I am.
My mother arrived home one day with a juvenile crow in a box. I was just a kid, fourteen or so. Mom was dropping my younger brother at school, when across the playing field, she saw two dogs nearly ripping the poor fledgling in two. She threw herself in the middle of the massacre and snatched up the crow. There was blood on its shoulder, its mouth agape. This baby was in clear distress and could not be left safely, even though its parents cawed helplessly nearby. A regular pack of angry dogs roamed the neighborhood in those days, all wearing name tags like “Blinky.” But they were fierce and emboldened by their place in the canine gang.
My parents loved animals. Our home became an accidental sanctuary for dogs and cats over the years, as our pets were mostly vagabonds who’d wandered onto our porch. As a result of this vulnerability, back in the mid 70s, we had a juvenile crow on our kitchen table with an injured shoulder. And we had no skills whatsoever to help it, or to even ascertain whether or not it could be helped.
At the time, there was no wildlife hospital in our area. My mom called a nurse she knew, who helped her set the wing with a makeshift splint/cast to immobilize the wing temporarily. We got proper crow food, some kibble, as I recall, supplemented with nuts and eggs and fruit. As a foreshadowing of the creative person I would become, I named him, mundanely . . . “Bird.”
Bird was loved. Too much so. We had no education on habituation, on proper wildlife rehabilitation and Bird lived indoors with us, played an avian version of blackjack, picking face cards and aces for his hand. He talked to me, he sat on my shoulder. He would not have been a good candidate for wild survival, again, understanding what I do now about rehab and release.
It’s one of those life incidents about which I still have deep and unrelenting remorse — over which I cringe when I think about what I would have done differently and what we all did wrong. I’ve never forgiven myself about Bird, and how my ineptitude may have caused him to suffer. I was a kid, and certainly, adult hindsight is simplistic at best.
He passed away one night, and I cried for weeks, wishing with all of my young heart that he could have flown free with other crows. I found him dead below the perch in his dog carrier of a hospital room. We had a formal burial for him under a cherry tree in the backyard, and to this day, I can’t think of that spot under tree without feeling the sadness bubble up all over again.
We weren’t sure why he died, but obviously, his care was woefully inadequate in the face of what it takes to truly nurture a wild animal to recovery. It’s why kindness shouldn’t (and, legally, can’t) take the form of raising a bird or wild animal in the home without the requisite training, especially now that there’s established science in this field. It’s why, from time to time at the hospital where I volunteered, a well-meaning person would bring in a bird raised on milk and breadcrumbs and wonder why it wasn’t thriving.
It’s also a huge conundrum for someone like me — knowing when to step in and knowing when to back off. Some rescue groups draw the line at native species, irrespective of the injury. Some rescue all animals. Some will rescue animals injured by human causes, and leave others to their natural fates. Seeing the level of distress caused by human existence and technology, I most often choose to intervene if I run across an injured animal. Because, most often, it’s something a human (or a human’s pet) did to cause the problem in the first place.
It’s because of Bird that I first stepped into that wildlife classroom to hone my chops and am still in training, in training for life, I imagine. It took me years to finally land in a wildlife hospital, but throughout my adult life, every time I came upon an injured animal, I remembered Bird. And I vowed to do better by the animal this time, usually by finding a vet who would treat him or her.
About Those Crows
“Humans consider their ability to use tools to be a characteristic that ‘sets them above’ other animals and, when a species of crows was recently found to use simple tools, this was considered to be a significant demonstration of the high intelligence of crows. In short, we tend to value in other species the traits which we value in ourselves, but since these traits are not necessarily central to the survival or culture of the other species, we generally arrive at an inaccurate or incomplete evaluation.”
~ The Crows.net Project
Crows are, as Lyanda Lynn Haupt writes in Crow Planet “wild beings in our midst, even as they point to the wildness that we cannot see and have lost.” I am awestruck by the masses of crows who fly into their Seattle roosts each night, stopping at trees along the way. They’re roving musicians, bands of archetypal tricksters and yet silent ingenues — watching, waiting, learning. The diversity that is “crow” is gorgeously illustrated in the prose of Haupt who speaks to their intelligence, their mystique, their habitat niches, their relationship to humans and their significance as harbingers and teachers in these tenuous ecological times.
Please buy this book. I don’t say that often. I don’t know Lyanda, but does she ever know crows. I finished the book just this morning, flipping the last page at 2am, and I awoke with a new respect and understanding for the small family of crows that sits outside my guest room window. The only thing in it for me, if you buy the book, is my selfish desire to bring more understanding to these complex and important figures in our lives — the black specters huddled in trees, so often misunderstood, so often maligned.
My Local Crow Family
My local crow family watches as I take my elderly cat for a short, supervised dose of Vitamin D in the garden in the morning. They wait until I fill my friend’s bird feeder, to see if any morsels drop on the ground for them. A pair of these crows sits on a telephone line running past the back garden. One of the two is more diligent, always there when I wake up, and issuing the standard gathering and warning caws, depending on what he sees below his perch. Through this particular crow, I’ve learned new crow vocalizations, one in particular I think the ornithologists call woo-ah notes, what sounded to me first like a kitten stuck in a tree.
When other crows respond to his initial calls and then swoop low to the garden, like a good sentry, he’ll caw with insistence to let them know, “human at 3 O’Clock, change course.” And they always do. Then they sit and wait in the stripped-down winter Maple and nearby Willow, until the point where I’m through the gate and safely on my way to the kitchen before they drop to the grass and forage through tufts of moss and leaves.
We’ll be leaving our friends’ home in a matter of weeks, once we find a place to live in Seattle. I will miss these crows, even if their relationship to me is ambivalent, or curious at best. It is because of crows that I’ve bridged the gap between my longing for the Bay Area, and the newness of my environs up here. Where open space and wetlands brought throngs of winter shorebirds and waterfowl to my California shores, I’ve found new intrigue in this habitat of urban survivors: gulls, crows, pigeons, Starlings.
The pigeon rescues I met in Oakland last year continue to inform my love of pigeons. I’m intensifying my explorations of the urban others. As I’ve said more than once in this here blog, I do believe it’s through the accessibility of the “common” animals, that we can find our connection to the greater whole — the whole that is them and us, together.