A few months ago, I saw a work of art that touched me, and I did something I’d never done before. I reached out to the artist via the Internet and introduced myself to her. The next thing I knew, Judy Lane and I were meeting for coffee, and I discovered that, like me, she had migrated from a career that relied heavily on her left brain to a passion that incorporated her right brain as well. Today she studies, photographs, and creates lovely works of art depicting crows.
Crows? Wait a minute. I always thought crows were pests, like cockroaches. I grew up in the Midwest, where fashionable scarecrows lorded over fields to keep the flighty little thieves away. I remember watching Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, as a youngster and have never been able to look at cawing black birds the same way ever again. And Poe certainly contributed to the sinister image of the corvid family, writing about crow’s big cousin in The Raven.
One hour with Judy that afternoon changed my mind about these black birds, and that hour was reinforced by another hour yesterday as I listened to her presentation through Issaquah’s artEast program.
Crows are amazing creatures. More importantly, there are some important lessons we humans could learn from them, things we once knew but seem to have forgotten.
1. Crows build roots. Even after seasonal migration, they generally return to the same region, and often the same tree or an adjacent tree, year after year, promoting a sense of grounding for their families and minimal disruption to the local ecosystem. They don’t feel the need to move for a bigger house, a higher-paying job, or better weather.
2. Crows generally mate for life. No divorce court in the corvid world.
3. Crows are hard workers. New crow parents often have helper crows who assist with building the nest and foraging for the youngsters. The helper crows don’t demand minimum wage or sit around watching television while the parents are out working and the children run around like banshees. (I don’t mean to generalize here. There are plenty of hard working care givers and domestic helpers out there. But if the shoe fits…)
4. Crows know their place in the pecking order and use it wisely. For example, they often call out to other species, like wolves and coyotes, to let them know where the road kill is. Then, after the large predators have exposed the carcass and left the more accessible pickings, the birds move in. Being first in line, or being the top dog, isn’t what’s important.
5. Crows conserve food. They find their food and then store it in secret caches: under rocks, high up in trees, even in rain gutters. They carefully scavenge what they need and save any excess food they’ve collected until they need it, but they don’t gather more than they need. They don’t waste.
6. Crows come together when necessary. Although these birds are highly territorial, they set aside their geographical claims when a predator, weather hazard, or other concern comes along. This is why you often see them flocking to a tree or telephone wire all of a sudden. No calling names across the political party aisle in crow world.
7. Crows grieve when senseless death occurs. Judy observed this first hand, where several crows gathered around a spot where remains of another crow had been found. In her photograph, the surviving birds looked confused and seemed to be chatting among one another, probably because they hadn’t been desensitized to senseless acts of violence by Hollywood and video game developers. (Sorry. I love movies, and I’m not opposed to video games in general. But there comes a time when enough violence is enough.)
8. Crows pay attention to the world and accept us for who we are. Check it out, next time you’re walking in crow territory. There’s a crow who watches me from a light post down the street nowadays when I take my dog on a walk. I never used to pay any attention to it, and it would caw when it saw us coming and then flap away. Now, we make eye contact, thanks to Judy, and the bird doesn’t seem to mind us anymore. I like to think we’re even beginning to become friends. Crows have been known to attach to specific human beings and dogs, after discovering which ones are trustworthy and which are trouble. They judge us based on our integrity, not what we wear and what we drive. And of course they pay attention to what’s going on around them, because they care about their world. They aren’t strutting down the street with earbuds on and texting their BFFs.
“To know the crow is to know ourselves,” said John Marzluff, University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences professor and expert in avian social ecology and demography.
Yeah. I like that. If only we paid more attention to crows, the world might be a better place.