The Universal Notebook: Talking to crows

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Crow realized God loved him –
Otherwise, he would have dropped dead.

And he realized that God spoke Crow –
Just existing was His revelation.
– Ted Hughes

My grandchildren think I can talk to crows. Actually, it’s the other way around, Crows can talk to me.

When I go out to feed the crows, I offer up a credible caw-caw-caw and, if there is a crow within hearing distance it is apt to caw back, probably to tell other nearby crows, “That guy who thinks he can speak Crow is throwing food on the ground again.”

Last summer my neighbor, who has an app on his phone that identifies bird calls, actually identified me as an American Crow. I am imitating crows. They are imitating me.

Edgar Allen BeemCrows are about as intelligent as an ape. They use tools. They have a varied vocabulary of caws, haws and clucks nuanced enough to distinguish meat from bread. They are also able to recognize individual human beings.

This being so, I can’t figure out why our backyard crows are so wary when I feed them. They never just land and start pecking. They always land some distance away and walk nervously closer in that officious, business-like gait crows have. They give the dinner scraps sidelong glances. When they get within range, they will suddenly stab at a piece and crow-hop back as though the crust had turned into a cobra.

It could just be that the crows are too smart to trust me. Seagulls will just swoop down in rowdy packs and devour whatever is there. I could capture a seagull fairly easily. Not so a crow.

Crows also share food willingly, while gulls will fight over it so furiously that they sometimes end up not getting any as the crows and squirrels make off with the spoils.

I wish I had the patience of biologist Bernd Heinrich, a noted authority on corvids and author of “Mind of the Raven” and “Ravens in Winter.” I visited Heinrich years ago at the cabin near Weld where he does some of his research. Not only would his hand-reared birds come when he called, they had names.

Heinrich has been known to climb snow-covered trees in the dark in the dead of winter to count ravens. I am a poor student of the crows. I just enjoy them as winged beings with whom I share an ecosystem.

My devotion to crows goes only so far as to have a crow doormat at the back door and a crow t-shirt in my drawer. I guess, though I am a Pisces, I regard the crow as a totem animal more so than I do a fish. But the fact that they caw when I caw, or vice versa, does not mean we know a darn thing about one another.

I do admire the society of crows however. Many evenings at dusk, crows from all over Brunswick congregate in the trees surrounding the soccer field behind our house. Last Christmas Day we had at least a hundred in our backyard alone.

There are various theories about why crows mob up like that. Some say it’s for protection against hawks and owls. Some think crows gather for warmth. But the theory I subscribe to is that crows roost together in large numbers in order to talk things over and share information.

Crows are very gregarious. I guess that’s why I try to talk with them.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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