To listen to my Sound Sculpture feature on crows on the BBC Radio 4 programme Saturday Live, broadcast on 14 January 2012 please click here.
It’s the weekend. I go for a walk in my local park, which flanks the river. In my rucksack, I have a book, a notepad, and fountain pens. In my hand, I have a paper bag full of bread left over from the week. I have sliced it, then cut each slice into small, bite size cubes. I have scooped the whole mound, including the crumbs, into the paper bag. The crumbs I will shake onto the ground, once the rest of the bag is empty, for the pigeons. The larger chunks, I will give to whoever happens to be around. If the tide is high, I drop a few pieces into the water for the ducks. They crowd around the floating bits, pushing and shoving, snatching from each-other. The mob. The swans keep their distance. It would be distasteful to compete with the rabble. I serve them separately, and they lunge their long necks towards the food with elegance.
Suddenly, the air is filled with shrieks. Like a battalion of Hell’s Angels, dozens of seagulls are raiding the air space, swooping to catch the bread in flight. They hover over my head and close to me, demanding, protesting, menacing, but never once carrying out their threats.
The bread is almost all gone. I look around but there is no sign of my friends. I am about to throw the last handful when I hear the call. A deep, croaky telling off. I knew you’d forget about me! I guess you don’t think I’m entitled to any respect. After all, I am not as pretty or as colourful as some…
Stop whinging, I say mentally. I’ve kept some for you.
To prove it, I hold up a single piece of bread in my fingers, so it can be seen all the way from the rooftop chimney behind me. Then I walk slowly away from the swarm of seagulls. Even without looking, I know that I am being followed. I know that the crow has spread its wings, hopped off the chimney top, and is flying from roof to roof, ready to act. We have an understanding. So the seagulls do not see it, I place a piece of bread on the brick parapet, and stand back. The crow lands and picks it up. A few paces further, I place another piece. Another crow lands, and picks it up. Three or four others are mounting sentinel on nearby rooftops. One after the other, they slowly flap their large black wings and drift down, silently, to take the bread. We know that we must operate discreetly, unnoticed by the gulls. So, together, we work in silence, not to draw attention. By the time the gulls catch on, the crows have had their share without any confrontation.
A pair of crows sit on the beech outside my window every day. Jet black, glossy in the sunshine. I wake to their raucous, rheumatic, heavy smoker voices. At dusk, the smaller one – the female, I imagine – calls out to her mate, sometimes for half an hour at a time. She pauses to rub her beak vigorously against the branch. When he finally fleets in, she gives him an earful. You think I have nothing better to do with my time than sit here and wait for you all evening, calling you for all the neighbours to hear! Where the hell have you been, anyway? You’re a good for nothing! I should have listened to my mother. And now I’m stuck with you for life!
He bows his head. He knows she is right. Besides, arguing won’t solve anything. Let her blow off steam. After a bout of ranting, she falls into a silent sulk. He moves closer. She lets him. They take turns to pick fleas from each-other’s necks, and groom each-other’s plumage. All is forgiven and forgotten. They sit still for a while, black silhouettes on the swaying branch, against the darkening sky. Then they take off for the night, and I wonder where they sleep.
I met a woman in the park, who has written to the Council, asking them to destroy the crows’ nests. “Why?” I asked, even though the rising anger in my belly told me what was coming.
“They’re nasty. They steal other birds’ eggs.”
There she was, a perfect specimen of bird brains; except that some birds are far more intelligent – notably crows.
My voice shook with anger. “If they don’t then there will be too many other birds, and you’ll be the first to complain. Why don’t we cull all cats, while we’re at it? They kill birds, too.”
Bird brains walked away, looking smaller. I just hope the Council have enough sense to ignore people like that.
Crows mate for life, and are the only birds – together with ravens – capable of devising utensils. Put food at the bottom of a tall, narrow jar. The crow will go and find a long sharp twig and use it to spear the food onto it.
I am not the only member of the crow fan club. In her latest book, Bird Cloud, Annie Proulx recalls her childhood pet crow, Jimmy. In Crow Country, Mark Cocker describes the crows of East Anglia. East Anglia would never be the same without crows. The black figures perambulating on the vivid green lawns, their gravelly voices filling the low, lead grey sky, are as inseparable a part of the Fens as the poetry of Rupert Brooke, the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, or the stone spires of King’s College Chapel.
Crows are not colourful enough to feature on Christmas cards, nor white enough to symbolise peace, nor graceful enough to inspire ballets. They are not daring enough to be painted on the flags of superpowers. They have bad press because they hang around graveyards. Could that be because they are not wanted elsewhere? Or perhaps they are the only ones with enough insight to know there is nothing to fear in graveyards. They are too intelligent to buy all that ghost and vampire nonsense.
As I write this, a crow is strolling on the lawn outside my window, in the late afternoon sun. It has spread its wings in a fanning motion, probably to facilitate an even tan.