By Tela Zasloff
When we ride in the outdoor ring, we have to put up with a lot of rude criticism from the local residents–criticism based in total ignorance, since I’ve never seen any of them on a horse. It is common knowledge that crows are not accomplished equestrians, so we are justifiably annoyed at the self-assurance with which the usual band of four, poised on the fence rails in a black, scraggly cluster, make such remarks as, “Haw, haw–obviously no stomach muscles” and “Haw! Sloppy, sloppy position”. The “haw”s are the clearest of their remarks, but I’m sure, having listened to them all summer, that I’m hearing the details, too.
Their criticism cuts deep because all my life, I have admired and, yes, loved crows. It’s their whole attitude toward life that appeals–intelligence, free spirit, and sense of community, expressed loudly and with self-confidence. I’ve seen them flex their muscles by harassing a peregrine trying to digest a pigeon he had just caught. With one foot on his prey, he flapped his wings magisterially at the crow dive-bombers, then gave up in disgust and abandoned his catch. I’ve seen them participating as active citizens of countries around the world. They prefer the places most teeming with people and food, like the garbage heaps in the harbors of Bombay and Mombassa, or Asian marketplaces or American highways. Their parental behavior is impeccable: I’ve seen a nesting pair hold off a marauding cat for three days while urging their nestling to fly back up home to the top of a blue spruce.
Crows have always had a mixed press from humans. Aesop, in 6th century BC Greece, chose the crow to demonstrate the quality he most admired, intelligence, as in his fable of the crow inventing a way to reach water in a deep pitcher by filling it with pebbles. Of course he also tells the story of the vain crow who drops a piece of cheese into a waiting fox’s mouth after the fox has flattered her that such a beautiful bird must have a beautiful song. (This story may have more to do with Aesop’s view of women than crows.)
They are related to other black, intelligent birds like jackdaws, rooks and ravens, whose talents include the ability to learn our language. Ravens in particular have been a traditional source for fable and myth throughout the world, as a symbol of death and pestilence on the one hand, and of cleverness and fearlessness on the other.
Crows’ bad press is always balanced by a good one. We all know about the traditional frustra-tions that farmers face trying to keep such canny creatures out of their corn fields. Yet the popular reception of “The Wizard of Oz” film indicates that the general public agrees with one of its messages: we may as well admit that crows have won in this battle and view the Scarecrow as they do–a harmless, ineffectual object of affection.
Crows are beautiful in their essential darkness and keen eyes that are not afraid to look directly into yours. There are at least 20 species, all about 20 inches long and glossy black. Some are gray hooded and some have white on their napes and breasts. They like to eat on the ground, walking around at a leisurely pace, and clean up the carrion and harmful insects. They have long lives, 13 years on average in the wild and 20 years in captivity. They usually stay in monogamous pairs but, at rare times (of crisis or important summit meetings), have roosted together in tens of thousands, which must be an awesome sight. (This may have been the inspiration for Hitchcock’s scary central device in “The Birds”.)
One early morning, when I was jogging on the track, I noticed that the usual cluster of crows were clustering in an unusual way. Rather than flying around and landing here and there arbitrarily, they grouped themselves on the roof of an old shed alongside the track and tore off the shingles with their beaks, hurrying each other with strident cries. Each time that I circled past the shed, they all flew up together, glided directly over my head and dropped the shingles with loud splats in front of my running feet. They just missed the top of my head with great accuracy, haw-hawing the whole time. After the third time, I knew for sure that this was a calculated joint effort and that they were playing some sort of game with me. I’m not sure of the tone, whether hostile or friendly, or the rules, but they had initiated a mysterious inter-creature dialogue in which they earned my permanent respect.