Matthew Lickona 2:43 p.m., June 19
Just the other day, late in the afternoon, I was sitting on the couch, reading the Reader (yes, really!), when I sensed something large watching me through the front picture window in our living room. Engrossed in my reading, it took me a moment to raise my head and investigate. As I looked up, my gaze was met by the inquisitive eye of a humongous black crow. It had landed on one of the long, springy limbs of the Norfolk Pine in our front yard, and hopped its way out to the end of the branch closest to the window. The bird seemed to register my presence, and was looking at me so intently that it felt like someone was staring at me. At that point, I think I would’ve been only mildly surprised if it had opened its beak and said, “Hey, what are you reading?”
But the bird didn’t say anything, of course, nor did it make any noise. After a few seconds of curious reconnoiter, the crow took off and dived for something that had piqued its curiosity in the grass on the neighbor’s lawn. Then it joined the rest of the murder it had come with, and flew south with the evening breeze.
A few days later, at about the same time in the late afternoon, my husband and I were having tea (yes, really!) in the living room when a particularly persistent “caw” caught our attention. I looked out the window and saw that two crows were engaged in a conversation, one calling from the pine in front of our house to the other in an equally tall tree across the street. The matter seemed extremely urgent, and, as we watched, we discovered that it was. The two crows were flying back and forth agitatedly between several lofty trees on our section of the block, making quite a racket. Down on the street was a third crow, a bit smaller than its brethren, cawing weakly and attempting to fly. A splotch of bright red blood was coagulating near its beak.
We did not see how the bird got injured, but a cat prowling the scene seemed to be the culprit. As the cat crept closer to the bleeding bird, the two able-bodied crows created a cacophony of caws to discourage it. Despite their efforts, the stalking cat drove the limping bird toward the middle of the street, where we anticipated it would befall further injury. We gritted our teeth and watched as a car approached. As the vehicle got closer and closer to the injured crow, the two larger crows swooped down to the street and landed near their wounded kin, warning the oncoming car to slow down. When it did not, the two able-bodied crows took off again to avert collision. The injured crow was now squarely in the car’s path. Surely the driver expected it to fly away, as street-savvy birds do, holding out till the last possible second before flitting just far enough away to avoid becoming roadkill. But not this time. All the disabled crow could muster was a hop and flap of its wings, which propelled it to the height of the car’s grill. The two watching birds shrieked vociferously as the car struck the lame crow.
That awful bone-crunching thud reached our ears milliseconds after we saw the car hit the crow, and we thought it was asphalt pancake for sure. But as it turned out, the bird had not quite yet met its end. Rallied by the calls of its kin, the crow hit the ground running and managed to take a short flight before another car came along. This time the vehicle slowed down slightly as the driver realized the plight of the crow. The bird was able to land near the side of the road, and, shepherded by the two others who had landed nearby, it made its way under a parked car. The cat, observing all the while, crouched low and stuck its head under the car. This time, their shrill cries and threatening swoops had the desired effect on the cat, and it backed off to a distance deemed satisfactory by the two vigilant crows. The melee quieted down, and we surmised that the wounded crow would lie down to die on the street under that parked car.
I’m not sure where the final resting place of that bird turned out to be, but the next morning a huge black crow was still keeping watch over the vicinity, flying from tree to tree, letting out piercing calls. Though I wasn’t certain that it was one of the two that had witnessed the demise of the injured crow the previous afternoon, the bird seemed to be mourning the loss of its fellow murder member and warning others to avoid the area. Crows are highly social birds, and they are also highly intelligent. Studies show that crows can recognize individual people and solve complex problems. Researchers have also studied the crow’s wide range of vocalizations, and some would say the bird has a language. Crows hold “conversations,” as those outside our window were, passing along information using varied calls. Despite their reputation for shrillness, crows produce many sounds too low for the human ear to detect.
Though many people dismiss the crow as nothing more than a noisy pest, the crows on our street showed more “humanity” than some human beings do for each other. Seeing that a prowling cat and oncoming traffic threatened the existence of one of their own, the two crows stuck around and did what they could to help the third. When one of their buddies was in trouble, they stayed by its side until the very end. We can learn a lot from watching (and listening to) the birds.