catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 2 :: 2009.01.16 — 2009.01.30


Things in nature that make me believe in God

The intelligence of crows

Years ago, when my children were still children, we heard our dogs barking madly in the back field of our farm. Country folk know that a barking dog means something is afoot on your property! We followed their sound towards the old cottonwood tree where they were yelping frantically at the fir tree growing near its base. I shooed the dogs away to see what they had found, expecting to see an old hissing possum. To my surprise it was a young crow, not yet fledged. Its feathers were still encased in cartilage and it was unable to fly.

I picked the chick up, put it in a box and put the box on a stepladder out of the reach of the dogs.  I then looked around for its nest and waited for its mother. Of course I have no real idea what a crow nest looks like, but I at least expected its mother to be nearby and vocal.  But to no avail-it seemed orphaned.

I was afraid that the dogs would kill it if I left it unprotected for too long. I went into the house and called the local wildlife rehabilitation center to see if I could bring the chick to them. They informed me that they had no capacity to care for the crow and would have to euthanize it if I brought it to them. They also told me that, technically, it was illegal for me to tend to the fledgling myself. What to do?! I became irritated by this conundrum-they could not rehabilitate it and it was illegal for me to care for it.  Should I just let it die under the tree?

My guilty conscience was reduced, however, when the wildlife rehabilitator volunteered, “If we were able to care for the crow, here is what we would do. We would get some canned dog food and feed the crow every few hours for the next week until its feathers grew out and it was able to fly.” (I assume that since this was almost 15 years ago, the statute of limitations will stop me from being prosecuted. If I’m wrong, then hopefully you’ll write to me in prison.)

We borrowed a large parrot cage from my cousin, put in some roosting branches and built a feeding station on the back porch. Then we had a naming contest. My daughter, Alexis, was about seven years old and was going through a crappy-name-choosing stage being heavily influenced by the Care Bears and other Saturday morning cartoons. I recall her wanting other pet names like Snowflake, Sprinkles and Jellybean.  She wanted to name it Midnight-not bad-but my son Andy, then five years old (and no tattoos yet), came up with the name Black Jack. A winner. Since all of my pack llamas were named after western outlaws and renegade Indians, the name Black Jack fit perfectly into the genre.

Over the next week, the whole family all took turns feeding him. He ate constantly, cawing to let us know whenever he was hungry. He would hop onto our fingers and snarf down any food, going through almost a can a day.

We were stunned at how quickly he grew. Soon he was covered in shiny black feathers. After about two weeks, we got ready to release Black Jack. We opened the cage, expecting him to fly out, but he just sat there looking at us. Finally I picked him up on my finger, held him aloft and gave a gentle toss. I thought he was going to crash into the asphalt, when he flapped his wings, got some loft and gently landed. I practiced the maneuver a few more times and then Black Jack began to fly, cautiously at first, and then with more confidence. Finally he flew into a nearby ancient Douglas fir tree, 100 feet up, and sat there cawing in accomplished pride.

We all said our goodbyes to Black Jack, expecting to never see him again and went inside the house. We had done our good deed, even if it was technically illegal. We were surprised, however, when an hour later, we heard his caw at the back door. We opened the door, and there he was, sitting on the wrought iron banister waiting to be fed. Alas, this was the danger of caring for wild animals-they imprint with humans instead of other crows and never really learn the skills needed to survive on their own. We had become his mother and his murder (that’s what you call a group of crows).

So every day-morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening-Black Jack would appear at the back door to be fed. He would spend the night roosting in the trees around the house but would still come to us for food. It was great fun impressing our friends-we could go outside and shout his name, “Blackjack! Blackjack!” We’d hear a caw and off the treetops he would launch, circling the house twice and then landing on our arms, or more impressively, on our heads. We would pick him up and put him on our shoulders where he would sit.

I felt so like a pirate. Of course, this was before I lost my eye and started wearing an eye patch. I wanted to take Blackjack out into the Cascades Mountains with some backpackers and pretend I could call in the wild animals-a St. Francis of the Northwest.

Blackjack was amazingly intelligent. He would knock on the door with his beak, expecting to be let in. Then he would hop into my office, jump on the desk and peck at the buttons on the phone or pry the letters of my keyboard. He would also sneak up on Smokey, our Springer Spaniel, sleeping in the sun, and peck at his tail. Smokey would wake up, growl and snap at him, but he would leap out of the way. I thought he was simply taunting the dog, but later I read that this is a behavior crows in the wild do to acclimate wolves to them so they can scavenge meat unmolested from the wolf kill.

Now, every time I see or hear a crow, I am reminded of a God full of wisdom and goodness-a God who loves me AND the crows, both of whom he filled with great intelligence.

This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue of Creation Voice, an e-newsletter distributed by Restoring Eden.  Peter Illyn is the founder and executive director of the organization, which networks Christians for nature appreciation, environmental stewardship and public advocacy.

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