Wild City // Strangers in our midst

My husband hates crows. Once, years ago, we had a hanging basket outside our kitchen window. House finches (which have the wine-red wash and the melodious song) built a nest in it.

Our young daughter, niece and nephew were allowed to stand on kitchen chairs and peek around the curtain to get a good look at the mama bird all hunkered down on the nest. We told the children that babies would soon hatch out of the eggs, and they’d be able to watch the parents feed them.

Then one day we heard a great commotion of crows, and afterward the nest was empty. There were no broken eggs on the ground. The crows must have frightened the house finch, won the tussle with her, and carried off the eggs.

The kids were disappointed. My husband developed the permanent grudge against crows. Usually forgiving to a fault, some 10 years hence he still mutters whenever he sees them, “Damn crows.”

I, on the other hand, took the incident in stride. Until recently I had regarded the common crow as one of the just birds, as in, “that is just a crow (or house sparrow, or robin).”

But I will never look at crows that way again. This week I’ve been reading about them, and these everyday birds that we mostly ignore are stranger than I’d realized. They are entirely black, for starters. Their eyes are black, their bills are black, their legs, feet and glossy feathers are black.

A bird associated with dark things, dead things, they are scavengers. We see them (and we quickly look away) pecking at the unfortunate squashed squirrels that don’t make it across the street.

But they don’t limit their scavenging to small mammals. Crows have earned the nickname “gallows birds” because, when the opportunity presents itself, after a hanging, or out on the battlefield, crows peck out human corpses’ eyes.

Paired with this habit, their playful side seems a little creepy. According to “The Book of Symbols,” compiled by The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, crows are known to enjoy the following activities: “sliding on their backs or bellies down a snowy hill, thieving laundry from a clothesline, singing duets with their mates, sunbathing, smearing their skin with crushed ant oil, mounting razzle-dazzle flying exhibitions, [and] finding shiny treasures to cache and lovingly mull over.”

These guys know how to have a good time.

And they’re smart. There is an Aesop’s fable called “The Crow and the Pitcher” where on a hot day a very thirsty crow encounters a pitcher holding a little water. The crow thinks the situation over and decides to drop stones into the pitcher until the water level is high enough so that it can drink.

Turns out this story, tracked back at least 2000 years, describes an actual skill crows possess. In 2009 two English scientists (one named Emery and the other named Bird — no kidding) put four rooks, cousins to our crows, through a test.

The names of these captive rooks were Cook (Cook the Rook?), Fry (cook and fry in order to eat crow?), Connelly and Monroe. Each bird was separately presented with a narrow beaker partially filled with water. A worm attached to a piece of cork had been set afloat on the surface.

The scientists then put a handful of stones beside the beaker. Quickly each rook figured out that it should pick up the stones one by one and drop them in the beaker to bring up the water level. Then the bird could reach the worm. The rooks even chose large stones over smaller ones in order to complete the task sooner.

(Fry “had an adverse reaction to one of the worms” and did not complete all the trials.)

The experimenters’ conclusions have created a dust-up on the Internet. They claim in their article in Current Biology, “Rooks Use Stones to Raise the Water Level to Reach a Floating Worm,” an unusually plain title for an academic work, that the birds estimated the exact number of stones required to raise the water to the required level.

Internet surfers insist that in the YouTube video of the experiment they see the rooks attempt to reach the worm each time after the bird drops a stone in the beaker, which would refute that claim.

There was also this comment from the dissenters: “I have friends who wouldn’t be able to figure out a human-sized version of that problem.”

Given how uncanny crows are, given their unusual habits which make them seem like some being other than bird, and given their dark side, from now on, when one flies over my human head, instead of “caw, caw,” I will hear this: “Ha Ha.”

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.