Alison Hawthorne Deming
Crows are ubiquitous in the Connecticut hills and fields, the landscape of my childhood. Their feathers shine in sunlight like obsidian. Over a cornfield, a flock of crows is an elegance. Gleaning grubs from a fallow field, it is a society of peasants. Crows fly with patience, their flapping never belabored. Sometimes they glide. They make their own clothing, feathers grown from their skin, every keratinous cell of the calamus, every black silk fiber of the vane, made by the crow, made thoughtlessly and without effort. There is a hollow place in the quill, a space used by veins to supply nutrients while the feather is alive and growing. But the feathers are dead when the crow wears them, a head dress, wing dress, body dress,
basic black, and bearing the lovely sheen of life. For forty million years the iridescence of bird feathers has graced the earth.
But it was the sound of crows that I loved as a child. Ca-aw. Ca-aw. The throaty, emphatic call announced their presence. It rose from cedar trees on the edge of the yard, from that place in the sky just out of sight above the hickory tree or behind the house, it entered the open window of the school bus or the chaotic playground during recess at school. The caws announced some work to be done, some passage to be flown, some sight to be seen, some news to be shared. What was it that made them call like that from the air as they passed on their way? Ca-aw. The syllable bends slightly
downward at the end, almost like the Doppler effect of a passing train. It was a sound I knew well and a voice that made me feel the world was right, that some lives beyond my life were going about their business, being with their being, and I felt suddenly larger than my small self. Even now remembering it, I feel as if I am opening the door and stepping outside into the wonder of things. Crows were always a surprise and never a menace to me.
My father did not like crows. He spent many hours working in his vegetable garden. It was his solace. He started corn from seed, germinating Golden Bantam stock in Dixie cups, then transplanting it into hills he had hoed up in the rocky soil. No sooner
had he tamped the seedlings into the ground, than the crows would fly in to pluck up the tender greens. I saw him storm out of the house with his shotgun many times to teach them a lesson. I’m sure he failed. I was never shocked to see his rage. I empathized with that feeling of helplessness that riled him, though I did not share his hatred of crows.
A group of crows is called a “murder.” It lines up in a festive parade of animal names: flock of sheep, herd of horses, pack of wolves, parliament of owls, cauldron of hawks, bouquet of pheasants, whiteness of swans, murmuration of starlings, gaggle of geese, improbability of shearwaters, newspaper syndicate of gannets, charm of finches, raft of ducks, exaltation of larks, unkindness of ravens. The poor corvids scored low in the judging.
Murder as a group name for crows goes back at least to the 1400s in England. The American Society of Crows and Ravens suggests the origin of the name might be in the folk legend that crows, in their black robes, hold tribunals to judge and punish members of their flock exercising bad behavior.
If found guilty, the crow would be killed by the flock. This notion, the society claims, may be based on observations that a crow will occasionally kill a dying crow that doesn’t belong in their territory or will feed on a dead crow. In medieval times, crows scavenged human remains at gravesides, battlefields, and execution sites
Crows are smart. Crows use tools. They adapt to city life. They rival primates in cognitive ability. In the wild, New Caledonia crows will use a twig to probe in a tree trunk for grubs. In captivity, two crows sharing an enclosure learned to retrieve bits of pig heart, their favorite food, from a bucket. The male chose the hooked wire, which did the job well, so the female took the straight wire and bent it into a hook, using it to lift the small bucket of food from a vertical pipe. She had no other crows to model the behavior, little training with pliable objects, and very limited experience with wire. Such skill at turning a found object into a tool is rare among animals. Chimpanzees presented with a similar task—using a length of pipe
to pass through a hole to retrieve an apple—failed until they were coached.
Since 1990 Japanese crows have been observed using cars to crack walnuts. The trees grow beside a street on a university campus. The bird drop the nut into traffic and when it’s cracked, fly down to retrieve the meat. Because traffic can be heavy on campus, the retrieval can be challenging. So the crows have learned to drop the nuts onto crosswalks. Crows and humans line up and wait on the sidewalk. When the cars stop, the bird hops into the street and safely retrieves the snack. Crows in California have been seen using the crosswalk technique. The birds have long known how to drop clams onto rocks to break their shells. But this behavior requires inferential thinking: if I drop this nut here, it will be cracked open by the passing cars.
Crows also demonstrate compassion and companionship. Kevin McGowan, working with the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory, has studied crows for over twenty years. The group he has tagged and studied suffered an epidemic of West Nile
virus that killed one-third of the population in 2002; the following year, another third were lost to the virus. Crows are very social. They roost in murders that can range from one-hundred individuals to millions. Crows have twenty-five calls. The call for distress brings other crows. Crows develop a complex system of helpers. They will defend unrelated crows. One crow will wait in a tree watching out for predators while others forage, making a small personal sacrifice for the good of the flock. Crows in the wild live fifteen to twenty years. They mate for life.
During the West Nile epidemic, when one crow lost a partner it stayed with the larger family of eight or so birds. Widowed adults moved in with their parents. Even with plenty of open territory in which to go off and mate anew, they chose to stay and care for siblings. When only two sisters were left, they joined neighbors and helped raise their young. Researcher Anne Clark reported that the crows that had suffered big losses to their community did not move right away into the opened territory. It was as if they
didn’t know who owned it anymore or they simply didn’t want to go back to the place of so much dying. She called it the “haunted house” effect.
During the epidemic, when a crow was sick and dying its mate would sit beside it until the end. If the dying bird had no mate, another member of its blended family would perch by its side. The researchers concluded that no crow dies alone. Far from being murderers, a flock crows might more aptly be called a caretaking of crows.
“Crow” from Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2014). Copyright © 2014 by Alison Hawthorne Deming. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions. www.milkweed.org.
Alison Hawthorne Deming‘s most recent book is Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed, 2014). She is a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona. She lives in Tucson and Grand Manan, New Brunswick.