Why So Many Crows?
by Michael McAllister
For several weeks now, Grinnell’s Central Park and its vicinity have been exceedingly well populated by nighttime visitors. And they are not at all shy about making their presence known.
They are crows—birds whose raucous calls and dark bearing, birds whose prominent beak, cold eyes, and ragged claws can obscure the sensitivity that they are apparently capable of displaying toward one another and toward humans.
The problem, in part, is their call—their caw. And the caw-cophany that results when they gather. Perhaps to the crows the messages are invitations to come down and rest for the night, to take a load off the wings, so to speak, but we humans are apt to find the discordance less than melodic.
Still, the variation of sounds is intriguing. There are harsh calls most obviously, but there also seem to be answers to queries and varying pitches and tempos to provide counterpoint. Some of the calls come rapidly, shortened into bursts, sounding more like the protests of an agitated puppy than the declarations of a bird about to bed down. Other calls are long, deep, unhurried, and authoritative, perhaps the demands of the elders attempting to establish order among the young.
However, if we focus only on sounds, we may miss other attributes of crows that deserve some consideration.
In March of 2015, Boston’s NPR station, WBUR, ran a segment that pronounced crows as “scary smart.”
Crows “score as high as primates in some intelligence tests,” reported crow-expert John Marzluff, of the Department of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington. In fact, the article continues, crows “fashion and use tools,” a statement corroborated in September of 2016 when The Atlantic magazine related that species of crows have been observed using sticks to probe into holes in a log as they look for food.
It is even possible that humans can form a bond with crows.
Vicki Croke (whose surname might incline her toward a study of crows) wrote the WBUR piece and reports that she once began feeding crows peanuts while walking her dog in a park. The birds “very quickly—within a few days—recognized” her and began calling to her and swooping down for their treats. She even suggested that she take some of these birds home, as she already had the best air freshener for litter box area for the dog.
Moreover, the crows came to recognize her car and would even “glide right next to the driver window at head level” as a means of guiding Ms. Croke into her parking spot.
There are crows, ravens, and blackbirds. Differences exist between them, and some of the birds are more prominent in our collective consciousness than others because they have been brought forth by writers—most famously, perhaps, Edgar Allan Poe’s single-minded raven. There is also Wallace Steven’s blackbird and his thirteen ways of looking at one, and even the Beatles (primarily Paul, his supporters will want it noted) gave us a “blackbird singing in the dead of night.” While various versions of the blackbird (or black bird) Paul had in mind have emerged, the twitterings imposed on the White Album version leave no doubt that the feathered variety of bird was the topic of at least that performance.
The crow has been shortchanged on the literary front, however, perhaps because its name, like its call, is abrupt. It lacks melody. Quoth the crow, “Nevermore”? That line just doesn’t scan.
But the crow is surely more deserving of prominence than we have granted. Crows have even been known to bring gifts—their version of gifts, at any rate—to humans who have been kind to them.
Reports surfaced from Seattle, Washington, in 2015, and were prominent on the Internet of Gabi Mann, eight years old, who had made a habit of feeding crows, and the birds, apparently in return, began favoring her with trinkets such as bits of broken glass, a bead, a paper clip, and even, according to WBUR, “a little heart pendent.”
Other residents of the area, however, were not so captivated, reported Seattle’s television station KIRO, and those residents filed a $200,000 suit against the Mann family for what was termed excessive “dirt, feathers, peanut particles and shells, feces and urine” as a result of the young girl’s generosity. The suit was settled out of court.
But the incident does raise another issue that cannot be ignored. Some of the presents that crows leave are not particularly welcome.
A philosophical take on the situation might conclude that, where there is life, there must be waste. An artistic take might make reference to a Jackson Pollock painting. A person in charge of keeping the sidewalks clean would likely be more directly negative in his or her assessment, and a pedestrian might take to the street.
Regardless of interpretation, one question persists: Why have the crows been gathering so intensely this winter in Grinnell’s Central Park area. There is no particular mystery involved. After all, if crows are as intelligent as researchers say they are, it is perfectly reasonable that whey would want to spend time in Grinnell.