I went to a park, with a friend, the other day, to have lunch and soak up the estuary atmosphere. It’s calming, the smells of saltwater and ocean air. The place was pretty busy, as it usually is: people fishing, kids playing, shorebirds stalking for food, and boats off in the distance.
We sat down and set up at a metal picnic table, under a tree, and before too long we had company. I think they were crows of some sort, not grackles, because their eyes were dark and their feathers weren’t iridescent. A murder of crows descended — that’s just fun to say. They were not tame, but one could call them tamed: they knew people meant food, they smelled that we had it, and they had no fear of us if delicious snacks were in the offing.
My friend was slightly less okay with this than I was; every time one swooped by to wait patiently in the tree above, she’d flinch and yelp. One large crow, the biggest of the flock, landed on the end of the table and watched me curiously. I tried to get the bird’s attention, whistling and clicking at it the way I do with parrots. The crow tilted its head and watched me carefully, and when I threw it a french fry it snapped it up. I started talking to it: oh, you’re gorgeous aren’t you, you magnificent beggar, you’re not afraid of a thing, look at you!
“Look at those claws!” my friend said.
“I want to take one home!” I told her.
“Have you seen Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds?'” she asked me.
“Aw, these guys are harmless,” I said. “Aren’t you? Just a little hungry, huh? C’mon, say nevermore.”
We had an audience, too: two young girls, maybe seven or eight years old, waiting while their family unloaded a tremendous amount of fishing equipment from the back of a sparkly tan (champagne, I think, is what the color is called; ugly) minivan. They shrieked and giggled as the birds came and went, and called to them in loud childish ways, but since they didn’t have food, the crows weren’t interested.
Now, look. I know, rationally, that feeding the wild animals and thus removing their instinctive fear of humans is a bad thing. I am generally against it. But sometimes you have to take a moment and talk with a patient crow that wants a little of whatever you’re having. The damage is already done, the animals are fearless, and if you’ve been having a bad day, sneaking a snack to a corvid will make you both feel good. It’s not like feeding tourists to alligators.
When we were finished eating there was a bit of food left over, so I took it and myself well away from the table and my jumpy friend (“You’re not doing that here!” she said, knowing what I had in mind) and the crows, scenting food, followed.
I took a fry, shredded it, and threw a few pieces: one far away, two closer. The birds took them and waited, watching me. It’s quite a thing to be the subject of so much intense scrutiny. Crows are smart, and you know it when they watch you. The kids in the parking lot watched, too.
Then I held another bit of food up in my hand, but didn’t throw it. I waited. A lovely big crow — I’d like to think it was the same one that had sat on the table with me — flew up, and as gently as a person would, took the fry from my fingers. It was a thing to see: this wild fearless animal, a magnificent example of its species, shiny and healthy and huge, beating its wings hard enough to blow my hair back and taking an offering of food so carefully from my hand.
So, of course, I did it again. The crow watched everything: my hand, my body language, the other birds. I watched it watch me, and I was amazed at the fact that we could communicate in this simple way, the crow and me, exchanging food without fright or injury.
Then the sea gulls approached (MINE! MINE! MINE! MINE! MINE!) and I called them a bunch of party-crashers, and tossed the rest of the leftovers to the slightly less-brave crows who had watched as the biggest one got the best bits of food.
The two little girls were still watching. I can’t imagine what this looked like to them: they watched as I stood up, whistled like I was calling for my dog, and the crow came to take food like I’d trained it.
I am not a Disney princess, and I never much wanted to be one: I’m happy to be my own scruffy self, with embroidered hippie jeans and sand-shredded lacquer on my bare toes, and my hair barely passing for presentable most of the time. There aren’t any anthropomorphic animals who want to help me find a man or make a dress, or even just wisecrack at opportune moments. But there are wild animals, daring and intelligent and calculating, that will watch and listen and come to an understanding with me. That’s enough. It’s more than enough.