Crow Planet richly weaves Haupt's own "crow stories" as well as scientific and scholarly research and the history and mythology of crows, culminating in a book that is sure to make readers see the world around them in a very different way.
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About the Author
Her writing has appeared in Image, Open Spaces, Wild Earth, Conservation Biology Journal, Birdwatcher's Digest, and the Prairie Naturalist. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and daughter.
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Crow PlanetEssential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness
By Haupt, Lyanda Lynn
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2009 Haupt, Lyanda Lynn
All right reserved.
CROWS AND KAIROS
By all rights, I should never see the crow who perches almost daily on the electrical wire just beyond my study window. Her story will be told in these pages, and it will become clear, first, that she should be dead and, further, that since she did not die after all, my wire should be the last place that she chooses to land. This young crow is immediately recognizable by her habit of roosting with her belly on the wire rather than perching properly upright, a habit shared by broken-legged crows, who cannot support their full weight or stand on a wire, balancing on just one good foot. I call her Charlotte. (Naming wild animals is problematic, inviting confusion between our relationships with wild and domestic animals, which must be qualitatively different. Still, familiarity breeds naming, and I have been watching this crow every day for months, learning her individual needs, quirks, and habits. Without even thinking about it, I began calling her Charlotte, after the brilliant, self-effacing, fragile-but-brave Charlotte Brontë.)
When Charlotte was an injured fledgling, I gently kidnapped her and held her captive in my bathtub for an entire day, force-feeding her cat food and egg, and splinting her bent leg. Having worked as a wild bird rehabilitator, I possess an instinctual, if not always sensible, impulse to tend to injured birds. Her parent crows—who have continued to tend to the fragile Charlotte long after other adult birds have given off caring for their young of the year, and who often perch on my wire along with her—should, given my offense, take her somewhere else. They all recognize me, of that I am sure. A recent study by John Marzluff, corvid researcher at the University of Washington, confirms that crows can recognize individual human faces. Marzluff noticed that crows he had captured and banded would react negatively to his presence, cawing and dive-bombing whenever he approached. His students, who had also banded crows, experienced the same discrimination from crows in the campus study area. To test the idea that crows were recognizing faces in such instances, rather than clothes, gait, or some other identifying characteristic, Marzluff employed masks. A “dangerous” caveman mask was donned by students who trapped and banded seven campus crows. In the following months, volunteers wearing the caveman mask walked prescribed routes known to be frequented by these crows and their associates. The birds went wild, reading the crow riot act whenever the mask wearers passed. For control purposes, the same volunteers walked their routes wearing a Dick Cheney mask, which had not been worn by the trapper/banders, and the crows left them entirely alone. It appears that crows also learn to dislike individual humans through social learning—if birds in a given group appear to loathe a particular person, other crows in the group will take up this aversion for themselves, uttering a vocal rebuke when the person is spotted or avoiding him entirely.
Many people don’t need a study to tell them that crows can pick them out of a crowd. Anyone who has chased a crow, come too close to a crow’s active nest, or tried to approach a crow’s chick knows that the crows involved, and others watching, will harbor an unforgiving resentment toward the guilty party. For months, and sometimes for years, the perpetrator will be swooped and scolded on sight.
The people whom crows recognize most readily seem to be the ones who come overly near to their young, so actually picking a crow fledgling up and toting it home in broad daylight should be a radically punishable offense in the crow-human societal borderlands. But for some reason, the adult crows who dive-bombed me when I kidnapped Charlotte and again when I returned her to their care never bothered me again. Instead, they cared incessantly for the broken-legged fledgling. They kept her from harm, even though she was weak and broken and by all guesses a hopeless case; they hid her from cats, rats, and raccoons, and they continue to preen and coddle her. While I would expect them to avoid me, they bring Charlotte back to the scene of my crime almost every day and let me see how she’s doing. I cannot help thinking that some communication has taken place, that it is somehow clear to the crows that my grievous offense was accomplished in good faith. We all experience such times—don’t we?—when our guarded separateness breaks down.
Such a question is timelier now than it has ever been. We live on a changing earth where ecological degradation and global climate change threaten the most foundational biological processes. If the evolution of wild life is to continue in a meaningful way, humans must attain a changed habit of being, one that allows us to recognize and act upon a sense of ourselves as integral to the wider earth community. Fortunately, this will not normally involve the kidnapping of young crows, but it will mean some radical thinking and even more radical doing. In spite of the string of magazine covers announcing the contrary, we all know that ten simple things will not save the earth. There are, rather, three thousand impossible things that all of us must do, and changing our light bulbs, while necessary, is the barest beginning. We are being called upon to act against a prevailing culture, to undermine our own entrenched tendency to accumulate and to consume, and to refuse to define our individuality by our presumed ability to do whatever we want.
It is easy to become cynical about the fact that we as a species appear to have waited until the last possible moment—the moment in which we must radically change our way of living in order to forestall an unprecedented human-caused ecological collapse—and even that, for many, seems not quite enough incentive. It is easy to become cynical, but it is not helpful. My ongoing education in the close-to-home wild has reinforced my sense that we are living in an absolutely graced moment, a rare earthly time in which our present, everyday actions are meaningfully entwined with a broader destiny. There are two Greek words for time. One is chronos, which refers to the usual, quantifiable sequential version of time by which we monitor and measure our days. The other word is kairos, which denotes an unusual period in human history when eternal time breaks in upon chronological time. Kairos is “the appointed time,” an opportune moment, even a time of crisis, that creates an opportunity for, and in fact demands, a human response. It is a time brimming with meaning, a time more potent than “normal” time. We live in such a time now, when our collective actions over the next several years will decide whether earthly life will continue its descent into ecological ruin and death or flourish in beauty and diversity.
We all know dour environmentalists (or perhaps we are one), wringing their hands while myopically bemoaning the disasters to befall the earth in the near future. Why, when we know that they are right, do we want to spill organic cranberry juice all over their hemp sandals? Because they are no fun, for one thing. And, more important, because they will suck us dry if we let them. But we don’t have to let them. There is a way to face the current ecological crisis with our eyes open, with stringent scientific knowledge, with honest sorrow over the state of life on earth, with spiritual insight, and with practical commitment. Finding such a way is more essential now than it has ever been in the history of the human species. But such work does not have to be dour (no matter how difficult) or accomplished only out of moral imperative (however real the obligation) or fear (though the reasons to fear are well founded). Our actions can rise instead from a sense of rootedness, connectedness, creativity, and delight. But how are we to attain such intimacy, living at a remove from “nature,” as most of us do, in our urban and suburban homes?
In the environmental classic A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold proffered a touchstone by which to judge human activity, one that most first-year ecology students have memorized: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Eco-philosophy has come a long way in the sixty years since Leopold, but no one has managed to improve on his simple measure. In his use of the gentle, open-ended word tends, Leopold recognizes that such things are not cut and dried. But he does realize that we cannot judge the leanings of our actions, whether they tend toward preservation or otherwise, from a vantage of pure abstraction, from an urban existence cut off entirely from the cycles of nature. The reckoning Leopold asks of us requires the cultivation of insight based in attention, knowledge, and intimacy. It asks that we pay loving attention to the places we live, to understand their intricate net of connections with the wider earth.
Many nature writers send dispatches from their wooded homes with the brook babbling outside the ever-open window; they go on weeks- or months-long solitary rambles in remote places. They bring us along, in their writing, on these adventures and in the musings they inspire. And they do inspire. Certainly, I believe that wilderness experiences are both restorative and essential on many levels. I am constantly contriving to get myself and my family out of the city to go hiking or camping in forests, mountains, and meadows in our Pacific Northwest home and beyond. But in making such experiences the core of our “connection to nature,” we set up a chasm between our daily lives (“non-nature”) and wilder places (“true nature”), even though it is in our everyday lives, in our everyday homes, that we eat, consume energy, run the faucet, compost, flush, learn, and live. It is here, in our lives, that we must come to know our essential connection to the wilder earth, because it is here, in the activity of our daily lives, that we most surely affect this earth, for good or for ill.
Clearly, our cities, suburbs, and houses cry out for improvements that reflect ecological knowledge. I am not claiming they are as natural as those places we traditionally think of as Nature or Wilderness. They are not enough. They are, nevertheless, inhabited by spiders, snails, raccoons, hawks, coyotes, earthworms, fungi, snakes, and crows. They are surrounded as surely as any wilderness by clouds, sky, and stars. They are sparsely populated by beautiful, unsung, eccentric-seeming people who have spent decades studying the secret lives of warblers or dragonflies or nocturnal moths or mushrooms. They are our homes, our habitats, our ecosystems.
The title Crow Planet has two intertwined meanings. First, it refers to an earth upon which native biodiversity is gravely threatened, where in too many places the rich variety of species is being noticeably replaced by a few prominent, dominant, successful species (such as crows). At the same time, Crow Planet alludes to the fact that no matter where we dwell, or how, our lives are implicated in, and informed by, all of wilder life through the insistent presence of native wild creatures (such as crows).
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. Unlike most wild creatures, crows tolerate human habitations and relish the benefits of living within them—mainly the easy food sources. But to say that crows enjoy human company, or even prefer to live near humans, would be an overstatement. Though they may appear bold, most crows live in a constant state of wary readiness. And people, in turn, are vaguely unsettled by crows. Some love crows, some hate them, but nearly everyone respects their intelligence, and nearly everyone has a “crow story” to tell.
The spread of crow-ness is distressing on many levels. Abundant crows are an emblem of rampant habitat destruction and of the creation of an earth that is inhospitable to all but a handful of the most resilient beings. But they also offer an oblique suggestion of hope. The conspicuous presence of a native wild animal, one that struts our sidewalks, simultaneously accepts and balks at our presence, shares our food, and drops its children at our feet for close observation, can lend a great deal to our biological education. Crows can show us how certain wild, nonhuman animals live—what they need, how they speak, how they walk, and how they tip their heads in that special sideways manner to sip the slenderest bit of rainwater. They make us notice just how many of them there are getting to be, to realize that as humans generate the conditions that allow crow populations to grow, many other wild animal species, birds in particular, are present in far fewer numbers and others are gone completely. Crows are wild beings in our midst, even as they point to the wildness that we cannot see and have lost. Their abundance holds a warning but also a promise: no matter how urban or suburban, how worldly-wise and wilderness-blind, no matter how drastically removed we as a culture and as individuals may have become from any sense of wilderness or wildness or the splendid exuberance of nature, we will nevertheless be thrust, however unwittingly, into the presence of a native wild creature on a near-daily basis. This means that, if we are willing to tolerate our crow-related uneasiness and accept certain lessons, there is hope. Hope that we can renew our sense of natural connectedness and integrity. Hope that we can learn another kind of attention that is deeper, wilder, more creative, more native, more difficult, and far more beautiful than that which has come to be accepted as adequate. There is, at least, reason to dwell in hopeful possibility, to believe that humans just might be capable of the momentous, humble, graced actions that will allow the evolution of wild life to continue.
How, exactly, are we connected to the earth, the more-than-human world, in our lives and in our actions? And in light of this connection, how are we to carry out our lives on a changing earth? These are the questions we are called to answer in this kairos, this graced moment of opportune crisis. I have come to believe that opening ourselves to such inquiry and participating daily in the process of discovery it implies is our most urgent work as humans in the new millennium. And not because engaging these questions will make us happier, or smarter, or make more of our moments feel enchanted, though it will certainly do all of these things. It is urgent because an intimate awareness of the continuity between our lives and the rest of life is the only thing that will truly conserve the earth—this wonderful earth that we rightly love. We cannot know a place well or understand to which side of Leopold’s tendency our actions swing unless we walk the paths and know the breadth of our neighborhood and neighbors, on and off the concrete, above and below the soil.
We can all find our place in this unfolding story. In seeking my own, I have been to the library, the monastery, the backyard, the city parks, the ocean, the wilderness, and the edge of my sanity. I have relinquished, over and over, my attachment to definitive universal answers. Time after time I find that I am misguided, mistaken, lazy, or lost. But I return anyway, to the questions and to the crows. Here, after all, is a bird very much like us—at home, yet not entirely at home in the urban habitat, gleaning what’s here while remaining wild, showing us what’s beautiful, what’s ugly, and what’s missing. Crows remind us that we make our homes not in a vacuum, but in a zoöpolis, a place where human and wild geographies meet and mingle. They press us to our own wilder edges. They may step along our sidewalks, but in the next moment they fly off the path. If we want to watch them well, we will have to leave our own accustomed paths, the cultivated places, the neat edges of our yards and minds. We will find that our lives are not as impoverished as we’ve been told they are; the sidewalk is not as straight as we thought.
A Note on Names and Pronouns
Avian. Scientifically, linguistically, and according to the Chicago Manual of Style, it is the third person singular pronoun of choice for crows, and any bird, for that matter. But after hundreds of hours spent watching crows in the past two years, I have seen enough of them as individuals, as members of family groups or winter flocks, and as plain old animals like myself trying to get through the day, to call any crow “it.”
On the surface it is almost impossible to tell a male crow from a female. Their plumages are exactly alike. Male crows are on average somewhat larger than females, but any experienced birder will tell you that size is terribly difficult to gauge in the field. Plus, large female crows are sometimes bigger than small male crows, making size a factor but not a definitive indicator of sex. With practice, an observer may learn to tell male from female crows based on behavioral cues with some reliability, particularly during the breeding and nesting season, when we can see males climbing onto the backs of females, and then observe the sexes taking on different roles at the nest. Male crows have more testosterone than females, and this sometimes comes across in their social interactions. But such distinctions can be subtle, and gender calls based on social interactions are risky. When I have a good reason to guess that a crow is either male or female, I refer to it, naturally, as either he or she. When I am unable to reliably determine a crow’s sex, I often make an intuitive guess, knowing that I have a 50 percent chance of being wrong (or maybe, so as to give some credit to educated intuition, a 45 percent chance), and so, even though I call many crows in this book he or she, they may actually be the other. I’ve noticed that whenever I refer to a crow as a she in conversation, I am invariably asked, “How do you know it’s a female?” However, if I refer to a bird as a he, no one ever asks how I know it’s a male—not ever. Our efforts to move toward inclusive language in our lives and literature seem to have stopped cold in our discussions of the natural history world, where all animals are still neutrally male unless we know better.
Human. When I refer to friends in this book, sometimes I use their real names and sometimes I give them assumed names, depending on their preference. “Dr. Steffan” is a composite character made up of both a real-life therapist and a real-life psychiatrist. His name is invented.
A RELUCTANT CROW WATCHER
[The crow’s caw] mingled with the slight murmur of the village, the sound of children at play, as one stream empties gently into another, and the wild and tame are one. What a delicious sound! It is not merely crow calling to crow, for it speaks to me too. I am part of one great creature with him; if he has voice, I have ears.
—Henry David Thoreau
Crows are not my favorite bird. I never meant to watch crows especially, or to write about them. I am not one of those people who particularly identifies with crows, or has dreamed of them since birth, or believes that crows are my special totem. I’ve paid perhaps more attention than is usual to crows because they are birds, and I am a lifelong student of things ornithological. But I really started to study them only because the editor of my first book told me to. The book was a collection of essays that considers the human relationship with the natural world via birds. I wrote the essays because I was interested in a particular question having to do with a certain species, because something in my studies of these species sparked ideas I felt compelled to write about. But that hadn’t happened to me with crows. I knew they were smart and interesting, and I had my own crow stories to tell, as all nominal watchers of birds do, but that was it. Besides, I had already written about starlings in that book, and that seemed to me enough of ultracommon, shiny-black, very urban birds. So when my editor said he’d like to see a crow chapter, I said, well no, I didn’t think so. But he insisted, charmingly. And because I was rather in awe of him, and not at all because I wanted to write about crows, I said, reluctantly, okay.
Since I thought I had nothing to say about crows, and since I was in a hurry, I started watching crows constantly, and with some urgency. Just as instructively, I began asking people—normal people, not “bird people”—what they thought about crows. And I’ve rarely been so surprised. Whenever I ask someone about chickadees or robins or flickers or other common birds that people see with some regularity, the response is almost always lackluster, noncommittal, or at best blandly cheerful. But not so with crows. People’s opinions about crows are disproportionately strong. Some love crows. Oh! They are so intelligent! And beautiful! Others hate them. Loud. Poopy. Evil. A pestilence upon the city. Another common response, one that I didn’t foresee, was a nuanced dis-ease, a shadowy sort of crow ambivalence that runs unusually deep. There is caution over the words chosen: I know they are smart…. I can’t say I like them. I don’t wish them harm or anything. I’m actually a little afraid of them. Several women I have spoken with will not walk in parks with their small children if there are too many crows. They cannot tell me why exactly. And surrounding the myriad responses, even among the crow haters, there is nearly always an air of respect—a feeling that crows are, behind their shiny dark eyes, knowing things. It is a respect that few songbirds command.
Crows are members of the family Corvidae, which includes not only the various crow species of the world but also all of the jays, magpies, and ravens. Corvids, in turn, belong to the large avian order the Passeriformes, colloquially called the passerines, and even more colloquially the songbirds, which include the thrushes, finches, warblers, sparrows, chickadees, and many others. Passerines have feet built for perching, with three toes pointing forward and one toe pointing back, and sharp, curved toenails. They have nine or ten primary wing feathers, and are often good fliers and gifted songsters. Most passerines have a song particular to the breeding season, which males sing in order to establish a nesting territory and to attract a mate (corvids are exceptions within the order; though known for their vocal facility, they don’t have a seasonal “song”). Several species of birds with overall blackish plumage are often confused with the corvids, including blackbirds, grackles, cowbirds, and starlings. All of these are passerines but otherwise not closely related to crows.
Within North America, the Common Raven, Corvus corax, is by far the largest bird in the passerine order, followed by the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos. In the field guide, and in the field, for that matter, ravens and crows both look like big black birds, and it is not uncommon to think of crows as being pretty much like ravens, just smaller. But there are many differences between the two species, and if we can train ourselves to move beyond our overreliance on color in the identification of birds (as with most other things), it becomes clear that not all the differences are subtle ones.
Ravens are indeed larger than crows. An average crow weighs a shy pound and measures sixteen to eighteen inches from tip to tail; a raven weighs 2.5 pounds and is twenty-four inches long. A typical raven’s wingspan measures fifty-three inches, while a crow’s is usually about thirty-nine inches. Still, it is remarkably difficult, even for experienced observers, to judge size in the field, and unless a crow and a raven are side by side in a tree or in flight, eyeballing the size of the bird is not a reliable factor in determining whether it is a crow or a raven. A raven, though, is shaped differently from a crow. It is bulkier for its size, and its bill is proportionately much larger in relation to its head. Its rictal bristles—the whiskerlike coverings over their nostrils (actually a modified feather)—are usually observable through binoculars at a reasonable range. In flight, the raven’s wedge-shaped tail, in contrast to the crow’s mainly straight, slightly rounded tail, is a good identifier.
Other attributes of flying crows and ravens are less clear-cut and require a little experience to use reliably, but nearly anyone can manage them eventually. Crows rarely fly very far without flapping their wings, while ravens soar frequently. Crows flap fairly rapidly, and they look as if they are pushing their wings slightly backward, sort of like they are swimming through the air, while ravens have a steadier up-and-down wing beat. Crows are sleek, agile birds in flight, while ravens—though nimble for their size—give an impression of bulkiness. And of course, the raven’s low, toadish croak distinguishes it handily from the crow, with its higher, raspier, ultrafamiliar Caw! Caw!
The social conventions and habitat requirements of crows and ravens distinguish them further. Ravens are the only bird on earth that can be found just about anywhere on the planet. They inhabit deserts, coastlines, and high mountains. Other geographically ubiquitous birds, such as Red-tailed Hawks, Great Horned Owls, and various species of crow, can be found in all of these regions as well but stop well short of arctic tundra. Amazingly, the Common Raven—the same species found in the Sahara—readily inhabits the frigid arctic reaches. While ravens in some places do gather in feeding congregations, particularly in the winter, they are on the whole far less social and gregarious than crows. And though some ravens turn up in places where humans gather, they are not persistent followers of human habitations like crows are. Crows have come to be closely associated with human dwellings, and some crows, such as the Asian House Crow, are found only in places that are populated by humans. (In parts of Japan, the crow population has grown so far out of control that jumpsuit-wearing “crow patrols” are dispatched to destroy nests that, formed atop utility poles, cause electrical blackouts.)
The minds of crows and ravens are also different. Though both species demonstrate remarkable intelligence, ravens generally appear to be able to problem-solve more quickly and at a higher level than crows, working one or two more steps into a multistep problem. Both crows and ravens play—another sign of rich intelligence—but raven games tend to be more complex and may involve a level of “rules” that crow games don’t. Where crows will drop a stick in midair and swoop down to catch it, for example, ravens might pair up and take turns dropping the stick for each other. The differences do not necessarily suggest that ravens are more advanced in all areas. Because crows live so gregariously, they may have more developed social norms than ravens—an organized respect for the dead, perhaps, and possibly even a basic system of crow justice. Though such notions are largely anecdotal, there is reason to suppose we will come to understand these dimensions better as our crow watching becomes more sophisticated. Globally there are many species of crow. Unless otherwise noted, my observations in this book pertain to the most ubiquitous North American species, the American Crow.
For the majority of people on the face of the earth, the crow will be the single most oft-encountered native wild animal in their lives. I have never read any study saying that this is so; surely it is an unproven, and probably even an unprovable, claim. But it is likely to be true. Humans gather in villages, suburbs, and urban landscapes, and crows follow them there. The denser and more removed from wild places our dwellings become, the less likely we are to see any wild animals at all other than crows.
Certainly we live alongside other birds, but the most prevalent urban birds besides crows—pigeons, European Starlings, and House Sparrows—are all native to Europe rather than to North America. City green spaces and backyards host a variety of native birds—robins, chickadees, flickers, hummingbirds, and the like. These are a delight to observe, but in most places their numbers do not compare with those of the crows, and the crows, being larger and more vocal, are easier to find and watch. Because of their terrific intelligence, crows also do fabulous things compared with other birds (and even some people), things that catch our notice. Those of us who may be too blinded by our own lack of contact with wild creatures to notice a hummingbird still stumble over crows with habitual regularity.
There are other, nonavian wild animals in the places that humans gather—raccoons, for example. But raccoons are comparatively seldom seen, being mainly nocturnal and far less numerous than crows. Rats are nocturnal as well and desperately secretive. And the majority of urban and suburban rats are not native to the places they now live. Most of the squirrels we see also originated elsewhere. In Seattle, where I live, the parks and gardens are populated by nonnative Eastern gray squirrels, and in any case, there are far more crows than squirrels. After all, squirrels won’t stray far from trees; crows are fine with parking lots.
Insects and spiders are certainly more abundant as a group than crows, but, with a few exceptions, such as the large and shockingly beautiful tiger swallowtail butterfly, they are too small and dull colored to be within our sphere of notice. Even when we do notice insects and spiders, such as when they are biting us—and this they prefer to do while we’re sleeping—we rarely know how to identify them with any degree of accuracy before we squish them.
So I’m quite confident that this claim—that crows are the most common native wild being that humans regularly see—is true. I’ve conducted this thought-experiment with an array of biological scientists, and no one can think of a wild animal that is likely to be more familiar, or more regularly encountered, than the crow. And the more we spread our insistent pavement, the more crows we make. As roads and housing developments cut into farmland and forest edges, North America is transformed into a fair crow Eden, and the birds are more urban today than they have ever been. In many places, crow populations are rising exponentially, mirroring, with uncanny exactness, human population growth. While there will be exceptions in certain places and for certain groups of people, most of us must look to the crow as our single most accessible link to native wild things.
“So you’re saying crows are the bird we deserve,” friends have suggested, as if crows—bulky and black, stalking about—might be present as a punitive reminder of our ecological missteps. It might sound as if that’s what I’m saying. Certainly it is ironic, at best, that we remove forests, replace them with concrete and shrubbery, line the sidewalks with plastic cans full of food scraps and topped with ill-fitting lids and then lament the presence and noise of so many crows. But no, if it were about deserving, we would have no bird at all. As it is, we have a shiny, black, intelligent, native, wild bird. Crows may not be the bird we deserve, but they are the bird we’ve been given.
It is difficult to know just how many crows there are. The international avian conservation organization Partners in Flight estimates the American Crow population in the United States to be about thirty-one million, but some crow experts, including John Marzluff at the University of Washington, believe that number to be a bit low. There are more than three hundred million people in the United States. Marzluff tells me that while he doesn’t know for certain, he thinks there might be about one crow for every five to ten humans. This would be consistent with his studies showing that nesting pairs in suburban areas tend to claim and defend two houses with their accompanying yards as breeding territory. There is, then, roughly one crow per family. I like to think about this when I set the table for dinner; I imagine a dark visitor, our allotted crow, perching on the back of a chair with one of our best china plates in front of it, waiting for the spaghetti.
Once crows had insinuated themselves into my thinking, I found it difficult to shake them. How about a book on crows? my editor queried. Absolutely not, I said, fully believing the chapter I’d written had been enough crows for me. But the crows had by now inveigled their way into my brain. I started to find myself and my spotting scope at Alki Beach, a stretch of Puget Sound shoreline near my home, where I could study the crows who pick marine invertebrates from the rocky shore as their main sustenance as they have for thousands of years, from the time when the condos and the Starbucks across from the beach were ancient spruce, fir, and red cedar forests. Besides the Alki group, I began to exhaustively study the crows that frequent my front and backyards. I now study crows wherever I am, but it is to these two groups that I return over and over, and through all the seasons. In the last couple of years, I have logged hundreds of hours, studying the ways of crows. Like Socrates, the more I know, the more I know I don’t know. I could not in a lifetime exhaust the subject of crow natural history.
I never intended to live in a city. I was a post-hippie Earth-firster, tree-sitting, ecofeminist, radical birdwatcher, Earth Mother to be. Though I always knew on some level that my utopian vision for my eventual adult life was rather naive, I couldn’t help imagining that I would give birth to a girl, and that my daughter would chase butterflies around the acres of meadows and woodlands that surrounded our funky cabinesque home while I murmured sweet nothings into the velvety golden ears of our Jersey cow and led her about by a rope, barefoot, listening to her bell tinkle.
Unsurprisingly, that’s not what happened. I rented a little apartment in Seattle where I finished up my master’s thesis on environmental ethics and took a job with Seattle Audubon. I met and eventually married my wonderful husband, Tom. I got pregnant, birthed the presaged girl, and decided that I would do what the other primates do—raise my daughter myself rather than hiring strangers to do so. I resigned from Audubon and wrote my first book during her naps, and my husband commuted by bus from our tiny cottage of a house in West Seattle to his office across the bridge. This was not rural living by any stretch, but it was meaningful and happy. To stave off any latent cow yearnings, I installed a small flock of beautiful backyard chickens.
Eventually we realized that we could manage to buy a bigger house, and we fell in love with a restored 1920s farmhouse with high ceilings, rich fir moldings, a big yard, and koi swimming blithely in a vintage pond that called to mind an ancient Italian grotto. It was just two blocks from a busy road, and not at all in the neighborhood we had envisioned, but despite our reservations, we bought it. I supposed that once we moved there, the pleasure of living in such a pretty house would dispel my lingering doubts. I would put up curtains, plant a new vegetable garden, and be happy. But instead, I fell into a kind of anxious depression, one I attributed (whether oversimplistically or not, I still do not know) to living in the city against the pull of my heart. Urban living is our only choice for the moment, given Tom’s job. He works on global health issues from his university office, focusing on poverty-stricken parts of the world where AIDS runs rampant. By supporting him in this work, I feel I’m doing something useful too—it’s a family effort. But such reasonable thoughts did nothing to quell the downward spin of my brain. I soon became quite low-functioning, crying constantly and shaking uncontrollably, not eating, not sleeping, unable to get myself to do anything. I could almost hear Nurse Ratched following me around the house. And in spite of the nest being assembled just ten feet from the window of my sunny new study, I stopped studying crows.
“You are not having a nervous breakdown,” Dr. Steffan told me. I huddled tearfully in a fluffy chair and looked sidelong at the first psychiatrist I’d seen in my life, which up until then had been remarkably peaceful. I wasn’t? If this wasn’t a nervous breakdown, what was? “Well, then, is this what depression is?” I asked. Hmm… he hesitated to call it that. Anxiety? He hesitated to call it that. Well what?
“Well,” Dr. Steffan began to explain slowly, “there is a line—a good one—between seeing and feeling enough and seeing and feeling too much. Normally, we all keep well south of the latter line, and that serves us tolerably well in our daily interactions. You have lived your whole life closer to the line than is, um, normal. Or I should say typical. That is good—it is why you are”—he paused again—“how you are. A difficult way to be, but also beautiful sometimes, yes?”
I nodded pathetically. Difficult, beautiful, yes.
Dr. Steffan went on. “But living close to the line makes it easier to topple across it.” I looked up. That’s what happened? I toppled?
Some days I didn’t get up in the morning. I peered over the top of the quilt, saw the sun beyond the Cascade mountains, sensed their beauty, but couldn’t stop crying. I felt love and gratitude, and even a raw happiness when Tom and our nine-year-old daughter, Claire, came up to kiss me good-bye, but still I cried and shivered. Then they would leave, off to work and school, and I couldn’t stand it. How could they have left? How could anyone leave me alone like this? And besides, what was that terrible sound?
It sounded like a baby crow cawing and cawing without pause. A young crow sounds very different from an adult, especially when it wants to—that is, whenever it’s to her advantage to be seen as helpless and needy, to be seen as a young crow toward whom an adult crow might feel charitable and toss a crust of bread. I remembered it was midwinter, not baby crow season, rolled over, and shut my eyes. But this crow was insistent, and seemingly unheard by her target audience, whoever that might be. I started to wonder if the bird was in some sort of tormented danger—cornered by a cat, perhaps, or caught in the thorny branches of my merciless rosebush. Finally, I got out of bed and went to my study. There it was—a particularly disheveled-looking crow perched on the wire outside the window. The bird was just sitting there, being noisy, until she noticed me noticing her. And then she stopped, as if to say, “Ha! I got her out of bed,” became silent, and turned her attention to a completely different task. She began to preen, vigorously, extensively, and at great length. She preened as if her skin was distressingly itchy and as if she was alarmed, and maybe even frightened, by the intensity of the discomfort. I assumed she must be plagued by one of the many ectoparasites that attack young crows, and I got out my spotting scope to see what I could; since the bird was only twelve feet away, and my scope could magnify to 80x, maybe I would be able to tell whether she was gathering anything in her bill. I noticed that she had a warty growth over one eye, probably an indication of avian pox, which sometimes affects crows. The growth might be painful, pressing into the oculus, I thought, and it certainly wasn’t pretty. In a mood to be hyperaware of our interconnected frailty, I, naturally, started to cry. But I laughed, too, a tiny bit, seeing a blessed humor in my situation for the first time in months, standing there in my pink flannel pajamas, looking through a very expensive spotting scope at a common crow with a bad eye and a case of lice. Each of us, crow and human alike, was a disastrous, beautiful mess.
In spite of the chill air, I opened the two large windows wide and sat cross-legged on top of my desk in front of them. The crow stayed and preened. Without thinking, I picked up my notebook and sketched her from various angles. We both stayed there for two hours. I had a drawer full of crow studies—notebooks, observations, research, and musings. But that morning brought forth the most significant crow information I’d gleaned to date. Crows can get us out of bed. And they can do a lot more than that for us if we allow them.
I won’t pretend an instantaneous cure, if cure is even the right word for a return to the lifelong effort to maintain a proper balance between beauty and difficulty with minimal toppling. It took many more days to get me out of my pajamas, and more days still to get me into my walking shoes. But once they were on my feet, my relationship to the crows around me changed; instead of being merely my current object of study, the crows became a liaison with a truer way of being, of more vitally, graciously, and intelligently inhabiting my urban home. The next months revealed to me that even though I’d always imagined myself to be a good urban ecologist—I recycled, walked and biked, gathered eggs from my backyard chicken coop, knew the names of birds and trees, collected signatures for environmental initiatives, and even taught classes in local natural history—I had resisted the idea of becoming a truly knowledgeable urban naturalist, feeling that this was just an impoverished version of a “real” naturalist. I’d saved my best thinking, my best watching, my best presence, and my bravest intimacy for true nature. But what exactly did I mean by true nature? And was this not a snobbish attitude? Am I really so much better than the place where I live? I, who am as much an introduced race as any Norway rat?
In his essay Home Economics, agrarian writer Wendell Berry defines nature this way: “What we call nature is, in a sense, the sum of the changes made by all the various creatures and natural forces in their intricate actions and influences upon each other and their places.” In other words, for humans, how we live where we live is what makes us part of a natural ecosystem. It is also the source of our most profound impact on the more-than-human world.
We love our vision of untouched nature and cling tightly to images of pristine wilderness or desert or ocean as solace for our souls, as places of peace and transcendent beauty to which we can turn as a diversion from our cluttered, material lives. We believe ourselves to be intimately connected to wild places, as indeed we are. Too often, though, nature is romanticized as the place out there, the place with all the sparkly trees in the Sierra Club calendar, the place we visit with a knapsack and a Clif Bar, where we stand in awe of the beauty and refresh our spirits. But it is a kind of hubris to pretend that we come to such places unencumbered, that we can leave behind the snares, entanglements, and activities of our everyday lives and return to a kind of purity when we drive our SUVs (or even our hybrids) up to the hills for a subalpine-meadow hike, no matter how far we walk. Such sojourns are nourishing and necessary, but it remains our daily lives, in the places we live, that make us ecosystemic creatures; these are the seat of our most meaningful interactions with, and impact upon, the wider, wilder earth. We are connected by the ways that we choose, consume, and share water, food, shelter, and air—just like all the other animals. We cherish the few, sweet days we manage to escape to places we consider true wilderness, but the most essential things we can do for the deeply wild earth have to do with how we eat, how we drive, where we walk, and how we choose every moment of our quotidian urban lives.
When people—usually scientists or academics or nature writers—bother to define nature, one of two definitions typically emerges. Nature is either the whole of the physical world, excepting humans and their various constructs, or nature is the whole of the physical world, including humans and their various constructs. There is a portentous gap between these two definitions, but if we are going to consider our relationship to the more-than-human world with any kind of intelligence, it is a gap that we are going to have to navigate with some measure of sophistication.
I used to cling tightly to a chimeric vision of nature as something pure and somehow prehuman and to the idea that anything human-made removed a place from its natural status. But I have come to understand nature differently. Surely there is a continuum from a pure, undefiled wilderness to a trammeled concrete industrial area. But there is no place, we now know, as the relentlessly global impacts of climate change become increasingly understood, that humans have left untouched; and there is no place that the wild does not, in some small way, proclaim itself. Many human activities are wholly ugly, working against the nature upon which we forget we depend. Still, we do not flip-flop back and forth, now in nature, now in culture, now feeling quite animal-like, now wholly intellectual. We are, at all times, both at once. In this, humans may be unique, but we are no less natural. We are the human species, living in culture, bound by nature.
When we allow ourselves to think of nature as something out there, we become prey to complacency. If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here doesn’t really matter. Jennifer Price writes in Flight Maps, her eloquent critique of romanticized nature, that modern Americans use an idea of Nature Out There to ignore our ravenous uses of natural resources. “If I don’t think of a Volvo as nature, then can’t I buy and drive it to Nature without thinking very hard about how I use, alter, destroy, and consume nature?” In my urban ecosystem, I drive around a corner and a crow leaps into flight from the grassy parking strip. We startle each other. If nature is Out There, she asks, then what am I?
To suggest that urban nature holds profound lessons is not to suggest that our concrete-laced wilds are, in any sense, adequate. Ecologically minded social critics are most often correct in proclaiming them to be impoverished places that incite a rampant consumerism, contriving at every moment to cut us off from any connection to a wilder earth. Urban sprawl—and the degraded, chopped–up habitat it leaves in its wake—is the single greatest threat to species diversity in the current millennium. If we wish to have a positive impact on the places we consider to be most profoundly wild, then we must begin by inhabiting our home ecosystems with some semblance of knowledge and grace.
Put on your walking shoes, my louse-ridden crow suggested. And I did. I took my daughter’s hand and set out to drop the barriers I’d erected between my heart and my urban home. I would learn my place deeply and well, give the wild things that live here their due credit, and try to grasp how we might dwell together with intelligence, artistry, and joy. I would take my binoculars and sketchbook out of the field bag I carry when I visit nature out there, and drop them into the bag I carry every day, the one with my cell phone and my laptop and my bus pass. I would live as much in the presence of the wild as the urban landscape allows. I would learn, quickly, that this would be a creative challenge but not an impossible one. There are, after all, always crows.
Excerpted from Crow Planet by Haupt, Lyanda Lynn Copyright © 2009 by Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
A completely charming and informative book on the pleasures of keeping one's eyes open.
There's a lot of great crow insight in this book - especially if you are new to reading books about crows. At times the wander into philosophy, wisdom seemed a little too much of a tangent. However, that was probably because I was more interested in observations and wisdom about crows than I was about the authors view on life. That said, the blend of the two worked well and makes for an enjoyable and considered read.
With a spiritual sensitivity, the author exorts us to be aware of the natural world, to realize we are part of it, even in our paved-over cities. In re-connecting to the nature in her suburban neighborhood and her own back yard, she found healing and inspiration. I highly recommend this book.
Would have been nice to hear just about the crows instead of environmental rants - not recommended.