Op/Ed

Jessie Raymond: Counting on befriending crows

A few years ago, I read about a little girl in the UK who had made friends with the crows in her yard. Noting that they picked up any food that had been dropped, she started throwing out dog kibble, and they started showing up every day.
Big deal, right? Pigeons are always landing in our yard to eat the corn I scatter for my chickens. But the crows were different: They brought the girl gifts in return — a bent paper clip one week, an old button the next. They left dozens of items over the years.
Pigeons might be good at things like carrying secret messages behind enemy lines, but they’re just not thoughtful.
I decided I wanted crows to leave me bits of trash too. (Who wouldn’t?) But first I had to do some research.
I learned that crows are super-intelligent animals that can live 14 years. Families work together to raise chicks; older siblings will help their parents feed the nestlings, and grandparents will drive the young to preschool now and then.
Compare this to barn swallows, who build nests just big enough for three chicks and then hatch out four. Every spring we find numerous featherless, sightless, paper-skinned hatchlings expiring on the concrete barn floor below their nests.
I picture Mommy and Daddy Swallow saying, “Welcome to the world, our darling babies. While we’re off finding you some grubs, you guys figure out who the weakling is.” This may be nature’s way of ensuring survival of the fittest, but in my opinion it’s not great parenting.
Crows even recognize human faces. Researchers in a university study, after cultivating friendly relations with the crows on campus, put on Dick Cheney masks and netted (and then released) the birds to scare them. From then on, the crows would attack anyone who showed up in the mask.
A couple of years later, the researchers stuck the Cheney mask on some poor freshman and sent him across the quad (“No, seriously, this will be fun!”). Not only did the older crows remember the mask and mob the guy, but younger birds who had never seen the mask themselves had the same reaction. The older crows had taught the younger ones a valuable lesson: Beware of politicians.
Fascinating.
I desperately wanted to win over the crows in our yard. Maybe someday they’d bring me a gift. A twist tie, perhaps, or a wire nut.
A girl can dream.
I’ve always been fascinated by unlikely human-animal bonds, like in that show “The Man Who Hugs Grizzly Bears.” (That’s not a great example, as the show got cancelled partway through the first season, but there are plenty of other noted people-to-animal relationships that haven’t ended in mauling.)
Alas, the crows, defying cliché, had always turned up their bills at the corn I threw down for my hens. But last week, I apparently landed on something better.
I had broken up a piece of stale bread and tossed it across the lawn for the chickens. A few minutes later, from the kitchen window, I saw a crow flying off with a crust in its beak.
The next morning, that same crow (or a different one, who can tell?) sat perched on a low branch over the coop.
I headed outside — first removing my Dick Cheney mask, just in case — and threw out more stale bread. Minutes later, the crow was on the ground, grabbing a piece. 
This morning, there were four crows waiting for me. Something is happening.
What comes next?
I picture myself, in the near future, twirling through the yard, flinging chunks of bread skyward while crows, in a Disneyesque scene, tuck daisies in my hair and tie a gingham apron around my waist.
At least I hope that’s where this is headed.
But crows are, after all, wild animals. What if they’re just building their numbers in a plot to avenge some accidental offense I committed ages ago? What if, instead of playing Cinderella, they give me the Tippi Hedren treatment?
I still think we have the potential for a beautiful human-crow friendship, but I’m being careful; it’s dangerous to treat wild animals as if they’re more domesticated than they actually are.
As the man who hugged grizzly bears never said (but maybe should have): Better safe than sorry.

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