Consider the Crow

Recently, I had a spooky experience. 

H and I were enjoying some spring sunshine on a beach in the Pacific Northwest and building an intricate sandcastle complex, complete with a working moat and a Mayan-style pyramid. 

At one point we got up to find the twigs, stones, shells and seaweed that would adorn the construction, and when I turned back I saw two birds advancing on our gear — a large seagull and a crow. I watched them advance until they were within hopping distance of our cooler bag before wandering over to ward them off. 

As soon as she saw me coming, the crow flew away. The seagull, however, persisted. He scooted down the far side of a small dune and loitered there as he watched me drop my collection of pebbles beside the sandcastle moat. Then I walked from the sandcastle to the cooler bag, where I picked up a beer that I had left there. As I took a sip, the seagull spread his wings, letting the wind lift and carry him off down the beach. 

Watching the seagull drift away, I spotted the crow again. I thought she had taken off when I first approached, but really she had only flown about 20 metres or so and was now apparently engrossed in pulling something slimy from a pile of seaweed and twigs.

Sneaky bugger, I thought, but said nothing. The seagull had pushed his luck too far and, believing his situation hopeless, had simply wandered on to find another opportunity. The crow, by contrast, was acting innocent just a small distance away. I took a sip from my beer, bent over to place the can in the shade of the cooler bag, then glanced back at the pile of twigs and seaweed. 

The crow had completely disappeared. Only seconds had passed, and yet it was nowhere to be seen on the wide and bright expanse of sand and dunes around me. I thought I hadn’t shown any outward signs of recognition — I didn’t point and yell “aha!” when I saw her, for example — and yet the crow knew she’d been seen. And instead of beating a surly retreat, as the seagull had done, the crow instead chose to disappear like some kind of phantom. Very spooky. 

By the way, this is probably the best sandcastle I ever built.

I knew crows are particularly crafty and intelligent. For example, a study some time ago at a local university here in Seattle found that they remember the faces of unkind humans, and can even communicate their distrust to other birds. But I had not expected this crow’s theatrical flair. I was impressed. 

There’s a lot of fear and gloom in the news about the COVID-19 pandemic right now. But with the engine of human civilization idling in neutral and our individual wanderings largely restricted to our own neighbourhoods, our non-human neighbours have found space to come out of hiding. Observing their comings and goings — the squirrels and hummingbirds outside my window, the seals in the Ballard locks, the calls of seagulls reminding me how close we are to the ocean, the happy blooming in the gardens — has been an unexpected source of joy.

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