New book suggests crows can help urbanites get in touch with nature's wildness.
Everyone has a crow story. At least it seems so to West Seattle author Lyanda Lynn Haupt.
After researching her latest book, “Crow Planet,” released in July by Little, Brown & Co., she says that nothing she hears about these capricious corvids surprises her anymore. Sliding down skylights seemingly just for the fun of it? Check. Tending to their sick and dying? Check. Placing clamshells in the road to employ cars as giant shellfish openers? Check. As members of the bird family Corvidae, crows — along with jays and ravens — are some of the smartest birds around.
“Crow behavior is so plastic and they’re so intelligent that they do amazing, strange, unpredictable things all the time,” Haupt says. Though rich with them, her book is not about crow antics, but rather about how these ubiquitous big black birds are the city dweller’s ever-present reminder of both our membership in, and our responsibility to, the wild.
Crows figure prominently in Haupt’s coming to terms with settling into her own urban lifestyle. A country girl at heart, the naturalist and avid birder always imagined herself milking a Jersey cow on an underpopulated island in the Sound, visited daily by birds that shun the city — “good birds,” she once might have said. Instead, Haupt and her family chose to nest in a 1920s farmhouse on a small city lot in West Seattle, where she’s busy creating her own 3,500-square-foot “farm,” complete with chickens, homemade preserves and laundry drying in the breeze. It was here she met an injured baby crow she named Charlotte, a bird who helped her recognize, and even revel in, the vast and varied offerings of nature bordered by sidewalks.
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A link with wildness
Haupt’s book is an eloquent argument that crows — no matter how mundane, and perhaps because they are so — link us inextricably with wildness. She believes that we don’t have to drive to a trailhead and haul our gear up to an alpine lake to experience nature, when we can find it — if we train ourselves in new ways of seeing — right at our own bus stops, on our front porches, and even from our window on the 14th floor. Haupt calls this a “field-trip mentality” and urges people who don’t know where to begin to start simply by carrying a pen and notepad with them wherever they go.
“Think of your purse or messenger bag as a field bag,” she says. “Go with the intent of writing about something you see — a crow feeding its young, a robin begging or an unusual fungus on the sidewalk. Taking note helps make something we normally pass by become tangible as far as our unfolding relationship with the natural world.”
Haupt says just packing the pen and paper is an announcement that you are “ready to see,” and that even this simple act can bring you more to see.
Ubiquitous crows are excellent subjects. Have your neighborhood crows been looking a little scruffy lately? After the business of nesting and raising young is mostly completed, adult crows begin to lose and replace all of their feathers in an annual molt. You may see gaping spaces in wings or tails — a sign that new feathers have not yet come in. People bothered by divebombing crows in the spring and early summer should notice that they are now free to come and go as they please, unperturbed by protective crow parents. Also at this time of year, crows leave their smaller family groups and join larger flocks they will stay in throughout the winter, before pairing off again to nest next spring.
Listen and look
“If we could learn one thing in the city, it’s when crows are making a commotion, look,” Haupt says. “You’ll inevitably see something interesting — a hawk, an owl, a raccoon, an eagle… ” As if on cue, as she explained this mobbing behavior, a noisy group of crows alerted us to their presence as they chased a red-tailed hawk high over Haupt’s neighborhood. Divebombing and thumping this predator known to snack on fledgling crows, the birds spun and swooped in an aggressive sky ballet.
After clocking hundreds of research hours watching crows, rather than tiring of her subject Haupt says she’s now hooked. “I’ll continue to watch crows because of what they announce to me about my neighborhood and the wild in and around it — that has fully insinuated itself into my life,” she says. “I don’t think I could give it up even if I wanted to.”
Haupt says crows provide her with a humbling daily reminder that the boundary between wild and domestic is more permeable than we think.
“When I see crows trying to find food, caring for their young or playing in the wind, I remember that all of us animals are seeking to flourish and to thrive,” she says. “They may not be the wildest, most gorgeous, or most exotic birds around, but they provide a constant reminder that the things that we do in our lives affect the more-than-human world.”
So the next time you are tempted to curse a crow cacophony, take a moment to discover what all the fuss is about. As Haupt says, “Crows invite us to keep looking.”
Kathryn True is a freelance writer based on Vashon Island.