When she set out to write about the crow â€” the black sheep of the avian world â€” the naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt didnâ€™t relish the task. â€œI never meant to watch crows especially,â€ she admits in her curiously personal and thought-provoking meditation, â€œCrow Planet.â€ â€œWhenever I ask someone about chickadees or robins or flickers or other common birds . . . the response is almost always lackluster, noncommittal or at best blandly cheerful.â€ Crows, however, sometimes elicit raves (â€œThey are so intelligent! And beautiful!â€), but far more often insults (â€œloud,â€ â€œpoopy,â€ â€œevil,â€ â€œmenacingly bold,â€ â€œharbingers of deathâ€).
Did you know that crows recognize human faces? To prove this, she writes, a researcher at the University of Washington conducted an experiment. Volunteers who had captured and banded crows (something crows resent) while wearing caveman masks were cawed at and dive-bombed whenever they re-entered crow precincts. When the same volunteers walked through the crow zone with their faces hidden by Dick Cheney masks, â€œthe crows left them entirely alone.â€ (Presumably, this reflected no political bias.) Affectingly, Haupt describes â€œcrow funeralsâ€ in which a â€œstillnessâ€ settles around a deceased bird as other crows â€œcluster about the crow in perfect silence,â€ and records evidence of crows at play â€” basking in the sun, â€œsprawled on one side with their wings hanging open . . . like black-feathered Madame Bovarysâ€ or catching falling cherry blossoms. She knows that by publishing such observations, she risks criticism from the scientific community: studies â€œmust not resort to anecdoteâ€ or â€œanthropomorphize their subject,â€ she scolds herself. And yet, she maintains, she canâ€™t faithfully portray the interlaced world of man and crow without sharing such stories. She prefers the more open-minded, questing inquiry of earlier students of the natural world like Thoreau and Louis Agassiz, and patterns her own research technique on St. Benedictâ€™s thoughtful reading practice, allowing a â€œcontemplative flowâ€ to settle upon her watching.
Like human beings, Haupt explains, crows are one of the â€œfew prominent, dominant, successful speciesâ€ that prosper in the modern world. Their hardiness means they will outlast more fragile Âspecies. Before we revile them, she suggests, we ought to understand that there are so many of them because there are so many of us. Because we have built, they have come, and crows and humans today must coexist in the â€œzoÃ¶polis,â€ the â€œoverlap of human and animal geographies.â€
In a lyrical narrative that blends science and conscience, Haupt mourns the encroachments of urbanization, but cherishes the wildness that survives. She has learned to appreciate, â€œbut not quite love,â€ the crow. And while she may hesitate to anthropomorphize the bird, she is unable to avoid, in one instance, caninifying it â€” comparing a brood of fledglings who landed on her lawn and uprooted her seedling carrots to playful Labrador puppies. She gently spritzed the young crows with a hose, hoping theyâ€™d flutter away and spare her crop. â€œInstead,â€ she writes, â€œall four of them gathered under the spray, flapped their wings and opened their bills, in what appeared to be absolute joy. I laughed, but in that slightly imbalanced way that could turn into crying if someone looked at me the wrong way.â€ Over the next few days, she brought out the hose again so they could play some more. Perhaps, then, itâ€™s time to update the grisly collective noun (so unlike â€œan exaltation of larksâ€ or a â€œpaddling of ducksâ€) thatâ€™s been applied to these birds: not a â€œmurder of crowsâ€ but a â€œlitter.â€ Itâ€™s an apt expression in more ways than one.
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