Four times in the last two weeks, in three separate locations, I have been followed down the street by a scolding crow. He (or she) flew from tree branch to telephone wire, keeping up a steady barrage of raucous cries and periodically swooping down to circle above my head. It wasn’t scary in the way that watching Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley being hunted by acid-secreting bioforms in the “Alien” movies was scary, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience, either. I had to remind myself that it is that time of year: they’re just defending their nests, it’s nothing personal.
During the same time period, I spent an evening babysitting my small grandson. This took place at his house and, after I had put him to bed, I stood at the kitchen window looking out at the garden, aglow in the seemingly endless light of a June evening. As I looked on, a crow touched down at the bird bath. I could see him clearly, in profile, with a round red object held in his beak. Berry, bead or bud: I don’t know what it was, but the crow began to dip it in and out of the water, sending sparkling drops of water flying up through the air. It was a lovely thing to watch. I don’t know whether this particular crow left anything behind as a gift, but you can read about a crow who did leave offerings in a bird bath in the charming blog post, Outwitting Henry. Crows have been known to give gifts to each other (usually during courtship) and to humans: such things as a candy heart, a small metal butterfly, a fir cone, flowers or keys. These gifts are usually given to people who regularly feed crows.
I don’t know quite how I feel about crows. They can be annoying. They eat corn out of farmers’ fields: hence, the need for scarecrows (and who doesn’t love a scarecrow?). But crows can be fascinating, too. Apparently, most people have this kind of ambivalent feeling towards crows. Some say this is because humans and crows are alike in many ways: crows are intelligent, cunning and have close family ties. They have language. They fashion and use tools. They play, plan, remember and dream.
On the other hand, the on again/off again feeling we have about crows may result from the fact that there are just so many of them (and of us).
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 last 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.
–Lyanda Lynn Laupt, Crow Planet
The intelligence of the crow is well documented. Their brains are unexpectedly large for their body size: roughly equivalent to the brain size of a small monkey. “They may share the ‘cognitive capabilities’ of many primates. . .to date, all the experimental results point in the same direction–in various trials, corvids [the crow family] have scored better than chickens, quail, pigeons, rabbits, cats, elephants, gibbons and rhesus monkeys.” (Candace Savage, Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, and Jays)
Many researchers believe that crows are smart for the same reason that humans are smart: they are social creatures.
Nothing is more intellectually challenging than living in a social group, surrounded by a bunch of other animals that are sharpening their wits on you. To live long and prosper, a social animal needs a full array of mental defenses, including the capacity to recognize, remember, anticipate, analyze, and think strategically. Accordingly, most scientists now believe that higher intelligence likely arose in intensely sociable species where individuals could gain an evolutionary upper hand through their interactions with one another.
–Candace Savage, Crows
Crows and ravens have personality; they have attitude. They have captured the imagination of storytellers and poets throughout the centuries and across many cultures. Think about the story of Noah’s Ark and those wonderful words from Genesis, 8:6–“And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made: And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.” Or, consider the words from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Crows” (reproduced at the top of my painting below): “…die and be born again—/wherever you arrive/they’ll be there first,/glossy and rowdy/and indistinguishable./The deep muscle of the world.”