The crow you know and the crow you don't know
Back in my teaching days I'd invite my students to consider the question: "Is there intelligent
life on Earth?"
Often they'd conclude we mere humans are incapable of an answer because our
understanding of "intelligent" is limited by our own questionable intelligence.
Which brings us to the this month's topic: crows.
First, it's worth noting that crows themselves are smarter than to waste time on musings about
intelligence. They have better things to do, like survive. They have been remarkably successful
at it. Their existence precedes our own by millions of years.
While crows have mastered survival, we humans seem hell-bent on self-destruction, We may
take crows down with us; no wonder that in their endangered habitat, they view us with
Since the onset of winter, crows have flocked to the city — for survival. It is their seasonal,
instinctive habit. If we pay close attention to them, we might pick up survival pointers. They are
arguably the ultimate survivalists. And, gosh, they don't even own guns.
You don't have to go far to learn from crows. Conveniently, and significantly, crows, abound
around schools. For me, the Wilson/Rieke campus offers a core crow curriculum. (Attention,
students and teachers!)
Recently I paused in my Fitbit-driven laps around the Wilson track to watch three crows
perched on a bleacher railing. Are they related? I wondered. How old are they? With their head
swiveling and cocked, what are they watching?
Mere human answers abound to such questions. Volumes have been written about these
legendary — literally legendary — birds. Crow experts tell us that this Trojan Field trio were
likely part of a single crow family. Crows form close, protective family bonds. Pairs mate for life.
As for age, crows live about seven years although some reach double-digit longevity. Still, even
a very young crow can appear mature. When young fledglings outgrow and fall from their nests
— yes literally FALL — they are almost the size of their parents. The only way to identify a
fledgling is to look at the color of its eyes, says Portland Audubon's Conservation Director Bob
Sallinger. A fledgling's eyes are blue, not black.
As to what they were watching, the answer is simple: ME. Was I friend, foe or simply another
Human beings, crows have learned, fall into three categories. Some of us are considered
friends. We feed crows, either purposely but ignorantly, dulling the crow's survival instincts.
Often we feed crows inadvertently through slovenly waste disposal. Or we could be dangerous
"foe" humans. We may have felt harassed by cawing and droppings. Some of us been known
to poison or shoot."Crow-abatement" methods also include noisemakers, falcons-for-hire and
that old standby, scarecrows. Poisons, in addition to inflicting ghastly death, enter the food
chain and may kill more than crows. And should you be driven to shoot a crow, first check
local, state and federal laws.
The three crows no doubt judged me to be in the third category — harmless and clueless. They
seemed to be saying, "Don't you have something better to do?"
Whatever crows conclude about each of us, experts say, it results from experiences passed on
over generations of crows. Crows don't forget what they learn and what they've been taught.
Through our crow and raven stories, told over our history, we humans have been learning from
our own experience with crows as well.
Among local stories is one shared by my friend Dave Fabik, a fellow Southwest Portlander. A
few years ago, Dave drove his red Honda to a conference on a college campus. Upon pulling in
to a campus parking lot he startled a crow standing at the entrance. He thought nothing of it
until he returned to the lot. His car — and his car only — had been bombarded and slimed with
crow excrement. His car was easily identifiable as the only red one in the lot. It was no more
exposed to crows than the others.
Apparently, in the judgment of a nearby crow family, Dave was deemed dangerous. The bird he
frightened might have been a vulnerable fledgling, as yet unable to fly. Or perhaps it had been
foraging for food for its young. Or maybe Dave's red Honda was simply seen as future trouble.
The Audubon Society's Sallinger fields crow stories like Dave's all the time. One of the most
common is that a group of crows is "ganging up" on and nipping at an injured crow.
Not so, says Sallinger. Crows are known to protect, not attack, injured and vulnerable family
members. No, the "gang" was most assuredly a family — parents and older siblings —
encouraging and prodding a fallen fledgling ... urging it to fly...helping it survive.
What moral might Aesop derive for this oft-repeated "crow gang" story? Why do we
Is there intelligent life on Earth?