Lost caws 

Watching crows watching us

Page 3 of 4

One night, Gliko rode his bike home from the Albertson's to his girlfriend's place, about a mile north. Inside, he looked out her window and—here's a third crow, looking him right in the face and cawing. Did the crow follow him home?

"Dustin, Dustin," quoth the third bird. "Popcorn chicken. Popcorn chicken."

The crows' ability to remember faces and caw distinctively at one another is a matter of survival. A baby crow isn't born knowing to fear moving cars or great horned owls. Their parents have to tell them. One might almost call it a cultural tradition. They use facial recognition to differentiate not only humans, but also one another. Crows can hold up to 50 distinct relationships in their heads at once. They're likely telling each other apart by physical characteristics, body language and voice. In this way, they seem to have a lot more in common with primates, elephants and dolphins than with most other birds.

So, crows have language and the primitive makings of a society. As humans, we're starting to run out of things that make us special. Nobody thinks that using tools is exclusive to humans anymore; tool use can be found among all those aforementioned smart animals, as well as among otters and octopuses. There are even species of fish that use rocks as anvils to crack shells.

We're really not that cool.

A crow's use of tools is particularly inventive. Independent of Archimedes's discovery of displacement as a way of measuring volume in the bathtub, there's the story about a crow filling a pitcher of water with stones in order to raise the level and get a sip. They know how to pull up a fisherman's line with their talons, eat the fish and, frighteningly, replace the hook.

Where food is plentiful and natural predators are scarce, some crows are perhaps getting a little too comfortable. Like squirrels, they keep caches of food in various places, so abundance isn't wasted. We imagine wild animals living a hard-knock life of scarcity, braving the elements and fighting tooth and nail for survival. But watch a crow waddle down the street without an agenda or swoop down from the air to land in a puddle. It can almost start to look like leisure. Crows in Russia have been videotaped sliding down wintry slopes with cardboard, carrying the cardboard back up to the top of the hill and then sliding down again. Crows have invented sledding!

Like so many Missoulians, they seem to be underemployed.

Where do the children go?

Bob Wire, the Missoula humorist, once wrote, apropos of not much, "How come nobody's ever seen a baby crow?"

This struck me as profound. I told everybody about the sentence and went looking for exceptions.

Of course, it's not true that no one has ever seen a baby crow. But I'd never seen one, and I really wanted to. And then, one recent Saturday, when my head hurt and I'd fallen asleep on the porch under the blistering sun, my friend Mackenzie Cole called and said, "I found a baby crow. Do you want to come see a baby crow?"

I was on the south side, off Brooks Avenue, and the baby crow was near the north end of the UM campus. I'd have to ride my bike quickly to get there, but this was my big chance to see a baby crow and I wasn't going to miss it.

Cole told me to be quiet. I set my bike in the grass and tiptoed over to where he was crouched over the sidewalk. Three feet in front of him was a crow, and a few feet farther, a squirrel, harassing the crow about who knows what.

"It's just a crow," I said.

"It's a baby," Cole said. He pointed out the smaller beak and the sort of fluffy feathers. Erick Greene told me later that you can tell a baby crow by the pink skin at the corners of their mouths, called "the gape." Compared to weathered, molting parents, Greene says, the babies have "good-looking clothes on."

Baby crows fledge the nest after about a month, and they hop to the ground nearly full-sized. That's why everybody thinks they've never seen a baby crow. You probably have. If you've ever seen crow road kill, it was probably a fledgling. The adults are too smart.

This fledgeling was just inches from us. It seemed helpless and lost. Cole shooed the pestering squirrel away. The crow's parents must have abandoned him, he said. "There were two babies last night. Do you want to see the second one?"

He took me around to his friend's backyard and showed me a mass of black feathers, a few bones licked clean and two dismembered feet curled up in a last embrace with the air. A cat must have gotten it. This was my second time seeing a young crow and it was even more unsatisfying than the first.

Cole asked if I wanted one of the crow's feet. He plucked them from the carnage and started tenderly cleaning them. I said I didn't.

Meanwhile, the first young crow stood in the center of the sidewalk, cawing. I don't know how to describe how it felt. It hurts to think about now. "Why doesn't his mother come?" I asked Cole.

"I don't know," he said. "They're bad parents." He looked up and down 6th Street. "This one probably won't make it through the night either."

The young crow cawed and cawed and cawed. We heard an adult, calling back in the distance. "Maybe that's its mother," I said.

"I think so," Cole said.

"Maybe it's not coming around because we're here. Maybe we should leave it."

And we did. We rode our bikes downtown, but Cole couldn't stop thinking about that crow. He trains dogs and horses for a living and he writes poetry. I've never met anyone who understands or cares for animals better than he. "Getting a crow at that age is the perfect time to train them and raise them as pets," he said.

Interesting fact: While it's legal to shoot a crow in Montana, it's illegal to raise a wild bird yourself unless you're a licensed bird handler.

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