there was a juvenile American crow named Sam, who when he arrived had about
half a dozen ways of telling us he was hungry, hungrier and very hungry. He
would flap about the yard, beak agape, uttering from the back of his throat a
variety of pleading, wheedling, threatening notes, all raucous. In a week or so
Sam had figured out the system. Food, when it did come, came through the
kitchen door. Thereafter, rather than badger just any passerby who might or
might not be carrying crow goodies, Sam went to the source. He would sit on the
doorstep, going through his begging repertoire until fed. Frequently in the
process he would be able to slip inside the kitchen. There he made a second
discovery. In comparison with the yard, where there were only such dull
activities as sunbathing and weeding, the inside of the house was a swinging
place. There were potholders to be shredded, butter to be walked through,
tropical fish to be nipped from their tank, floors to be defecated upon and
lots of people. From then on his ambition was to be a house crow. Long after
most crows have forgotten their juvenile food cries, Sam, a great hulk of a
bird, retained his. He would squawk at the door, like the most pathetic
fledgling, not because he was hungry, but because he wanted to be let in to
raise hell. He called at the door in the same way a dog barks or a muddy-handed
In the wild,
crows are famous for the variety and precision of their warning calls. They
can, for example, distinguish between an unarmed man and a man carrying a gun
and pass along this information to other crows. They have calls for faraway
danger, for immediate threats, for four-legged predators, for winged and
limbless ones. (Crows are particularly suspicious of anything that even vaguely
resembles a large snake. Sam would throw a hissy when he saw a piece of black
As they do with
their food calls, tame crows rephrase their alarm calls to deal with household
crises. A raven named Doc shared the premises with, among other beasts, a
good-natured Airedale named Mike. Doc disliked the dog intensely and cursed him
steadily. It was not that Doc feared the Airedale, it was just that the dog
bugged him. Dog food is also crow food, as far as a crow is concerned, and Doc
was always trying to muscle into Mike's food pan. The dog would simply lower
his shaggy head to keep away from Doc's heavy beak and push the bird aside.
"Danger, dog. Danger, dog," the raven would croak hysterically, despite
the fact that the food belonged to the dog. The dog was dangerous because he
was eating food that the raven might otherwise have eaten. The Corvidae are
preeminent avian practitioners of doublethink.
vent to his hostility, Doc's danger calls were made for the purpose of getting
help, as one raven will call others to come mob a fox. As far as Doc was
concerned, we were ravens, and he expected us to help him rub out the Airedale.
Often he got, in a sense, what he wanted. After 20 minutes or so of listening
to Doc's foul language, somebody would usually put the dog away, not to please
Doc but to shut his dirty mouth.
Doc also had a
special alarm call for one particular human, a frequent visitor whom we shall
call (what Doc called him is unprintable) Bostwick. Bostwick was a biologist
(he was then analyzing the urine of crayfish) and was certain that the way to
make friends with a raven was to hold down his wings and massage his neck.
Bostwick was wrong. Having been captured by surprise once and given this
ignominious Dutch rub, Doc never forgot the experience or forgave Bostwick.
Whenever the scientist approached, Doc would fly out of reach, perch, fix the
man with a cold eye and begin to chew him out.
conversation is exhortative, aimed at getting somebody to do something or stop
doing something. However, there are times when it is pleasant and instructive
to listen to crows. For example, walking in the woods with a tame crow is a
fine thing. A crow will follow like a dog, only in the air, flitting from tree
to tree, occasionally soaring up for a long look. All the time he will be
yakking away, telling the walker, whom he regards as a clumsy crow, what he
sees that is curious, frightening, good to eat or disgusting. It is like
walking with a pair of mobile, high-powered binoculars wired for sound.
conversation is possible with crows, though they do not encourage it. In the
wild, crows note and react to many sound signals and can do the same around the
house. A crow quickly learns to come when called by name and to recognize, if
not always obey, such commands as "Stop," "Go away." "Shut
up," "Ouch," and "Let go of my ear." If one is a clever
mimic, one can speak to a crow in Crow but, if not, almost any loud, harsh
signal will do. This is no problem, since the things one often wants to say to
crows can best be said in loud, harsh words.
all the time there are other personality traits that make the average crow a
memorable houseguest. For example, you have to watch them with the silverware.
Most crows are either latent or active kleptomaniacs, con-genitally unable to
resist small, bright objects such as keys, buttons and coins. Not only do they
want to fondle trinkets, but they want to possess them, bear them away, hoard
them like a miser. The summer that Doc stayed with us there was a chronic
shortage of teaspoons. Children, dishwashers and garbage disposers were blamed.
Not until fall, when a tarpaulin used to winterize a sleeping porch was
unrolled, were the spoons and culprit discovered. Doc had stashed away 11
spoons in the core of the canvas roll.
Crows also are
apt to sneak up on other guests and try to make love to them. Among the
Corvidae a common way of displaying affection is ritual feeding. One bird will
pop bits of food into the mouth of an amoroso. This is fine between crows but
can lead to problems when a crow becomes enamored with a Homo sapiens. The
difficulty is that a crow is weak on identifying and distinguishing the
functions of the many gaping orifices he finds in a human skull. Since crows
usually perch on a shoulder, it is not surprising that they should regard ears
with particular affection. These facts may interest an ornithologist but are
hard to explain to, say, the matronly wife of a business acquaintance who first
met the family and Sam, the crow, at a picnic. This lady, more or less out of
good manners (when in savage places do as the savages do), tolerated Sam
perching on her shoulder. However, when he slipped away, returned and jammed a
wad of potato salad against her eardrum it neither cleared the air nor her head
to explain that Sam found her glamorous and desirable.
All of which may
stand as either a recommendation or a warning for those contemplating
interpersonal relationships with the Corvidae. It is also intended to emphasize
that when it is claimed that Barry, the fish crow, was the very most among
crows, a considerable claim is being made. It is perhaps an exaggeration to
tout Barry as the tamest of all crows we have known (it is hard to get a bird
any tamer than one that will stuff potato salad in your ear). It is fair,
however, to say he was the most dependent (tameness is a euphemism for
dependency, though most animal keepers do not like to admit it).