Over Easy: Turns out there’s a lot to crow about

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 11/1/2019 5:02:20 PM
Modified: 11/1/2019 5:02:05 PM

On a recent Saturday when I was out for an early walk, crows had the run of my West Lebanon neighborhood. One was picking at something on the street. It might have been a bug, a candy wrapper or a french fry. I do not know if crows prefer keto, paleo or Oreo.

They have a sustainable lifestyle, unlike humans. We throw plastic into the sea for the fish to eat, then we eat the fish. Someday fish will come out of the sea in their own plastic wrap.

Whatever, crows like to snatch up a potential morsel with their beak and toss it in the air a couple of times before indulging. They do it quickly, observing the 5-second rule. According to Emily Post’s Etiquette for Crows and Ravens, morsel tossing is perfectly acceptable on all but the most formal occasions.

Not far away, two crows were conducting an inquiry into something on a neighbor’s lawn. A loud fellow was objecting from a tree branch; he seemed to be an authority figure. Maybe I’d been paying too much attention to the news that week. I imagined he was hectoring the others with sharp caws about the House impeachment probe. “Caw, caw, caaaaaw,” he called out sharply.

I looked his way, and he flew off in a huff. So much for civility from crows.

You may say I anthropomorphize overly much, but I don’t think crows miss a beat. Like humans, crows never back off when they think they are right. I’ve heard them trading piercing caws like pundits on a cable news show.

When one gets off a zinger — Caw! — the other flies to a different branch and smooths ruffled feathers. Then they are at it again.

Scientists say that crows have long memories, and I believe it. Perhaps you missed a story this fall in the Times of India and elsewhere about Shiva Kewat, of Madhya Pradesh, India, who says crows have attacked him daily for three years because a crow chick died in his hands after he removed it from metal netting. Although he said he was trying to rescue the bird, he was tried and convicted in the court of crow opinion.

Just as interesting as crow revenge is the reaction of Kewat’s fellow humans. An account in the Daily Mail reported that villagers are amused “by the birds’ fixation and often watch for when Kewat is going out so they can witness the crows.”

Notice that no humans fly to his aid. Unlike birds of a feather, they don’t necessarily flock together.

In a somewhat related report, scientists in Seattle in 2011 found that crows remember human faces. Again, according to the Daily Mail, “They caught and banded crows for five years as part of the study, but even after a year of not seeing the human who caught them, the birds could recognize them.”

This made me reflect on my inability to remember names and faces, although I like to think I’d never forget the face of a Seattle scientist who caught and banded me.

Based on my own observational studies and idle speculation, which aren’t likely to get me into the Ornithology Hall of Fame, I think crows are good at picking locks, three-card monte, stealing shiny things and rumor-mongering. They might make excellent online scammers, but typing is a chore for them and they’d hurry and make too many typos.

In the end, I am forced to admit I don’t know much about the secret lives of crows. I marvel when they fly overhead in massive flocks, a swaying curtain, as evening’s dark deepens.

Once or twice I have seen them land in trees nearby for a quick conference. They chatter and squawk, the tree wriggling with life. Then suddenly they take off for parts unknown. Are the accommodations lacking — branches too hard, pillows too soft? Are they just restless, or is it something else?

I know this is a stretch — to try to read the minds of crows is work for soothsayers, not retired newspapermen — but perhaps they are angry about our laissez-faire reaction to climate change. Maybe they are commenting on the foolishness of man. “Caw, caw, caw,” they say. Perhaps it means “idiots.”

You could say that’s ridiculous, but I can’t think of any reason the crows would be in cahoots with the Koch brothers or other petroleum interests.

And then there’s the recent report from the journal Science that the bird population in the U.S. has decreased by 29%, about 3 billion, since 1970. Caw!

In some small way I feel a little hurt by the shunning I receive from crows. “I’m not like the others,” I’d like to call out.

But it would do no good. “Caw, caw, caw,” they’d reply, harshly, and turn their backs on me. They think we humans are all colluders at heart, and maybe we are.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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