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Issue 61, October-December  2014
Prime Number Magazine is a publication of Press 53, PO Box 30314, Winston-Salem, NC 27130
A Question of Corvids
by Sheila Webster Boneham

1. Corvidae Corvus brachyrhynchos
If men had wings and bore black feathers, 
few of them would be clever enough to be crows. 
– Henry Ward Beecher

Birds are everywhere here on the Carolina coast. Pelicans skim the blue-bellied rollers, bank for advantage, plummet and rise. Sanderlings and stilts drill for morsels in the sand while egrets stalk the marshes. Birds are everywhere. They are hungry, and they come to dine on the veranda of this inn on the beach. Flocks of gulls hang heavy-bodied over the tables long enough to check for an unguarded bit of fish or bread or meat, and the bold ones find the thing they all want. I watched a herring gull last October pluck a fillet from between two halves of a tourist’s bun and rise on the same wing beat. Laughing gulls, with their black bonnets and chuckling calls, are less common, but they do come, mostly in Spring. Other birds, too. Pigeons, of course. Grackles and cowbirds. Dozens of the hard-to-name wee guys that birders call LBJs – “little brown jobs” – flit here and scurry there for crumbs and handouts.  

Crows. If gulls are the berserkers of birdkind, swooping and screaming and plundering, then corvids, including crows, are the strategists. They watch. Face a crow at close quarters and you see that you are the one under study. With an eye sharper than his pointed bill, the crow pins down your moves and knows you better than you know him. Scientists have documented what farmers have said through the ages: crows can count. They communicate. Consummate mimics, they even copy human speech. 

Picture this: you are sitting on the hotel verandah with a friend, tucked under a huge red umbrella, gazing through dark lenses across dunes and beach to the glittering blue Atlantic. You chatter, you listen. Your lunch arrives. And a big black bird. He, or perhaps she, perches on the back the chair directly across the table and tilts his head. “Hello,” you say. You smile at the bird. You fancy that he smiles back. You and your friend watch him and laugh. He hops onto the table, tilts his head and eyes you again. You ask, in your clever human way, “Are you hungry?”  

And the bird says Yeeees.  

His voice scrapes your eardrum, and his enunciation could use some work, but there’s no mistaking the word. Just to be sure, you ask, “Would you like something to eat?” and again he says, Yeeees. Who could say no to that? 

Still, we have to be cautious when we interpret animal behaviors, especially when we want a behavior to mean something in particular. Wanting is a drug, a hallucinogen. Even scientists trained to be cautious can be duped by their own desires. In the 1960s and 70s, much was made of attempts to teach apes to communicate with their handlers through American Sign Language. The researchers believed they had succeeded. They cited examples of clever, grammatical constructions produced by the apes, and their scientific articles were soon published in plain English to overwhelming public delight. The scientists wanted to believe, and we the public wanted to believe, but later attempts to replicate the results of those studies failed. The apes had learned something, but it was not human language. 

The crow who sat down to lunch with me and my friend said yes. I doubt that he understood my question, or the meaning of the word he uttered, but he knew that if he made that sound we were likely to give him some food. Someone, perhaps a long line of someones, taught him the rising tones of a question, taught him to mimic human speech in response. Taught him that saying yeees in his gravely way might cause someone to share a bit of lunch. He delighted us enough that we repeated our behavior six, seven times, handing over bits of turkey and fruit, bread and tomato. If we looked on from another angle, we might suspect that our black-feathered friend trained us. As in all good training, in the end it doesn’t much matter who trained whom; we all got what we wanted. Crow ate, we laughed. We tell the story for years. Perhaps Crow does, too.  

2. Family Corvidae
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, 
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore....
– Edgar Allen Poe

Corvids, or more properly Corvidae, are a diverse bunch. Commonly known as “the crow family,” they count among their number some one hundred twenty species of crows and choughs, jays and jackdaws, ravens and rooks, magpies, nutcrackers, treepies. Most corvids have voices a bit like well-amplified, well-rusted hinges, but they are still considered to be the largest of the so-called “songbirds.” They are more accurately “perching birds,” or passerines. More than a third of corvid species are crows, ravens, and jackdaws, members all of the genus Corvus.  

With brain-to-body-mass ratios that match those of the cetaceans and apes (and lag only slightly behind our own), corvids are considered by many people to be among the most intelligent animals. They certainly top the avian honor roll. Ravens and crows in particular have been seen in many traditions as divine messengers, tricksters, mediums, and omens. Tinglit, Haida, and other Native American traditions honor Raven as both Trickster and Creator. Many other traditions link corvids to war, death, and the underworld, perhaps due to their dark plumage and fondness for carrion. These associations remain alive in contemporary literature and popular culture. 

As is the case with much folklore, truth lives in tales and beliefs. Ravens, crows, and magpies hunt and scavenge in life as in tradition. Hunters report that ravens and crows are quick to arrive after gunfire, adapting millenia-old symbioses between these birds and large predators, particularly wolves, to modern realities. Beyond that, corvids are messengers of death, not in some prescient other-worldly way but for practical reasons. Field studies have shown that ravens “call” wolves to large animals they find dead. Why invite wolves to dinner? Because, unlike birds of prey, the raven lacks a bill or talons designed to open a carcass. Someone else – wolf or human hunter or motor vehicle – needs to do the job. Magpies have been observed working with coyotes in much the same way as ravens work with wolves, and the canine hunters have learned to listen when corvids call. 

Corvids aren’t entirely dependent, though, on the kindness of other hunters. For one thing, they are omnivorous; they eat everything from insects and meat to seeds and fruits to garbage and animal feeds. Many corvids are fond (in a dietary sense) of small mammals and other birds. They prey on eggs and nestlings, and are not exempt from their own cousins’ raids; ravens have been seen to take apart the elaborate nests of magpies stick by carefully woven stick to get at the nestlings. We can hardly fault them (although traditionally we do); we too kill to eat. So do the raptors that commonly prey on corvids. So do many birds. Still, in Western traditions and beyond, people have both respected the cleverness of corvids and feared their presence. In Cornwall and other parts of the Celtic world, we are advised to greet any magpie we meet politely and loudly. This is, I think, good advice. 

3. Corvidae Pica hudsonia
I have a magpie mind. I like anything that glitters. 
– Lord Thomson of Fleet

Something glitters in the bright Spring light on the far side of Evans Creek. Something moves, and I stop. Watch. A black-billed magpie stands at the top of the far bank, wings open wide and slightly drooped, head down, tail feathers spread like a Spanish fan, back feathers raised and fluffed. Three more magpies flutter in the cottonwood to my right. I sidle into the shade of the tree. The bird on the ground shudders, steps toward a desiccated clump of rabbit brush, goes still. We think of these birds as black and white, but the sun on outstretched feathers reveals startling blue, at least three shades of violet, a teasing of green and orange and gold. Paiute fancy-shawl dancers come to mind, their embroidered finery outspread like wings. I watch the bird, bedazzled.  

This is the first time I have seen this behavior, but I have read descriptions and know that this magpie is not dancing, but “anting.” Many birds do this – crows, babblers, weavers, owls, turkeys, waxbills, pheasants, more. Magpies. They pick up ants and place them on their own bodies, let them walk around or squish them like little sponges against their feathers, showering themselves in formic acid, the ant’s chemical defense. The birds won’t say why they do it, but scientists have several theories. The formic acid may serve as an insecticide, fending off parasitic mites, or it may help control fungal or bacterial infections. Why not? We use formic acid to fight off mites in honey-bee colonies, to slow fungal growth in animal feeds, and to battle deadly E.coli bacteria. Other researchers suggest formic-acid-as-grooming-product or ant-as-vitamin-supplement because it contains significant levels of Vitamin D.  

My bird shudders again, and I remember reading that anting appears to intoxicate some birds. Again, why not? Shamans of south-central California ingest harvester ants to induce religious visions. All functional explanations aside, perhaps some birds just like to get wasted. My magpie lifts his wings a shade, lowers them, lifts them again. He bobs his head, shakes it, stretches his neck forward, lifts his gleaming black bill skyward, says grrrk grrrk. As I watch him fold his wings and turn his profile to me, I don’t care what moves this bird. I care only that I was witness, and that I will never again see magpies in black and white.

4. Corvidae Corvus cornix
Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th' rooky wood.
– Shakespeare, Macbeth

New Year’s Eve on Balscadden Bay. It is late afternoon, and a pale sun hangs on the horizon as if hesitant to plunge into the cold Irish Sea. Gray is all around. I sit on a gray concrete wall above a beach strewn with gray rocks. A heron stands at the surf line, not the Great Blue or the White I know from home, but Ardea cinerea, the Grey. A flock of gulls swoops and screams over the bay; another group hunches on a trio of boulders now high above the outgoing tide.  

A bird I have only just met works among the pebbles and pools, and I am enthralled. She – I don’t know that the bird is female, but her industry and style make me want to think so – pulls a length of seaweed from the surf and hauls it away from the sea. This brings her closer to me, so I have a good view. She drops her treasure into a small tidal pool in the bowl of a gray hunk of rock I take to be limestone. She picks it up again a few inches from one end, works it in her bill for just the right grip. The bird swings the short end around and whacks it against the rock side of the bowl. Repeats. Again. She drops the length of seaweed and pecks around in the shallow water. I watch for twenty minutes as the gray-and-black bird repeats the process, working her way to the other end of the soggy vegetable. She flies back to the surf and I walk to her pool. The remains of the seaweed are a raggedy mess, but I poke around the strands and look into the pool, and I find what she was after. Tiny crustaceans. She hasn’t left many, but a few little shells are still caught in the fibers.  

This is the hooded crow, the hoodie. She goes by many other names as well, and I discover that not many people share my enchanted view of her here in Ireland. My landlady tells me they frighten her, but she can’t give me a solid reason why that is so. Perhaps, she says, it is from seeing The Birds, Alfred Hitchcock’s horror classic. Or perhaps her fear has been handed down from mother to daughter, a thread woven into the cultural fabric. For this is the corbie of ballads; a loose translation of one perches a pair of corbies on the dead hero’s white breast-bone to peck out his bonny blue eyes. Depending which source we believe, the hooded crow or the raven embodied the Morrigan, Celtic goddess of war and death; when the Irish mythic hero Cú Chulainn is dying, the hooded crow perches on his shoulder. Hoodies have been variously thought to be in league with fairies, to attack livestock, and to herald death. Perhaps what puts people off is the hoodie’s somber dress, black and dull brownish-gray, as much as her fondness for carrion. Perhaps it is her intelligence. 

The last light leaves the horizon and my hooded crow on the beach beats one last length of seaweed. I have resumed my watch from this chilly concrete perch, reluctant to leave even as evening cold seeps into my bones. Whatever legend and local opinion make of this bird, I want to know the hoodie better. The crow snatches a few last bites from the limestone bowl before her and then, with a parting caw-caw, she opens her wings and is gone.  

5. Corvidae Pica hudsonia
What I am interested in with what they do and why they do it.
– David Attenborough

Bartley Ranch Regional Park lies south of Reno in the shadow of Mount Rose and her sister peaks of the eastern Sierras. On a good day, the park’s population includes walkers and dogs, trail runners, horses and riders, jackrabbits and cottontails. Coyotes, although they are wary. In the year I have lived here, I have only ever seen one coyote in the park, and that one a long way off. There are reptiles, too. Horned lizards, and snakes – gopher snakes mostly, despite widespread fear of rattlers. Ground squirrels, marmots, other furry things. Birds.  

Golden Eagles ride the thermals over Bartley. Vultures, too. Red-tailed and Cooper’s Hawks are common, and owls – Great Horned and Burrowing and Barred. California Quail are everywhere, strutting and chattering in the brush, or hollering ne-VA-da ne-VA-da at everyone, no matter the birds’ common name. Crows and songbirds of all sorts. Magpies.  

At first I think the bird is injured. I am walking along the edge of a parking lot, headed for the trail that climbs up and back down Windy Hill, when a wild fluttering catches my eye. A wing tip and tail’s long feathers wave and shake at me from behind a hassock-sized boulder. Magpie, I think, and a vision of the anting magpie dances across my memory. Magpie in trouble. I will check the bird and, if necessary, call for a ranger. Then a scream from behind the rock clutches at me. Not a magpie scream. Before I see, I know.  

The magpie is not in trouble, and even as I rush toward them, she pecks at the little rabbit. Another scream. New from the nest, smaller than my fist, covered with downy gray-brown fur and, now, a spattering of blood. Get off, I yell, waving my arms at the bird, feeling a surge of adrenaline and something else, something that makes me want to hold that baby, save him, stop the hurt and fear. The magpie slowly lifts her body into the air and sinks like a hovercraft onto a branch just over my head. I could reach out and touch the long tail from where I stand. A hard black eye bores into me. As I turn back to the baby rabbit, the magpie rasps mag-mag-mag-mag, and I wonder vaguely whether she might not come for me. The bunny is still, but its eyes are alive. I shoo it from the open space behind the boulder into a thick tangle of sage. It moves quickly and disappears. Safe for the moment, I think.  

The bird on the branch is still glaring when I look up again. I am no coward about the facts of nature. This is what animals do, all of us, and even as I wave my arms to drive the bird away, knowing she will be back, I ponder my right to do such a thing. I think about such things a lot when I walk. Part of the path I meant to take this morning lies between two pastures where feeder calves graze the summer away, and because I walk there, and because they are no longer visions in a distant field but individuals who come to the fence to watch me, whose faces I know – the red steer with the question mark on his brow, the black one with the punky topnot that stands between his ears – I have been grappling with my own conflicted habits. 

My heart slows and I turn away from the sage brush, away from the birdless branch. I halt. The sand and high-desert plants around me are in wild motion. Magpies everywhere, thirty or more, swooping, pecking, chasing baby rabbits. My ears fill with the screaming of the bunnies, the raucous whoops and caws of the birds. Two adult rabbits – the mothers, I know in my heart – run in wild hopeless loops across the open spaces. I begin to run, too, yelling at birds and waving my arms, and stopping to herd the terrified babies into sage and rabbitbrush and spaces beneath rocks. I know it will all start again when I leave. But in this moment, it is what I do.

6. Corvidae Pica hudsonia 
...the great and flashing magpie, He flies as poets might.
– T. P. Cameron Wilson

Lewis and Clark met their first magpies in South Dakota in 1804. They wrote that the birds were bold and gregarious, willing to walk right into the men’s tents and take food from their hands. The collected specimens they sent east to Thomas Jefferson included four live magpies, although only one made it to Monticello. When bison roamed the Great Plains, magpies went along, picking ticks off the great beasts and eating insects the herds stirred up. The birds scavenged as well, cleaning up carcasses left by people and wolves and other death-dealers. The Bald Eagle may be the avian symbol of the West, but it is the black-billed magpie who will dance for you on creek banks and call mag mag mag as you walk the riparian strands.  

Smart and adaptable, magpies switched to other livestock when men with rifles wiped out the great herds of bison in the 1870's. They are supreme opportunists. I have watched flocks of magpies hunting on creek banks and picking insects and bits of grain from manure in horse paddocks. Adaptability to human-dominated environments has advantages. It also brings new dangers. Campaigns to eradicate these “pests” have caused thousands of magpie deaths; 1,033 black-billed magpies were shot in the Okanogan Valley of Washington in one “hunt” in 1933, and in Idaho an estimated hundred and fifty thousand magpies were systematically killed around the same time for a few pennies in bounty per bird. Thousands more have died from eating poisons set out for coyotes and other predators.  

A modified war on magpies continues today. As is the case in wars, hatreds often rest on false beliefs. Magpies don’t peck livestock open for the blood; they pull off and devour ticks. Magpies don’t decimate “desirable” songbird populations; they all thrive together. Facts take a long time, though, to overshadow falsehoods, and although magpies in the United States are partially protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and some state and local statutes, judgment-call exceptions are written into the law. 

7. Corvidae Corvus brachyrhynchos 
I'd hate to miss an important message 
because it came dressed in feathered black 
and spoke a different language. 
So I listen. I watch. I wait.
– Lynn Samsel

The new issue of National Wildlife has arrived, and in it is a story ostensibly about crows. Really, though, it is a story about people, or more to the point, scientists, and about their “discovery” that crows recognize human faces. Not as a class of things, mind you, but individual faces. That crow who seems to know you, well, she knows you. This, apparently, is a surprise. At least that’s the impression the researchers give in their comments, which seem crafted to fit a rhetoric of objective distancing. Their surprise at their findings implies instead a disconnection with the creatures being studied. Perhaps the question should not be whether the crows are able to recognize individual faces, but why

Scientists are wary of anthropomorphizing. We all should be. But sometimes researchers seem to be even more wary of being accused of the act than they are of the act itself. It gets plain silly at times. Eight pages after the article about crows is another that asks, “Are Other Animals Aware of Death?” Have you ever watched an encounter between a predator and its prey? Or seen a mother animal with a dead or dying baby? I have, and would say that they know at least as much about death as we do. 

Elephants are the focus of the piece. They often are when non-human awareness of death comes up, because they are known to linger over and handle the bones of their own dead. Corvids are mentioned as well. A recent study at the University of California-Davis reported that scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica) will gather around the remains of other scrub jays and scream for up to thirty minutes. Initially the ruckus was thought to be a warning, but jays, and sometimes ravens and crows, respond to the uproar by flocking to the sites. Still, so goes the report, the gatherings “don’t necessarily mean the birds understand death.” Whether they understand death seems to me as silly as asking a crow at table “are you hungry?” After all, our own species has been debating what death is, biologically and philosophically, for thousands of years. How far ahead of the jays does that put us in coming to terms with mortality? 

“Would you like something to eat?” I asked the crow at the beach. Why else would he bother with me? I need to reform my questions. The sharp-eyed corvids may be clever enough to help if I can manage to listen beyond what I want to hear. Or perhaps they are clever enough to know that some answers are entirely avian and beyond our reach.

Sheila Webster Boneham writes across genres, often with a focus on environment, animals, and culture in the anthropological sense. Her recent work has appeared in Red Earth Review, Minerva Rising, The Written River, The Wayfarer, The Museum of Americana, and elsewhere. Sheila is the author as well of seventeen nonfiction books and four novels. Sheila holds a PhD in folklore from Indiana University and an MFA from the Stonecoast Creative Writing program, University of Southern Maine. She currently lives and walks with corvids and other creatures along the coast of North Carolina.

First Place: Creative Nonfiction

Our Judge, Ned Stuckey-French, had this to say about Sheila Webster Boneham's essay, "A Question of Corvids":

I love an essay that teaches me something, by which I mean one that introduces me to not just some new understandings of ourselves and our world -- though it must do that or it's not an essay -- but also some new information. I did not know what a corvid is before I read "A Question of Corvids"; now I do. It is one of the 120 species of whip smart, hoarding, mimicking birds that include crows, jays, ravens, and magpies. This essay, rich with research, travel, examples, anecdotes, humor and epigraphs, taught me not just how to look at birds but how to look at the world. Essays are also conversations built of sentences that while written, sound spoken, and this essay is full of lovely sentences that work that way. Take these four, for instance: "If gulls are the berserkers of birdkind, swooping and screaming and plundering, then corvids, including crows, are the strategists. They watch. Face a crow at close quarters you will see that you are the one under study. With an eye sharper than his pointed bill, the crow pins down your moves and knows you better than you know him." I can hardly say how much I admire such sentences as well as their author and this essay.