Friday, August 16, 2013

Requiem for a baby crow

Act I

There was the strangest young crow in our orchard. It sat near the gate, and walked slowly away (not running) when I approached. There was no sign of pain or weakness in the walk; only a lack of fear.

Crows are usually excellent parents, and will caw, dive and swoop at anyone who threatens their young. But the parents appeared to be out of this one's life. 

Photo: Mysterious baby crow in the orchard
Oh, baby crow
At least they made no effort to defend it from me when I first stumbled upon it. 

It was a sunny day and I had a lot of garden chores to catch up with. I did try to give it wide berth, but our paths crossed often, and always the crow stood calmly watching me. 

When it saw me with a ripe orange plum, it hopped toward me with a fierce, avid gleam of hunger in its eye. I let the plum fall and the crow pounced on it, stabbing into it with inexperienced, childlike movements. How it knew this huge creature holding the plum was apt to share I have no idea. I came back with a buffet of sprouts, cheese, berries and noodles. It broke the cheese into tiny bits and ate them, so slowly it felt like it could starve to death while eating. I've watched a lot of crows eating. Usually they rip their food apart and take in the biggest bites they can. This crow was so different, yet its dainty, almost surgical movements seemed natural to it.

It seemed incapable of flight but otherwise very advanced. It could feed itself, understood that the gate was a barrier that  could open or close, and seemed to have worked out a bunch of paths through the tangle of vegetation.

Usually a wild animal that tolerates humans as the crow did is either hand raised or close to death. But then, a bird in trouble usually shows some sign: a drooping posture, irregular movements, sunken eyes. Something. Perhaps this lonely crow was abandoned by the parents due to some health problem I couldn't detect. 

But it seemed alert and active, moved symmetrically and appeared less like a doomed animal stoically accepting the approach of a predator, and more like a cagey old soul judging a human to be relatively unlikely to do harm.

I've never been so tempted to catch an animal and bring it inside. I couldn't - the crow was too active to get near. And I was glad. I have worked in wildlife rescue shelters, and around urban wildlife. I know the rules. You leave baby wildlife where you find it. The best chance is for the parents to care for a baby. 

But it's a dangerous world out there and something about this bird engaged me, as if we knew each other in some other life (not that I believe those things but just saying).

Act II

Oh baby crow. Why?

Cat? Raccoon? Coyote? Owl?

Sad sad sad sad sad.


After three days of denial, I finally went out and buried the little remains of the baby crow. Usually adult crows pester people who bury their babies but none of them seemed to care. I think this one truly was abandoned when I saw it.

An inventory of what I found: 

  • Part of each wing, twisted backward from the body. 
  • A ribcage and some tail feathers. 
  • One feather on the path,a dozen steps away from the body
  • No feet. No muscle left anywhere. No beak. No flashing eye. No life.
  • After I buried the body, I found part of the skull - the top, back part of the cranium, clean and empty. Whatever ate it really did eat almost everything. 

I cut all the flowers I could find that were going to seed and made a huge mound over the grave so that next spring all kinds of pretty things will grow there.

I don't know why it's bothering me so much. I've had dead birds in the yard before. I think the area it was in is maybe too attractive. It has food, water, shelter - everything parent birds want for their young, but it's fenced in and becomes a trap. I have what I thought were good escape holes in the fence. I see the chickens use them but they are so much more worldly than a baby bird, even a baby crow.

Bringing baby wildlife inside violates my eleventh commandment, my prime directive, a powerful thou shalt not. Wildlife needs to be wild. Cultivating relationships with wild animals so often ends badly, with the animal growing up in a half-world, unable to fend fully on its own, but growing more and more into instincts that tell it to go out seeking. A wild animal is not a pet and deserves better - even if ironically, it gets less than nothing.

I guess I'm rebelling against this. Partly it's a parents cry of 'what if'. I know a parent crow has mechanisms to help her move on when her baby dies, but apparently I don't even have them for a baby bird.

And partly it's a child's cry of 'no fair'.I obeyed the rules. I left the baby animal with its parents. I want to be rewarded by having it live happily ever after - or at least living now. I know it doesn't work that way. I'm a grownup and I know the score.You do your best and you accept the outcome. The universe is not a vending machine. I can't put a quarter in and get a treat every time. I know that. But I'm still angry about it.

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