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My Journey to the Crows

When did my interest in crows first start? It’s hard to say. I was initially a fan of the birds of prey – specifically hawks, because they were common in my area. I would notice them on streetlights, wires, soaring high above me with the underside of their wings flashing white in the sunlight. I was ridiculously thrilled when a sharp-shinned hawk landed in the mimosa tree just outside my studio window with a little dead songbird and proceeded to… I know – most people would find that heinous, but I found it fascinating.

I heard about an executive who worked at one of the tall buildings in downtown Baltimore. It seems that the ledge outside his office window was the favorite dining place for the resident pair of Peregrine falcons. He asked to move to a different office – I would have asked to be moved TO that office.

My children grew up with parents who would pull over the car at the sight of a hawk with prey on the ground or an osprey struggling with a fish that was too large to lift from the river. We spent a day tracking bald eagle pairs at the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on the eastern shore of Maryland until my son whined, “Are we done yet?!”

One time, when my kids were teenagers and helping my parents out with yard work, my daughter pointed up to the sky and noted, “There’s a hawk.” To which my son replied, “If that was Pegasus, I would not be as excited as Mom and Dad would be to see that hawk.”

So when did I start moving from birds of prey to crows? One afternoon I watched about a crows land in that same mimosa tree where the hawk had dined. They surrounded one oblivious mourning dove and I thought that they looked like a bunch of thugs as I remembered a story that a friend of mine had told. He used to watch the crows raid Flicker nests in his yard, and fly in pairs tossing the young chicks from crow to crow, clearly (to him) enjoying themselves. But nothing like that happened here. The birds just hunkered down until the rain stopped and then flew away.

Another time, I saw a crow with a white eye. It seemed like an omen or a sign, and I began researching the mythological significance of crows. I started dreaming about crows. They began popping up everywhere. While staying in a small cottage in Ireland, I walked outside on our first morning to find the yard awash in black feathers. Most standing upright, point down in the grass. We quickly discovered that the farm where we were staying was the nighttime roost for the local raven population.

The turning point from hawk to crow came when I began volunteering for a local wildlife rehabilitator. It was a dream come true to be in such close proximity to a variety of predators – red shouldered hawks, osprey, owls of many kinds, and even a bald eagle. It was sometimes my job to cut up mice into manageable pieces to be fed to the babies. Once, after I had been a volunteer for a while, I asked the director if I might feed the adult red-tailed hawk female. Kathy arched her eyebrow and said, “Sure, wear this glove, use these tongs, and stand back from the cage.”

The glove was the heavy leather kind used by falconers and the tongs were at least 18 inches long. I placed the food in the tongs, holding it outstretched in my gloved hand I stepped toward the cage. Faster than I thought possible, and with a flurry of wings and claws, the hawk reached between the bars and snatched the prey, yanking it back in within a blink of an eye. I stifled a shriek and dropped the tongs. “Don’t bend down to get them,” she warned. Duh. I would not be going near that cage again anytime soon.

I stuck to feeding the songbirds that perched along the edge of the incubator, and preparing food for the other birds and animals. One day I came in to work and could hear an intriguing string of syllables and vocalizations coming from a box in the room adjacent to the main clinic. “What’s that?” I asked, approaching the box. Kathy turned around, “Oh someone brought in this baby crow they found, want to feed it?”

I looked over the edge of the box, expecting something small, but instead was greeted by the intelligent gaze of a crow fledgling. Fully feathered and almost as large as an adult, it hopped onto the side of the box and cocked its head at me. The BEST thing about feeding a baby crow small spoonfuls of canned cat food is that they actually say “yumyumyum.” Seriously.

I was entranced by the fact that every time I walked by the box, it would hop up on the edge and look at me expectantly. If I ignored it for too long, it would croak, caw, and produce a variety of noises so that I would look at it, and yes, give it another bit of food just to hear the “yumyumyum.” After that encounter, I was hooked.

I read stories about crows, watch videos of them using tools to obtain food, sliding down roofs on makeshift sleds, and generally being fascinating. Outside, there is a family of crows that spends its days in the tall pines that surround the nearby school. I have been trying to make friends with them.

I like to say that they made the first move, because despite the fact that I am almost always with my dogs there, I recently had one fly down to a branch just above and in front of me, and engage in a wonderful monologue directed at me. It cooed, it gurgled, it made very soft squawks. And it would pause and tip its head at me as if waiting for my input. I shrugged. I said hello. I told it that it was very beautiful. My dogs just lay at my feet ignoring the entire encounter. After several minutes, we parted ways, but it was a beginning.

Now when I walk the dogs I do so with a pocket full of peanuts – and I’ve finally made contact. The first time was with a group of five racing around through the trees, two were chasing a very small hawk, and two more were swooping and cawing at each other. One sat in a tree watching me. I waved. I threw some peanuts onto the tennis court. All movement stopped. I waited. They waited. I walked a short distance away and after some calling back and forth, one at a time they came and took the peanuts. Yay! Contact. The two that had been flying around, suddenly flew toward me, circling each other, over and under, just above my head. Is there any other bird that takes as much pleasure in the gift of flight as the crows?

The crows are not always there. Sometimes they ignore me and my peanut tossing altogether, sometimes they simply take the peanuts and go. That is all fine. I think it’s the beginning of a relationship. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, listen to this:

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