Wednesday, October 13, 2010

`There's Nothing Crows Won't Eat from the Menu'

Before walking into school I picked up the litter on the ground around the trash barrel – tissues, candy wrappers, half a pencil. The amount of refuse was unusual if not the resolute denial of its existence by passing students and staff. After stowing my lunch and book bag inside I noticed through the front window a peculiar vertical movement, a geyser of confetti. Inside the trash bin was a crow emptying its contents.

As a girl carrying a backpack and cello in its case approached the door, within six feet of the can and crow, the bird popped straight into the air, startled out of its trash-mining. The effect was like the jack (or jackdaw) shot from a jack-in-the-box. I watched the same pattern for twenty minutes before the bird departed for good. I walked out for a closer look and judged the crow had removed a bushel of refuse from the can. His object was a discarded bag of microwave popcorn, now shredded. It looked as though he had even consumed the ersatz butter. In a chapter titled “Intertwined Ecologies and Mutual Destinies,” the authors of In the Company of Crows and Ravens (John Marzluff, Tony Angell and Paul R. Ehrlich; Yale University Press, 2007) observe:

“There’s nothing city crows won’t order from the menu. They are fond of pizza crusts, hamburgers, French fries, sweet-and-sour pork, fried chicken, and almost any road-killed animal served up along the highway. More than half of our observations of crows feeding in the city were of them eating garbage…”

This account reminds me of lunchtime in the school cafeteria, though the kids are messier, noisier, more violent and waste more food. One-hundred fifty years ago last week, just nineteen months from death, Thoreau noted in his journal for Oct. 6, 1860:

“As I go over the hill, I see a large flock of crows on the dead white oak and on the ground under the living one. I find the ground strewn with white oak acorns, and many of these have been broken in two, and their broken shells strewn about, so that I suppose the crows have been eating them. Some are merely scratched, as if they had been pecked at without being pierced; also there are two of the large swamp white oak acorn-cups joined together dropped under this oak, perhaps by a crow, maybe a quarter of a mile from its tree, and that probably across the river. Probably a crow had transported one or more swamp white oak acorns this distance. They must have been too heavy for a jay.”

Thoreau’s birds share with my crow a methodical approach to food procurement -- focused, determined and hard-working, unlike students.


Nige said...

Yes they are wonderful birds, in their shameless cunning way. There's a very good book, Crow Country by Mark Cocker (actually about rooks) - and of course Kay Ryan gets them spot-on in her little poem Felix Crow.

Kevin said...

Half dozen or so crows were loitering in my Chinese Elm. Grudgingly these brutes have earned my respect. I listened to their vocalizations, trying as best I could to inventory their crow-words. Too many, lost count at eight. Another congregation down the street said a word or two. And the gaggle above my head responded tit-for-tat. Then another group in the opposite direction joined the conversation, too. Before long, three groups were saying their hellos and talking about rotting fruit and who knows what other neighborhood edibles. Fascinating birds, crows are.