In her book "Crow Planet," Seattle author Lyanda Lynn Haupt ponders crows and what their resilient nature means for conservation, the environment and living thoughtfully. Haupt discusses her book July 21 at the Elliott Bay Book Co. and Aug. 13 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.
Despite the fact crows are smart, groom each other and make attentive parents, use tools, learn from watching other birds, roost in flocks for protection and sociability, can learn to speak and are notoriously playful, they can’t shake their bad reputation. Whether in vast flocks, small groups or solo, they’re far more “loud, large, and conspicuous” than most birds.
In “Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness” (Little, Brown, 230 pp., $23.99), West Seattle author, naturalist and crow devotee Lyanda Lynn Haupt explains that populations of humans and crows have never been greater, nor has our proximity ever been closer. And unlike the majority of wild birds, crows “relish the benefits” of being in our midst, mainly because we provide so much food.
Crows’ intelligence and social complexity are lost on many people who see them as destructive, aggressive and — particularly with the link to West Nile virus — a possible health risk. That there are so many crows, Haupt notes, is an “emblem of rampant habitat destruction” caused by humans. Sprawling urban landscapes, for instance, support only the most resilient creatures. Crows and the whole corvid family — jays, magpies and ravens — are chief among those hardy survivors who thrive while others dwindle and die out.
Haupt’s welcome new book appears on the heels of an extremely hard act to follow, her wonderful “Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent” (2006), which traced Charles Darwin’s evolution from aimless college boy to visionary scientist. That she was uncertain what to write about after such a larger-than-life subject is soon apparent, for she confesses to days of staying in bed in pajamas. Until, that is, crows prompt a radical makeover. Seeing the birds’ affection for each other and their daily antics, Haupt decides to bring “naturalist practices into my urban life.” And so she wears binoculars, whether on a walk to Lincoln Park or to Target, making each errand a field trip.
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The result is a much more personal book, one that uses herself and her fondness for crows to cast its interests toward large concepts such as conservation, the environment and learning to live more thoughtfully. “Everything we do matters,” Haupt writes. When she hangs laundry outside to dry, something none of her daughter Claire’s friends’ moms does, the lesson — that all choices have consequences — is poignant. When Haupt sets aside her training as a bird rehabilitator and releases an injured young crow because she knows those raised by humans tend to be shunned, she places the bird’s needs first.
Crows remind us that we live in a zoöpolis, “a place where human and wild geographies mingle.” The term, coined by geographer Jennifer Wolch, is a place where humans build homes on land that historically belonged to nonhumans. Observing this setting, resisting the temptation to hurry past things worth seeing, provides us a better chance for living intelligently, Haupt believes.
And along the way, she tells wonderful, crazy crow stories. Once, Haupt recalls, four nestlings left their nest before they could fly. Safe in her fenced back yard, “they soon began to entertain themselves by dismantling my garden. A litter of Labrador puppies couldn’t have been more destructive.” Haupt turned the hose on them but, instead of being deterred, “they gathered under the spray, flapped their wings, and opened their bills.”
Ah, those incorrigible corvids.