The glossy crow with a few oddly sprouting feathers crouches a bit on the fence and tilts its head to get a better look at me. It rolls its eye up and down, assessing, judging. What are you thinking, I wonder? It eyes the slices of boiled egg I am doling out along the railing of the deck. It knows what it is. It comes every day, actually several times a day. If I haven’t served the egg ‘on time’ in the morning and evening, it complains bitterly until I provide; croaking and cawing and grumbling from various perches around the yard. It will also screech endlessly if the dog is still mincing about the back yard on her morning ramble. The crows have proven they aren’t afraid of her by stalking around her with ill humor to get their food, but they would much prefer she came inside, leaving them to their own devices without her nosy canine intrusiveness. Once I’m outside though, the crow straightens and clicks and garbles in response to my chatter. As I talk to it, it answers with amazing sounds I cannot begin to reproduce. A couple of times now it has thrown all caution to the wind and flown on to the deck within three feet of me, eager to get its breakfast. It restlessly eyeballs me as though to say, “Can I have it yet?”
Right now, the curmudgeonly crow sitting on my fence is one of this year’s juveniles. It has progressed from the clumsy, awkward tweenie I first met to a beautiful, robust, and proud adult. Ok, Twiggy is still a little gawky, but Grace no longer slips off the fence every few seconds. Its mother, whom I named Brownie McCrowford, began coming to my backyard every day last winter to get whatever was available. At the time, it was mainly birdseed in a feeder, but one day she purloined some discarded stale crackers from the objecting sparrows. I then noticed her often, so I read up a bit on what crows eat and put out a few items she might like. She coveted the suet cakes I made from suet from the grocery mixed with dried fruit, seeds, and some peanut butter. She also appeared to love the popcorn, which I have put out every day since because suet melts into a rancid mess in the summer, and popcorn is cheap, if you buy it loose in bulk, and easy to store in batches. In Spring, she would eat what she wanted and then comically cram as many pieces of popcorn in her beak as she could manage to take back to her nest. Sometimes the fluffy white blobs started falling out. She would put the remaining pieces down and systematically pick them all back up, one by one, lining them up in her beak like a row of pinballs waiting to be ejected.
Crows are corvids, the abbreviated version of Corvidae, which also includes ravens, rooks, bluejays, magpies, and jackdaws. Crows are confident, assertive, curious, playful, regal, and aloof, as well as structured and organized with complicated community systems for roosting, feeding, and warning each other of danger. For many birds, there are multiple names for groups of each type, but I have to admit that I love a Murder of Crows. Ravens may be called a Conspiracy or an Unkindness, and Rooks, a Parliament. I am utterly delighted with these names.
Crows are smart, not just survival smart, but figure-out-how-this-works smart. Occasionally, their gaze feels a shade condescending; I expect it to shake its head in sad disappointment at my failures. But crows are magnetically endearing. Human appreciation for the intelligence and amiable friendship of corvids is nothing new. Charles Dickens had a raven as a pet, a companion. Its name was Grip. Grip appears in Dickens’ novel Barnaby Rudge and inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write The Raven. Now that is a lasting influence. Grip, who died in 1841 from the admittedly not-so-smart act of eating lead paint chips, is forever immortalized in a state of taxidermy in the Philadelphia Free Library as part of the Gimbel Collection.
Crows are patiently observant and willing to spend impressive amounts of time to ascertain absolutely that a site for food or shelter is safe. Whereas other birds — cardinals, doves, red-winged blackbirds, sparrows — alight briefly and make their decision rapidly, a crow will sit on a fence post or tree branch, stoically and authoritatively analyzing its prospects, for such a lengthy time that it seems to have forgotten where it was going or what it was doing. While its posture may seem to betray a lax and inattentive bird, it’s a false image of what is really alert and wary awareness. It’s calm demeanor may lull me into thinking it is relaxed, but no, it did not lapse into careless vigilance. The smallest unusual or sudden sound will quickly reveal it ready for defense or flight, whatever is required.
While I understand the need of wildlife to continue to fend for itself and not become inured to humans, there is that part of me that still guiltily revels in the realization that these few crows, this family of corvids, recognize me (crows have been proven to recognize individual humans and react to them), and are conditionally convinced that I intend them no harm. Brownie doesn’t come as often now that her offspring are adult-sized and are feeding themselves, but some days she comes and eats, gets a drink of water. Some days she just sits on the fence and watches Twiggy and Grace, the two most identifiable juveniles, bluster at each other over the yolks of the eggs or struggle to consume a large piece of popcorn. Eventually they work things out and share the egg, and they learn how to hold the popcorn kernel with one claw and break pieces off with their beak. Sometimes they take it to the birdbath and dunk it in the water before gulping it down whole.
After their meal, they line up on the fence, sometimes just one but sometimes all five of them, cleaning their sensitive beaks on the boards, fluttering and resettling their feathers before heading out for their next adventure or to their roosting site for the night. Their launch seems almost too slow to allow successful flight, their large forms dip and then rise unhurriedly into the air, their wings beating a leisurely rhythmic pattern as they sail through the dusky sky like big dark galleons across the sea. As they cross the purplish backdrop of twilight, I can see their gnarled black claws curled beneath them, landing gear in flight position. I wish them a silent goodnight as they glide into their roosting trees across the field. I’ll see you in the morning.