Wild Earth

A Murder of Crows

on the connection between the future of life and a common bird

Outside of Ithaca New York, in the town of Auburn, there is a roost of tens of thousands of crows. It is an ephemeral creation of as many birds as one might find humans in a small city. During the day, the crows fan out over the landscape pecking what can be had from roads, forests, and fields. At night they funnel back in, one by one, two by two, three by three, dozen by dozen, each finding a branch suitable for rest and a neighbor or two suitable for leaning on. Such a mass of crows consumes tons of food a day and contrary to their human neighbors wishes, shits a similar quantity. The bathroom habits and “squawking” of the crows has led to, among other things, an annual crow shoot. The idea of the shoot, like thousands before it, is to shoot as many crows as one can in twenty-four hours. There are no other rules. Just go and shoot crows. Shoot them as they fly. Shoot them as they perch. Shoot them as they eat, or mate, shoot them walking, or diving. Just shoot them. The crows fall in abundance, like tiny meteorites, like hailstones, or like what they are, thousands of shot-clipped birds. There are similar shoots in Canada and elsewhere in the U.S. Crow shoots are popular.

 In part, crow shooting contests, and the like, really do seem triggered by the “nuisance” created by the birds. Newspapers and newsreels are replete with quotes from the tired and soiled townspeople. Lance Gummerson, one organizer of the shoot pleads, “You don’t live in this town. You don’t know the problem with the crows.” “Our downtown is disgraced. The crows need to go.” However, as often as not, such large-scale killing contests seem to have as much to do with the eager hunters as with the disgraced townspeople. One has only to do a quick web search to find men like Kenny King, the self proclaimed “Iowa Crow King” who can guide you on a tour to kill more than fifty crows in a few hours. Kenny, it is advertised, “has guided the shooting of over 33,000 crows in the last 20 years.” If Kenny is shooting crows because they “disgraced” him or his town, they must have really got him good.

 Abundance seems to trigger a desire to shoot, stone, thub, or otherwise remove from existence. We are wont to test our arms with a stone against the plenty. As much as I would like to think that is not true, it is true. Picking off a hundred crows is not about the guile of find, hunt, and chase. It is about the power of birdshot slung through air, and the thrill of watching gravity drop a stunned bird. Vandals often torch or dynamite bat roosts. Colonists killed millions of bison. Rattlesnakes are rounded up and killed with glee. Rocky Mountain Locusts were ground under, plowed, eaten, collected by hand and their egg masses set afire. Then there are the passenger pigeons. Passenger pigeons used to flock in the thousands around towns. People burned, shot, stoned, and otherwise pulverized millions of passenger pigeons. A fourteen-year-old boy, who shot the last individual, held it up like a good fair prize. This is not to say shooting crows in large numbers is the same as passenger pigeon shooting. For one, American crows have never been as abundant as passenger pigeons were. A flock of crows is called a murder (though biologists seem to like to avoid this term). Some crow murders are truly spectacular, but nothing compared to the flocks of passenger pigeons, flocks that despite the light color of the birds would darken the mid-western skies.

My purpose here is not to damn the crow hunters or the crow-plagued. Rather, my interest is to consider for a moment the value of abundant birds, like the common crow, and other less than loved winged things, the pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows of our modern world. As we literally hold a crow, or a hundred crows, in our collective hand, it seems worth examining what we have. For as much as we seem willing to drop crows by thousands, we also seem interested in watching them. Many writers, poets, painters, and children seem to have paid a great deal of attention to urban bird like crows. It is not just chance that there are more poems written about crows and other city birds than parrots and macaws. As poets and artists stare out windows and off porches for signs of life beyond their own palpating skin, they see crows. Crows are what we can watch and see in our daily lives. Issa, in the xth century B.C. stood on his literal porch and saw and wrote about thousands of crows. He empathized with them, writing, “Make love, crows while you can! Burning fields” and grew annoyed with them as one can see in poems like “you’ve wrecked my year’s first dream! cawing crow,” but mostly he just enjoyed watching them, observing their behavior, and recording a bit of it. Issa wrote, “Mocking the farmer plowing, the strutting crow,” simple lines that convey enough meaning that we recognize the personality of the crow. What other animal would one describe as “mocking the farmer plowing” or “strutting?” We know before we get to the end of the poem that Issa means the crow.

Several thousand years after Issa last wrote, a professor in the art department at the University of Connecticut painted crows. He surely drew and painted a great many things in his life, but the first I saw of his work, was crows, all crows, hundreds of crows. In a memorial show, just after his death, there were crows in every conceivable position, pecking, fucking, strutting, balancing, fighting, bouncing from foot to foot and just hanging in the air. The paintings convey all of the emotions crows can muster, which leaves them short on regret, sadness, and pity. On the other hand, there is plenty of joy, whimsy, hunger and maybe even a little cuckolding.

I do not know why the crow painter painted crows, especially so many crows. Maybe it was something about the personality of crows or a childhood experience. Maybe it was a morbid appreciation for their ability to transform the rattiest of road kill to indigo feathers, bones, and crow calls. Maybe crows “disgraced his town.” However, I bet the real reason was simply that in looking out across the campus, or looking out his window, the birds he saw were crows. He might also have painted pigeons, true, but crows seem to have more personality than pigeons. Let’s assume I am right, that he painted crows because they were right in front of him, because with only a minimal journey, he could watch them behaving, wildly, teasing each other, mating, tending eggs, doing the things animals, including humans do. He could not watch eagles from his office window. He could not watch osprey, falcons, warblers, bluebirds, wrens, swallows, or even blue jays, chickadees, or nuthatches, the animals that live in the forests nearby. He watched what was before him; he loved the nature he was with.

If we relate most to nature through the creatures we see, it is worth considering what the future (or even present) landscape will look like, just what it is we will see. The vast majority of the landscape of the future is likely to contain crows and species like them and unlikely to contain, warblers, woodpeckers or for that matter, bears, wolves, elk, beavers, otters, or moose. In the U.S., people continue to move out of the flatlands, of the Midwest and into the coast-long cities of the East and the West. I do not know that such a study has been done, but if you sent each person in America out to their window to record the first animal they saw, most would see starlings, pigeons, crows or sparrows. Most people will never see many native forest birds. They will also never see a wild mammal larger than a rat. Out my own window, there is a hoard of greedy sparrows, punctuated every few days by the color of a cardinal, and the caw, caw, cor, cwa of the crows. We can expect, I suspect, more crow and sparrow poems, paintings and songs. Whitman could write about the “dalliance of the eagles,” but Billy Collins took up sparrows, Mary Oliver, Ted Hughes, Doug Anderson, all watched crows, and Lisel Mueller follows pigeons, which she thinks, “used to be called doves.” I could count all of the crow poems, enumerate whether there are really more crow and starling poems than there are, say kingfisher poems (of which there are several). As a biologist, I am wont to count things. However, that is not the point here. The point is that we are inspired by what is around us. It could be no other way. City kids play street ball. Country kids wallow in mud and those two extremes have an effect on the psyche, an effect on what we can write about, dream about think about, and paint. It is maybe not surprising that many of the most prominent ecologists that grew up in New York City, such as Larry Slobodkin, Doug Futuyma and others grew up near Central Park, where they could be inspired by even that simple wilderness to think about the machinery of nature.

If we are to produce future generations that care about living things, they must grow up with living things around them. In cities, a few species of abundant birds are the most tangible evidence that we are not alone in our quest to survive. There are crows, sparrows, and pigeons outside the window and damn it, if they are there, there might be other birds further on. Even as I write this essay, I am looking out the window at house sparrows. There are two dozen of them, all thin with winter, fighting at the bird feeder. One has taken up his or her territory on the lip of the feeder and the rest fight for what falls or what can be knocked down. With patience, I can see them breathing. I can see through their flapping wings when they fly. I can watch their tiny feet grip onto the rope of the feeder, the branches of the barberry bush beneath it and the porch railing. They are alive, a ridiculous message that is somehow still always epiphanal.

Such everyday epiphanies seem important. We need to empathize with nature to want to keep it around. The flipside of this story about trashy, city bird is thus that to the extent that we need some physical connection to nature to care about nature, crows and the like will have to be what connects people to nature. In fact, I will wager today, that the connection of our future generations to nature will hang not on lions and tigers, but instead largely on their connection to city birds. There are mammals in cities too, but rats will not save civilization. Opossums might do the trick, but they are seen more frequently dead than alive and a dead opossum inspires only parasitologists. Raccoons have a bad rap for rabies. Coyotes only sneak into the suburbs long enough to steal cats. Deer are nice, but standoffish. I’d love to pin my hopes on termites, roaches, mosquitoes, and ants, I am wise enough to know that even this sentence sounds ridiculous. For better or for worse, we need crows. We need seagulls. We even need house sparrows and starlings.

Though I am an ecologist, and even occasionally study birds, I admit to knowing relatively little about crows other than what I have observed first hand. For the sake of humanity, I gathered a few facts. The run of the mill, front porch crow is the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos (translates as short-beaked crow). There are also fish crows, Northwestern Crows, Tamaulipas crows, and so on, but in most of North America the odds are the one in your lawn stutter stepping over a dead possum is a good old-fashioned eat-the-dead American crow.

These days, crows grow best in cities, not as well in suburbs and poorly within forests. In non-drought years, they find nests all over town and flourish. In drought years, the worms that they depend on are harder to pull out of the ground and so their chicks are smaller. If we were to construct the simple food web of city crows, it would go plants to insects, bacteria, nematodes, and protists, decaying bacteria, plants, insects, nematodes, and protists to earthworms, earthworms to crows and occasionally crows to peregrine falcons (at least in East Coast cities). This is an ecosystem thriving on the energy gathered by plants from a smog-veiled sun. An ecosystem grows out of cracks in sidewalks and out of abandoned buildings.

A simple ecosystem can quickly accumulate in the cracks of wild earth left between miles of pavement. Dandelions break through anything and when they do, insects arrive to eat them or, alive or dead. Worms arrive too. Once earthworms arrive, crows do too. Cracks in the sidewalk, butterfly gardens and abandoned lots feed crows and so too the complicated lice that depend on their feathers, two mites that only live on crows, the gut flora of the crow and of course the bird-eating peregrine falcon. True, falcons eat more pigeons than crows, but they will snatch a crow if they can (and the pigeons feed on basically the same things as the crows, so are set similarly in the network of city ecosystems). Peregrines are thriving in some cities, like New York. They provide both a capstone to those ecosystems, and a reminder of the lifestyle of predators, of birds snatched from the feeder, carried to an “untimely” death. It is a nature scene “pulled from the headlines.”

Crows are cagey enough that they often avoid peregrine falcons. They are also cagey enough to avoid biologists. They are cagey and intelligent in general. Crows can recognize individual humans. Feed a crow peanuts day after day and it will come to expect peanuts from you, not from people in general. Kevin McGowan tells the story that the crows he feeds recognize not only him, but also his car and come when they see him driving up. It took the crows a little while to adjust when McGowan bought a new car, but they learned. It is interesting that crows are smart enough to recognize individuals in the mob of humans, but we seem less able or willing to recognize individual crows, to sit in the tall or short grass of our lawn and just watch one specific bird.

So, let this be a call to arms. May we cherish crows, not just for their brilliance and uniqueness, but also for their success, their persistence, their ingenuity, and their shear abundance; characteristics that make them more like us than are chimpanzees or other apes. They are like us. They are also what we have and what we will have. Whether or not we save forests in Cameroon, or the Amazon, whether or not we keep our oceans clean may depend much on crows. If we cannot remember that we are alive, that we are one species among many and that most of what we do, work, eat, breath, have sex and goof around is not unique to us, but unique to the millions of different kinds of animals and even plants. The link I am making between the Amazon and crows is weak, I admit as much. However, it will be that weak link that connects us to nature in the future, that makes us care about it. The money for conservation and the impetus for large-scale conservation come largely from city-dwellers. As larger proportions of the populace move to cities, this trend will only increase. City dwellers need some connection to living animals and plants. We have been able to convince ourselves that it is natural to not have megafauna, like mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, giant sloths, and mastodons in North America (it is not, our ancestors in all likelihood killed them off). Born into the concrete futures, our descendents might just as easily convince themselves of the naturalness of cities without animals.

We do not need crow monuments (though surely some Midwestern town could rise to the occasion). We need observation. We need children left to watch the crows, to observe them, maybe even a crow day, when we all stand on our front lawns and streets, waving our arms, stutter-stepping, flipping things off the road, cawing, remember for a minute our wild thoughts and words. Crows have prospered in our habitats by their own ingenuity. House sparrows have prospered through fecundity, luck and time. Grackles have just prospered. Pigeons have flourished because they think building ledges are cliffs. They are all here, around, neither angels nor devils, just reminders. Moments of quiet observation of the living world are one of the most fundamental parts of our existence as humans. If we ever lose that entirely, we will have lost much, much more than a few common birds.

Even as I pause to contemplate the giant crow statue they might build in Iowa City (a guy can hope), I realize people will never all love crows. One need only look at the hundreds of photos on the web of contented men (they are mostly men) standing in front of their kills of crows, rows and rows of crows, arranged carefully, so to give a good appreciation of exactly how many individuals were killed. I have no bone with hunting in general, but this sort of slaughter seems beyond redemption. The “hunters” do not eat many of the crows; they just turn them from life to garbage. We look back in shock at the men standing over their piles of dead bison, and yet we seem unable to collectively muster the same horror for similar photos of crows, thousands of crows. And despite this seeming abundance crow numbers are but a paltry representation of what passenger pigeon numbers once were. I would like to think that if humans had not extinguished the passenger pigeon we would have grown to cherish it. That would probably not be the case, so long as the passenger pigeon was abundant. If the shit produced by a medium-sized crow colony bothers towns like Auburn, New York, they would have hated passenger pigeons. We like rare things. Diamonds are precious. Cubic Zirconium is a crappy gift. Shiny gold is worth its weight. Shiny steel is not. Fools gold is the prospectors’ bane not because it is unattractive, but because there is so much of it. We can be convinced by abundance into thinking things are valueless, but pick up some fools gold, look at the grass in your lawn, watch an individual crow. We should not have to wait for these things to be rare to value them. We do not need to kill all but a few crows before we realize they are interesting, or poison all the pigeons before we realize they are the things that breath between buildings, that give the rush of humans between towers broader context.

To me, a country boy come to live in a small city (a city my wife, a city dweller refers to as the country) crows are a reminder not only of living things, but of particular living things, the other birds I miss, the voles and weasels, even summer mosquitoes blowing off the lake. I take it from my personal experiences that this is not a universal longing, though maybe it is common among hillbillies sent to town. Louren Eisley, a wonderful hillbilly if there ever were one, talks of a tree he planted as a child. It grew in his imagination for years and when he finally went back to Nebraska to see it, it was gone. Maybe it never took in the first place, who knows. There are dozens of forests in my imagination, planted not by me, but by ants, birds, and bats. They are forests left to grow when I last saw them. Many of those forests are no doubt no more alive than Eisley’s tree. But they flourish in my mind and when the crows on main street call to me, they are calling from the darkest of those woods, “look at me”, “I am a crow,” I hear them and I remember the forest. And, I will admit, I caw. I call out to them, at them, with them, because they are the nature I see, the nature that that reminds me we are all alive.

 

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