As the Crows Fly

The urban wild’s most resilient creature shows us what’s beautiful, what’s ugly, and what’s missing

  • Crows on a Wire

    image by Reuters / China Photos

  • Crows on a Wire

There are more crows now than there have ever been in the history of the earth. There are more people, too, and in fact, the crow-human ratio has remained fairly constant for the past several thousand years. But what has changed, for both species, is density and proximity. The spread of human-made habitations, urban and suburban, has pressed humans and crows into unprecedented nearness, and into an uneasy relationship.

Unlike most wild creatures, crows tolerate human habitations and relish the benefits of living within them—mainly the easy food sources. But to say that crows enjoy human company, or even prefer to live near humans, would be an overstatement. Though they may appear bold, most crows live in a constant state of wary readiness. And people, in turn, are vaguely unsettled by crows. Some love crows, some hate them, but nearly everyone respects their intelligence, and nearly everyone has a crow story to tell.

I heard of a crow that accompanied a mail carrier on his daily route every day for more than two years, walking behind him like a golden retriever before inexplicably disappearing. I heard from a Benedictine nun that a crow in the woods surrounding her monastery befriended a large black, green-eyed cat named Ashford, and that the two shared in feasting on the birds that Ashford caught and killed. I heard from a friend that she was watching a crow work for some time to balance a medium-size stone atop a larger stone. “Was it making art?” she wanted to know. I heard from a pilot friend that his friend (for many crow stories spiral compellingly through some kind of lineage in this way), also a pilot, watched the Snowbirds (the Canadian Forces’ equivalent of the Blue Angels) practicing for an air show, and afterward, a crow in the trees near the airfield practiced flying upside down. Am I incredulous? Certainly, somewhat. But can I deny it? Who hasn’t seen a crow do something we do not expect of “simple” birds, or any animal, for that matter? Who doesn’t have a crow story? And the more attention we offer, the more the crow stories spring up around us, like grass.

For the majority of people on the face of the earth, the crow is the single most often encountered native wild animal in their lives. Surely this is an unproven, and probably even an unprovable, claim. But I’ve presented it to an array of biological scientists, and no one can think of another wild animal that is likely to be more familiar, or more regularly encountered. Humans gather in villages, suburbs, and urban landscapes, and crows follow them there. The denser and more removed from wild places our dwellings become, the less likely we are to see any wild animals other than crows.

The spread of crowness is distressing on many levels. Abundant crows are an emblem of rampant habitat destruction and of the creation of an earth that is inhospitable to all but a handful of the most resilient beings. But they also offer an oblique suggestion of hope. The conspicuous presence of a native wild animal, one that struts our sidewalks, simultaneously accepts and balks at our presence, shares our food, and drops its children at our feet for close observation, can lend a great deal to our biological education.

Crows can show us how certain wild, nonhuman animals live—what they need, how they speak, how they walk, and how they tip their heads in that special sideways manner to sip the slenderest bit of rainwater. They make us notice just how many of them there are getting to be, make us realize that as humans generate the conditions that allow crow populations to grow, many other wild animal species are present in far fewer numbers and others are gone completely.

8/23/2013 11:09:28 PM

written essay very well done - i dont have quite the attention span to put it back into outline format, the lead in ... ? 5 pages? page two hit the mark and thats as far as i got before setting down to say so.

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