Corvid Wisdom: Natural Balance

“You got a probwem, ven?”   WIth what appears to be half a slice of meat pie hanging from his beak, the crow looks his least prepossessing.  He also mumbles.

“Don’t talk with your beak full,”  I rebuke him.  “It’s not a problem, exactly.  More a question of timing.”

Dropping his gravy-laden  prize onto his lamp post perch, Crow deftly stops its fall with one claw.  He stares in at me through my office window suspiciously.   “Timing what exac’ly?”

“The two bird feeders in the back garden – when to stop refilling them.”

“Oh, them!  Not one of yer life-changin’ dilemmas, is it then?”  He returns his attention to his fragment of pastry, pecking at it reflectively, “Never bothered me much, them.”

It’s true; they don’t.  In the days before his seaside interlude, he and a couple of his mates on a boys’-day-out raided the feeders, which finished up in the flowerbeds, emptied but otherwise unharmed.  Once a seagull (Crow swears it was a seagull) flew off with an entire feeder.  Mostly, though, Crow’s diet comprises higher things; to wit, one meat pie,another beakful of which is his current focus for ingestion.  

“Stop fillin’ em.”  

“What about the sparrows?   What will they eat?”  I reason.

“Sparrers?!?  Bleedin’ sparrers??”   His expostulation is so violent crumbs of pie reach my window, spattering the glass;  “Bugger the sparrers mate, fink of Monty!”  

“Who’s Monty?”

“Monty?  Yer mean yer don’ know?  His fam’ly been livin’in yer garden fer years an yer don’ know?  Well, I tell you what, mate.  You find out ‘ho Monty is an’ you ask ‘im what he finks abaht sparrers!”  Crow’s pie resource is exhausted.  “Time to go!  I got places ter be.  You ask Monty!”

Watching him fly away I ponder his challenge.  Crow doesn’t understand that our duologue is my only communication with a bird, or any animal species, come to that.  Whatever or whoever ‘Monty’ is, in order to have value in Crow’s eyes he must be other than human, and therefore beyond my capability to converse.

It is a doomed abductive exercise.  The creatures that frequent my garden include a hedgehog, at least one urban fox, the odd cat and several species of bird.  I fall at the first fence because I have no means of knowing which of these enjoys the sobriquet ‘Monty’, and no way to ask.  Nevertheless it is Crow’s opening gambit when he returns to the lamp post later this morning.

“Know ‘oo Monty is yet, then?”   I confess my ignorance.  “Well, mate, that’s ‘ow yer treats yer residents, innit?  Yer got no sense o’ responsibility, have yer?”

“All right, I know you’re dying to tell me.  Who is ‘Monty’, how am I failing him, and what has that to do with the feeders?”

Have you ever seen a crow shake its head?  It’s at once a marvellous and incongruous gesture.  “Monty,”  He says with triumphant emphasis  “Is yer resident blackbird.  Black-bird, see?”

I can’t help smiling. Giving a name to the frantic little creature who spends his life in hopeless pursuit of garden domination doesn’t move me to sympathy.  The crow’s tone is one of reproof:

“Yer don’t fink much of ‘im, then?  Yer don’t fink he deserves respect?”

“And I suppose you’re going to tell me he does?”

I’m treated to one of Crow’s censorious frowns,  “He lives off yer garden, don’t he?  I mean, winter and summer he lives from yer land, drummin’ fer worms, keepin’ them unner control for yer, eatin’ pests, an’ ‘at?  ‘E’s a resident, mate.  Isn’t that worth nuffin?”

I protest:  “He’s not nice to the sparrows. He spends half his life trying to chase them away. He’s aggressive!”

“Wouldn’ you be?   That bay tree you got, that’s where ‘e ‘as ter build ‘is nest, innit.  Its fick enuff ter disguise a nest, an’ somewhere to ‘ide his kids under when they’re learnin’ ter fly.  ‘An’ Monty – ‘im – he’s clever see?  ‘E knows there’s on’y room fer one blackbird nest in yer garden ‘cause there’s on’y enough feed fer ‘isself an’ his missus, so ‘e chases off any uvver blackbirds, don ‘e?”

“He’s not entirely effective in doing even that!”  I sense a rant, so I try to get my scruffy black friend to elucidate; “He’s trying to keep a natural balance, is that what you’re saying?”

“Yeah.   That’s it.  But what do you do? Yer comes along wiv yer bleedin’ feeders, don’t yer, an’ yer hangs ‘em just up the fence from the bay tree, an’ before yer know it the bay tree’s full o’ bleedin’ sparrers.  

“Sparrers ever’where!  No manners!”

“What about the starlings?” I remind him gently.

“What abaht..?” He arches his wings in a gesture of restrained impatience. “We’re not talkin’ abaht no starlin’s, matey, oh no! Starlin’s, they’re jus’ like raiders, see? They comes and they goes, they don’ build they’re nests nowhere ‘ere. But them sparrers, they moves in, don’ they? They nest there ‘cause it’s a short ‘op to free food.  They don’t care nuffin fer yer garden, mate.  They don’t care if their noise draws every cat in the neighbour’ood to Monty’s tree, ‘cause they know the biggest bird in it ain’t them – it’s Monty.  Any cat’d go for ‘im first. They trample his turf so ‘e can’t hunt his worms, an’ they flock around the place like they own it, but shall I tell yer somefin’?”

“Something else?”

“Yeah!” The crow’s in full spate now, neck extending, wings punching his sides. “They don’ give a toss, mate, them sparrers.  Soon as the bes’ of the food goes, they go.  They aint goin’ ter starve – nah, not them!  They’ll just move to the next garden and strip that.  Af’er they finished wiv’ Monty they go an’ look up some of his cousins!”  

Crow fluffs up his feathers to adopt what I’m sure he believes to be an imitation of a human pose.  He clearly intends to mimic me.  “When ter stop refillin’ the feeders?  Stop now!  Maybe Monty‘ll have more chance of gettin’ his kids into the air before the cats get ‘em.”

He raises a foot to scratch at his neck,  “Or I do.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Crow Diplomacy

The crow is there when I draw back my blind this morning.   Perched atop the lamp-post outside my window, preening himself with all the same self-importance and conceit I remember.

“Hello, mate,”  He cocks his head to catch me squarely in the eye,  “Surprise, yeah?”

“Surprise?  I thought you were dead!”

“Yeah?  Dead?  Oh, that’s nice, innit?  Nah mate, I been down the coast for a coupl’a years.  Got meself a bit of a taste for the old fishes, see?  Never been fitter, me.  See the shine on these?”  He stretches his flight feathers for effect,  “That’s what fishes does for yer!”

“So, what brought you back here?”

“Ah.”  He shifts uneasily.  “Watch this, look!”   With a dive and a spread of his wings he is gone, finding himself some rising air to soar above the common which skirts the further side of our road.  I watch him go.   Larger than my recollection of him, his flight is masterful, as though he owns the air he rides upon.  It is a freedom I always envied in him, yet I am glad for his return.  Regretting the brevity of our renewed acquaintance, I settle down to work.

An hour later he is back, alighting on the streetlamp once again and bringing a piece of paper which he pins beneath his left foot.  .  “It was the gulls.”  he says, staring down at it.

He is always gathering trophies of rubbish from one source or another, so I dismiss it as having some tasty morsel on it that he likes.  “Gulls?”  I query.

“On the coast.  I was doin’ alright dahn there, new Missus, more kids.  Them gulls, though…  See, when they comes up ‘ere – inland, when it’s windy, like – they’re behavin’ theirselves, ‘cause there’s more of us than there are them,  but dahn there, on the coast…”

Herman

“Were you getting bullied?”

He fluffs his feathers.  “Nah, mate!  Nah!  Bullied?  Me?  No bleedin’ gull bullies me, no-how.”

“But?”  I coax him.

“Well, it never stops, does it?  Mob, mob, mob all the time.  They got this leader, this Blackback called Herman.  Nasty little bugger.  He organises it all.”

“You offended Herman?”

“I might just of won an argument over a nice bit of ‘erring.  It was nuffin, was it?  He reckoned it were ‘is, but it never were…”  Crow clacks his beak:  “Don’t matter, anyway.  Back here now.  Even got me old nest back after a bit of argy-bargy.  Pizza place has closed. though, ha’n’it?

“You’ll be missing those bins!”

“What, me? No chance!  Good provider, me.  I know me dustbins, don’t I?  Yours is a good un.”

“Thanks for reminding me; I must remember to close the lid.  The Pizza place has gone.  Its owners couldn’t survive this Covid thing.”   And I add quickly, in case he should misunderstand,  “That’s Covid, not corvid.”

“I should fink so!  I should fink so, mate!  Us corvids gets accused of enough of it – this and that.  So that’s why the pizza place is closed.  Bat-poop.”

“Oh, you know about that!”

“Yeah!”  He fluffs out his feathers;  “I got internashun’l connections, I have. Larf, innit?”

“Well, personally I take it pretty seriously.”

“What?  I mean….’ere, look, let’s get it straight.  These bats, they’ve all got a touch of the Covids, right?  So they poops on these Pango…whatsits.”

“Pangolins.”

“Yeah, them.”  

“That shouldn’t be so sensational.  You and your mates are pretty expert in the excretia-targetting department.  I’ve received a few direct hits myself.”

“Yeah, well.  Once by me personally.”

“What??”

“”You’ve got a big head.  Anyway, don’ interrupt.  Then these Chinese blokes from Wotan eat the Panga-whatits and they catch the virus, an’ then they spreads it all over the place? Like I said, larf, innit?”

Why is it funny?”

The crow begins to dance from foot to foot on the lamp-post top, in the way he always does when he has a point to make:  “Well, first fing, see – first fing, these Pangy-whatsits is very scarce, right?  Not many left ‘cause the Chinese eat them all the time, and they use their scales, an ‘at.    So I’m guessin’ yer average bat don’t score many direct hits on many Panga-whatsits, see?”

“Yes,”  I acknowledge cautiously,  “I think I see.”

 And second fing; there’s a lab’raratary…”

“Laboratory.”

“One of those.  There’s one of those half a mile up the flippin’ road from this Wotan place where they makes viruses all day, like?  An’ no, you’re sayin, nobody slipped a few dishes o’ this Corvid stuff out o’ there?  No, much more likely you caught it off a bat that pooped on a pangolin what somebody ate?   Oh, my gawd!   It’s a larf!   They’re tuggin’ yer wire, mate!”

“That’s a terrible accusation!”  I accuse him.  “You’re saying these people are deliberately poisoning the rest of the world?  Why?”

The crow lowers his head to stare at me with such intensity I almost imagine, for a moment, that he is wearing those rimless half-lenses my maths teacher so often used to pinion me in my junior year.  “Now that’s a very good question, that is.  That’s the best question you’ve asked me all morning.  Yes.”

I recover myself.  “And does it have an answer?  Thousands of people have died.”

“That won’t matter to ‘im.”  My friend cocks his head.  “You didn’t expec’ me to say that, neither, did yer?  I knows about ‘im, too ‘cause I’m an internashun’l crow, me.   I got connections!”

“Yes, so you said. I don’t doubt it.”  I stare at him interrogatively, doubting it.  “Who’s ‘him’”

“This Chinese bloke, Xi Jinping – ‘im.”

The crow has always had the power to surprise, but this astounds me:  “The Chinese leader – how the hell do you know about him?”

“Like I said, connections.  Crows fly across seas, y’know, if there’s somefink good to eat on the uvver side.  We chat a lot.  Sven, he’s from the place wiv all the mosquitos…”

“Sweden?”

“Yeah, there.  Well, he’s got a mate, Ivan, from the big land – Russia, I fink you calls it, an’ Ivan knows a crow from Mongolia.  He was nestin’ wiv ‘er for years, an they still get on, an’…”

“Right!  Alright, I get the picture!”

  From what they’re tellin’ me, he’s ‘avin’ a bit of argy wiv this cockatoo feller, yeah?”

Amazed by my old friend’s apparent grasp of world politics, I decide to enlighten him further.  “If you mean the American President, I suppose so, yes.  He says China has been stealing American intellectual property and copying their technology for years, you see, and…”

“An’ this Pingy bloke, he says old Cockatoo’s lot ‘as been sendin’ work to them in China ‘cause they can produce it cheaper, then buyin’it back for a tax dodge.”  The crow nods sagely and looks down at his feet.  He seems to be looking at his feet a lot.  “Yeah, I get it.  I get it, mate!”

“So, go on then!”  

“Go where?”

“Give me your solution to the problem!”  In my past experience the crow always comes up with a solution. Maybe this one is a little too complicated, even for his innate common sense to unravel. I shouldn’t have doubted.

“Well, I sees it like this;”  The crow looks up to the sky as if in search of divine inspiration, but I realise almost immediately that his attention is being drawn by a seagull circling overhead.   “Do you hear that?  Do you ‘ear what that clam-shucker jus’ called me?

“Any’ow, your little difficulty.  Let’s see.”   He injects a scholarly pause.  “The way I looks at it, this Pingy bloke an’ the Cockatoo, they don’t share the same tree, do they?  They don’ get on.   A bit like me an’ Herman, yeah?   If we’d thought about it, we could ‘ave shared that bit of ‘erring, but we didn’t ‘cause we jus’ don’t like each uvver; an’ I has to back off ‘cause there’s more of ‘is lot than my lot down there, an’ Herman knows it.

“Which is not so true in this case,”  I point out, “because both sides are about equal.”

“So there’s yer answer, then!”  The crow sounds triumphant.  “What do yer do?  Nuffink!  Nuffink!   Hah!”  I must be looking dense, because he amplifies this conclusion:  “See, neither of ‘em can’t do nuffink ‘cause they needs to nest and feed, an’ Pingy’s lot won’t really want ter do that in Cockatoo’s tree, wiv all the mobbing an’ ‘at, an’ same goes for Cockatoo’s bunch.  They jus’ sits in their own trees an’ peck at each uvver’s feathers for a bit.”

“And that’s your solution?  They just go on skirmishing and hating each other forever?”

“Nah!  Nah, ‘course not!  This is all abaht time, see?”  The crow stares at his feet again.  “Cockatoo and Pingy, don’t they ‘ave mates?”

“Wives, you mean?   Yes, I believe they do.”

“There you are, then!”

“And…?”

“Wives, mates, partners – while me an’ Herman’s struttin’ about, we’re getting a right earful from our uvver halves, ‘cause we’re fightin’ over ever’fing.  I tell yer, mate, if I’d taken me missus from up ‘ere wiv me dahn the coast instead of pickin’ up a local bird I’d still be dahn there!  She’d ‘ave sorted Herman aht, no trouble!  See, us blokes don’ like losin’ face, but our missuses, they got more important stuff…”

“Like economics, and running charities, and so on.”  I suggest, with barely concealed sarcasm.

He looks at me archly,  “Yeah, alright – them.  Any’ow, bit o’ pressure, bit o’ time, and Cockatoo an’ Pingy both work out it’d be better if they got along and agreed on same stuff as before, an’ there you are, sorted!”  He flexes his wings.  “Now, if there’s nuffin’ else, I got to catch up wiv me local knowledge.  I’ve lost track of a farmyard or two, see?  Would yer believe it, Farrer’s Bridge ‘as stopped keepin’ ‘is chickens. No quick lunches there, no more!”

I watch as he soars into the low grey cloud that gathers over both our mornings, regretful of the time we’ve missed in these conversations, but glad to have his patent wisdom to ground me once more.  In his wake, the fragment of paper that he brought to the lamp-post in his claw flutters, discarded, to the grass below.

Consumed by curiosity, I descend the stairs and make my way out of doors to retrieve that fragment, which I probably see as litter.  When I examine it, I see something more – newsprint with the heading ‘US-China Standoff’ and a small picture of Donald Trump.  There is further text; beginning a characterisation of the major players in the trade war, and a few words of explanation of its causes.  It is a mere scrap with room to accommodate only a little information, but it might be enough to explain my friend’s grasp of an issue outside his normal understanding and to present me with a fresh challenge to my unbelief:

Can it be that the crow has learned to read?

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credits: Milkovi on Unsplash, Casey Horner on Unsplash

Betrayal

Crow“So, what d’you fink?”  The crow is back on the lamp post outside my window.  It is his third visit this morning, but the air outside is still cold so I have been pretending to ignore him.

“About what?”  I ask, through my grudgingly opened casement.

“This, mate.  This!”

I stare cluelessly at him for a moment while he turns to face me, then away, and finally perches on one leg with his shoulders hunched and his head lowered.  At last I comprehend.  He is posing.   “Very nice!”  I try to sound enthusiastic.

“Nice?  Nice?  Do you know how long this took me?  Look at them fevvers!  Look at that shine!  Sex on wings, mate, that’s me.  Irresistible, in’ I?”

“You look very…”  I grope for a word…”personable.”

“Personable?”  I have ruffled those magnificent feathers.  “No, mate, I ain’t like no person.  Not like a person at all.”

I have neglected to remember the world outside is heavily engaged in the machinations of Spring.  Cherry blossom is on the bough, clouds are white and fluffy, and there is romance in the air.

“So, you’re going courting?”  I say.  “I thought you guys were supposed to be monogamous?”

Crow fixes me with a reproachful eye.  “You ‘ave to do that, don’t yer?”

“Do what?”

“Remind me!  Listen, mate.   One lot of kids – out the way.  They’re gone.  Me, I been workin’ me beak off fetchin’ an’ carryin’, stuffin’ the little buggers wiv’ anything I can find just to keep their crops full.  Now they’re big enough to do their own stuffing, and I got four days – five if I’m lucky – ‘fore it’s all twigs and mud again; know what I mean?”  He refers to the next clutch of eggs, of course.  I nod my understanding.

“See, it’s not jus’ me, is it?  You should see ‘er!  She’s down the playing fields hoppin’ around wiv that chuffin’ chough from Number Three Elm, makin’ out like she’s just two again.  She’s been comin’ home wiv ‘er tail fevvers in a ruck for a week!  It’s disgustin’, that’s what it is!”

This drift in our conversation is making my crow agitated.  He is stamping his feet on the top of his lamp-post perch and pecking the plastic cover repeatedly.  “How do I know whose chicks I’m goin’ to be slavin’ over next month?  Do you know what chough eggs look like?”

I admit that I don’t.  “You’re concerning yourself unnecessarily.  I’m not sure what you’re suggesting is even possible.” I stop myself from chuckling, because my friend is obviously a soul in torment, caught in a very human dilemma.

“Maybe you do need some recreation.”  I say, more to placate him than anything else.  “What will you do with your four days?  Do you have a seduction plan?”

Again I am treated to that askance look.  “If yer mean am I goin’ to pull – too right!   I’m off down Carter’s Farm this very mornin’, I am.  They’re sowin’ the twelve acre, aren’t they?  Twelve acres of hedge to hedge talent, mate – you wouldn’t believe!”

“Mind you don’t get your beak caught in the drill.”  I warn him sardonically.  “Aren’t you getting a little mature for this?”

“Are you talkin’ about my age again?  Here, watch this.”  Crow launches himself from the top of the lamppost, executes a near vertical climb, then an immaculate stall turn, which he recovers with vigorous wing flapping.  Just as suddenly, he turns the ascent into a nose dive, wings near-folded, only to convert into a banked turn a few inches from the ground.  To complete this curious demonstration of corvid aerobatics, he does an upward swoop, landing back on the lamp-post with elegant precision.  “Does that look ‘old’ to yer?  Does it?”   His wing is dragging a little and clearly hurts him.  He stabs it with his beak in annoyance.  “In me prime, mate.  In me prime.”

I give him a twisted smile, with as much of my face as remains unfrozen by that inclement morning breeze.   “You’re not really going to cheat on your wife.”  I tell him.  “You’re dreaming.  Those young birds would laugh at you.”

“Nah.”

“Pardon?”

“Nah.  Alright?  Nah, I’m not goin’ to cheat on ‘er!  She’d peck me ‘ead in, she would.  I’d lose me tree rights.  I’m a territorial, I am!  I got a nest site, I have – and a good one, too!  I’m respected!  See what I mean?”

I do see.  The winter has been mild, leaving a sky full of spring survivors, and only a few of those young birds will be able to breed because there is simply insufficient space.  The older ‘territorial’ birds will monopolise the breeding as they always do.  But there will be squabbling and fights.

“So you intend to seduce some poor young innocent into thinking you’ll settle down and have chicks with her, when all you really want to do is ruffle her feathers?”

The crow pauses to consider my euphemism for a second.   “Fink so, that’s about it.”

“If that isn’t cheating, I don’t know what is.  I’m ashamed of you!”

“Yeah, but….”   He looks at me uneasily.  “What do we do it for, eh?  I mean, what do us males get out of it?”

I am flattered by this inclusion.  I find myself briefly checking to make sure I am displaying no feathers of my own.  “Us?”   I try to answer truthfully.  “What does anybody get out of it?  Nothing, I guess – maybe a kindred spirit to cleave to when the wind blows; maybe another voice in the silence.  Perhaps that isn’t the way to think of it.  We don’t do it for ourselves, do we?  We do it for our children.  It’s what they get out of it that counts.”   Trying a smile, I add:  “And a few precious moments following the seed drill on Carter’s Farm.”

My crow is suddenly still.   “But then yer chicks grow up, don’t they?  And that’s us left chasing dreams.  An’ every summer is a summer less, and suddenly there’s no chicks anymore, and we can’t fly as high as we did, or as fast.  An’ sometime we have to stop, and ask ourselves really, what was it all about?”

I find I cannot answer.  To try to do so would be to confront my own broken dreams, and in my own defence I must close that portal or it will consume me; so, with sadness, I reach up to the window sash, to gently pull it closed.  As I do so, I catch the eye of my crow watching me, sharing my thoughts, exposing my innermost dread.    I might almost imagine his sigh, but of course, that is impossible.  With a graceful shift of balance the bird takes flight, away into the grey morning, and away from me.

In my heart I know I will never see him again.