It's late October, season of the crow. Faux crows hunch over the lintels of Halloween spook houses and perch on the shoulders of would-be...
It’s late October, season of the crow. Faux crows hunch over the lintels of Halloween spook houses and perch on the shoulders of would-be witches. The midnight-black birds blot the autumn sunset, and no one terrorized by Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” can help but shiver at the sight. American literature teachers may force a reading of “The Raven,” a dirge to the crow’s larger cousin that includes one of the most fatalistic verses in poetry:
“Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’ “
There’s a great unease between humans and the genus Corvus, which includes both crows and ravens. As biologist John Marzluff and artist Tony Angell tell it in their beautiful new natural-history book, “In the Company of Crows and Ravens,” (Yale University Press, 384 pp., $30), humanity’s fear/respect relationship with these birds goes back millions of years.
When warfare, fire or disease created carnage, crows and ravens fed on the dead. Horrified humans (who often created the carnage in the first place) “interpreted this predictable biological response as a supernatural sign and came to view crows and ravens as omens of bad luck,” the authors write.
Unease is also born of respect — crows and ravens are so smart they can solve puzzles. They can choose and shape tools to retrieve food. They use humans to get their dinner — Japanese crows drop “thick-shelled nuts, clams and tough-skinned squirrels” on the roadways, letting automobiles do the job of rendering their food. “Mentally, crows and ravens are more like flying monkeys than they are like other birds,” the authors write. “This means they are able to learn, remember, and use insight to solve natural and human challenges.”
And there’s their social behavior, eerily like our own. Crows can live up to a quarter-century and mate for life (though they may stray and get a little on the side). They “sleep together to stay safe, they drive away mutual enemies, and maybe even dole out justice,” the authors write. They have dozens of ways of talking to each other — one researcher documented 23 separate types of crow calls.
JOHN MARZLUFF AND TONY ANGELL, authors of “In the Company of Crows and Ravens” will appear at these Seattle area locations:
At 7 p.m. Thursday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
At 6 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Foster/White Gallery, 123 S. Jackson St., Seattle. Includes a showing of Angell’s drawings and sculpture. The two will also appear and sign booksat Foster/White from 2 to 4 p.m. Nov 12 (206-622-2833).
And they are survivors. Crows can and do eat almost anything — even bird lovers curse them for gobbling the eggs and young of songbirds. Ravens can survive in desert heat (above 113 degrees Fahrenheit) and arctic chill (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit). Crows adapted so well to 20th-century urbanization that their numbers are on the increase, despite ongoing attempts to shoot them, bomb them and poison them.
For both authors, “Crows and Ravens” is the result of a lifetime obsession.
Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, has made crows and their cousins the focus of his professional study, which has led him into some odd spots — in Maine he scavenged moose road kill from county sheriffs to study how crows lead other crows to carcasses. Despite studying other birds in the family Corvidae (crows and ravens, jays, nutcrackers and magpies), Marzluff became hooked on crows.
“If you’re interested in social behavior at all, it’s very difficult to leave them,” he says.
Angell both co-wrote the book and provided the gorgeous illustrations. One of the Northwest’s best-known wildlife artists, he has spent decades observing their behavior and form. His raven sculptures adorn public parks and private residences, and he’s spent many hours meditating before the 17th-century Japanese black-and-gold crow screen housed at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, created by artists of the Edo period who admired the birds’ devotion to family and commitment to one another.
Even their blackness — midnight black feathers, beak, near-black feet — beckoned to Angell.
“Is it the darkness? Yes,” he says. “When you see a crow, you almost involuntarily start.”
Though “Crows and Ravens” is beautiful enough for coffee-table-book status, it advances an edgy, even spooky scientific idea: that throughout history, crows and humans have changed one another’s culture.
The birds, along with other social animals like wolves, may have forced humans to band together to keep their hunting prizes from being carried away.
As for crows, human beings turned out to be the grand prize in the species-as-lunch-ticket contest.
“Now they had met the most wasteful [animal] of all, one that often killed more than it could eat, discarded sizeable proportions of food as unpalatable, and was capable of transforming the earth’s surface in a manner that favored the basic needs of these birds,” Marzluff and Angell write.
The authors even suggest that living with humans is making crows more intelligent: “We suggest they are becoming smarter because learning, memory, and cultural evolution are so strongly favored by an increasingly complex urban lifestyle.”
Today the crow is ascendant — suburbia, a kind of urban savanna with both grass and trees, has created perfect crow habitat. Ravens, who favor thick forests and cliff edges, are in decline. In Seattle alone, from 1991 to 1999 more than 200,000 acres of forest was converted into forested urban areas and lawns, prime crow habitat. As young crows from suburbia have moved into the city, Marzluff has documented new crow behavior — crows nesting on urban rooftops, including the KING-TV headquarters and The Seattle Times building, and behind the gargoyles of the University of Washington’s Suzzallo Library.
In eras past, native Northwest tribes revered the raven as “creator, trickster and messenger.” In the 21st century, crows inspire the names of rock bands (Black Crowes, Counting Crows), and in urban Seattle, a group of urban street people call themselves the ‘Tribe of Crow.’ “
And they may survive us all. As another 19th-century writer, Henry David Thoreau, wrote, the crow “sees the white man come and the Indian withdraw, but it withdraws not. Its untamed voice is still heard above the tinkling of the forge. It sees a race pass away, but it passes not away.”
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or firstname.lastname@example.org