Several crows live in the big tree by our house. They are big birds with long pointed wings and they have a bad reputation in the neighborhood for stealing many of the precious eggs local bird families are trying to protect, which is why we often see smaller birds inflamed with fury gamely chasing the brazen thieves down. But it is a hopeless chase; even as the smaller birds succeed in pecking at the vile crow’s shiny black tail feathers, the delicate prize has already disappeared in one gulp.
Crows are gangsters and terrorists of a high order in the avian world and are always interested in evil doings. When the devoted male is out shopping, these rascals viciously attack the happiest most vulnerable new mother and tear an egg from right under her nose as she valiantly tries to defend her carefully built home and her future. They remind me in a strange way of an Al-Shabab marauder or a Sunni thug or a Boko Haram soldier or the incoherent members of the Islamic State of something or other.
We live in a world seething with ultraviolent humans, so comparisons to crows are perhaps unfair as crows rarely murder innocents except to eat, which is why untold numbers of lizards and wasps in our back yard have completely disappeared.
Common crows are very clever thieves and kleptomaniacs, but not murderers and rapists and outright devils. And we must not forget their own persecuted history: they too have been set upon by vicious enemies. Because of the crow’s limitless appetite for corn, farmers in the Midwest have poisoned them, shot them, put bounties on their feathered heads and generally treated them as vermin.
Live oak trees, planted here almost a century ago, are where lazy coarse bronchial coughs from the topmost branches report any movement on the summer streets down below. A dog trots out of an open garage door. Squawk. Two children are running. Squawk squawk. Always a running commentary of life on the torpid street below, one crow to another, one lookout to another. Then, after one o’clock when the heat index rises, silence. Nap time. A sacred respite from their duties. Orange butterflies float here and there, careful not to make any disturbance. Even the low hum of air conditioners seems especially quiet and considerate. Thunder rumbles far away, too far away to intrude.
This summer, the crows strut across our new fence or sit confidently on the mailbox preening their feathers, always watching, always on the alert for another crime to commit while making do with ants and other insects blown in from the afternoon thunderstorms. Even if I can’t see them, I know they are around because the air around me is suddenly alive with frantic fast-moving birds trying to distract or escape the gang of ruffians.
When I was in India at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, for months I spent a great deal of time in the open library by the sea. Huge crows would always fly in and out perching on encyclopedias and tables. There was one corner in particular where they liked to hang out. Curious, I examined the books there and discovered they were all about the Holocaust.
It has been said this new century is already an age of crime: crimes against nature, corporate crime, state crime, crimes against humanity. Without a doubt my delinquent crow neighbors have roughed up the neighborhood, but they do not fit into this list of high crimes, not at all, since humans have elevated crime to such an entirely new level that the bold wily crow can never keep up no matter how many nests he raids, how many mockingbird mothers he devastates, how many lost bright trinkets he steals from the puddles on the sidewalk to play with in his own nest.
A crow, for example, would not set fire to the legs of a gopher tortoise, even if it had the means to do so, and then stomp on its back until the beautiful shell cracked and the turtle was dead. This breathtaking event, filmed and proudly posted on Facebook by two teen-aged girls, took place in our own state of Florida, in front of their own house.
Even the most raucous brazen crows are cautious and shy before our deadly presence, our dreadful power, perhaps aware the twenty-first century might be the most savage of all, since earth and its creatures, even the tiny honey bee, have never been more vulnerable to our ways. It is truly astonishing that, despite thirty thousand years of unprecedented intellectual, moral, and spiritual progress, we seem to be devolving into a shameful disgraceful outlaw species, laying waste to everything we touch. Perhaps crows realize their own misdeeds are and will continue to be irrelevant to the future. Future crimes will be committed by the billionaire overseers of computers, nanotechnology, robotics, genetics, and space exploration.
Meanwhile, thank goodness life goes on. The smaller crow has become friends with a solitary young ibis who has dropped out of a large extended family to wander alone in our neighborhood, pecking at mysterious tidbits on the many lawns.
They are an unlikely couple. The one bald and white and hunched over, silent with a beak like a red spear; the other black and rumpled, feathers all askew, very chatty and of course, hoarse. They usually can be found together in the front yard on late afternoons contentedly strolling back and forth on the deserted sidewalk under the big tree, watching the scorching sun’s descent, pecking at anything that looks interesting, pretending to be experienced, dignified grown-ups when they are really just gawky juveniles
Always deferring to the Ibis and following discretely behind her on their small parades under the big tree, the disheveled crow doesn’t really peck at the grass with much interest (subsisting mainly on the berries hanging along the length of our hedge) but follows along compliantly, happy in this unexpected friendship.
This crow has not yet descended into a life of crime. Perhaps this is a result of associating with the ibis who always minds her own business and cultivates harmlessness. They take such pleasure in each other’s quiet company that the exhausted parent crows, having stolen every egg in the neighborhood, and now hiding in the big tree watching over the afternoon, seem pleased with this safe companionship for their youngster though normally they only associate with their own kind. They also seem rather disgusted (a certain tilting of their head and dead-eye glare) with their son’s unwillingness to frighten others and with his unkempt appearance. His parents are exceedingly vain and can always be seen smoothing their sleek black feathers, almost deep purple in the sunlight. They also seem slightly embarrassed about the ridiculous bald ibis now being so much a part of their tribe.
I seem to watch these crows more than anybody else on the street. But I don’t assume a crow can teach me how to live, or that it has special powers that can be called upon. I am different from a Choctaw, Lakota, or Cheyenne elder all of whom hold crow in the highest regard. The modern world has not been educated to honor every living thing as a teacher. We are surrounded by a relentless human-centered materialism which is perhaps why we are presently such an ominous species.
According to various Native American shamans, (who were never counselled by lawyers or financial advisors and thus cannot be deemed realistic), Crow is the keeper of sacred law. The laws of the physical world and even the spiritual world, as humanity interprets them, are an illusion. The upshot seems to be that the world is full of magic and that Crow, from Raven to Magpie, generally understands and even participates in this magic.
Sacred law remains much the same today as when Van Gogh painted his last painting ‘Wheat Field with Crows’ over a hundred years ago. A recent message from the Pope, urges us to help those crushed by life’s troubles and stand by the side of the sick, elderly, and outcast; he also recently said that human exploitation of nature is a sin of our time. Who knows if anyone listens to him? By now, we are quite used to the merciless images of the Hubble Telescope suggesting that no matter how we behave; we are not very special and probably will not last very long either on earth or in space.
Which brings us back to Crow medicine telling us that there are billions of worlds, an infinitude of creatures and that there is a higher order of right and wrong than anything ever indicated by human law and even by our present understanding of sacred law. Perhaps our descendants will know what that means.
These are the little happenings as I see them in our particular neighborhood which is filled with homeowners still seeking health, prosperity, and success according to their capacity and ambition. Nobody on the block is seeking to be venerable as that is not really a social goal in our present society and we really don’t have the time, patience or interest. Of course a gopher tortoise, if left alone, is perfectly capable of living one hundred years or longer and his immense underground cave dwellings shelter thousands of creatures in a lifetime.
As for the glossy black birds in our tree, they must live and survive on a pitiless planet (as we all do) with descendants from carnivorous primates in charge. But they have found a way to thrive and a time to nap, by being bullies or so it seems. Meanwhile, the stunning attachment of their rumpled offspring for the beautiful ibis persists even to this day, more than a month now.
©2014 Linda J. Clarke Volume 13 Issue 2