Lyanda Haupt’s Crow Planet

When she set out to write about the crow the black sheep of the avian world the naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt didn’t relish the task. “I never meant to watch crows especially,” she admits in her curiously personal and thought-provoking meditation, “Crow Planet.” “Whenever 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.” Crows, however, sometimes elicit raves (“They are so intelligent! And beautiful!”), but far more often insults (“loud,” “poopy,” “evil,” “menacingly bold,” “harbingers of death”).

Haupt knew the dark history that fed this distaste. During the plague years in medieval Europe, crows “scavenged the bodies lying uncovered in the streets.” In 1666, she writes, after the great fire of London, so many crows descended on the victims that Charles II ordered a campaign against them to calm a horrified populace. And yet, as she trained her binoculars on the familiar but spooky creatures in her yard, Haupt found aspects of the corvid family that argued for more respect.

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, “the crows left them entirely alone.” (Presumably, this reflected no political bias.) Affectingly, Haupt describes “crow funerals” in which a “stillness” settles around a deceased bird as other crows “cluster about the crow in perfect silence,” and records evidence of crows at play basking in the sun, “sprawled on one side with their wings hanging open . . . like black-feathered Madame Bovarys” or catching falling cherry blossoms. She knows that by publishing such observations, she risks criticism from the scientific community: studies “must not resort to anecdote” or “anthropomorphize their subject,” she scolds herself. And yet, she maintains, she can’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. Benedict’s thoughtful reading practice, allowing a “contemplative flow” to settle upon her watching.

Like human beings, Haupt explains, crows are one of the “few prominent, dominant, successful species” that prosper in the modern world. Their hardiness means they will outlast more fragile ­species. 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 “zoöpolis,” the “overlap of human and animal geographies.”

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, “but not quite love,” the crow. And while she may hesitate to anthropomorphize the bird, she is unable to avoid, in one instance, caninifying it 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 they’d flutter away and spare her crop. “Instead,” she writes, “all 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.” Over the next few days, she brought out the hose again so they could play some more. Perhaps, then, it’s time to update the grisly collective noun (so unlike “an exaltation of larks” or a “paddling of ducks”) that’s been applied to these birds: not a “murder of crows” but a “litter.” It’s an apt expression in more ways than one.

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Liesl Schillinger, NY Times Published: August 27, 2009