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August 30, 2009

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A defence of the maligned crow

WHEN she set out to write about the crow - the black sheep of the avian world - the naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt didn't relish the task. "I never meant to watch crows especially," she admits in her curiously personal and thought-provoking meditation, "Crow Planet."
"Whenever I ask someone about chickadees or robins or flickers or other common birds ... the response is almost always lackluster, noncommittal or at best blandly cheerful," she writes. Crows, however, sometimes elicit raves but far more often insults.
Haupt knew the dark history that fed this distaste. During the plague years in medieval Europe, crows "scavenged the bodies lying uncovered in the streets." In 1666, she writes, after the great fire of London, so many crows descended on the victims that Charles II ordered a campaign against them to calm a horrified populace.
And yet, as she trained her binoculars on the familiar but spooky creatures in her yard, Haupt found aspects of the corvid family that argued for more respect.
Did you know that crows recognize human faces? To prove this, she writes, a researcher at the University of Washington conducted an experiment. Volunteers who had captured and banded crows (something crows resent) while wearing caveman masks were cawed at and dive-bombed whenever they re-entered crow precincts. When the same volunteers walked through the crow zone with their faces hidden by Dick Cheney masks, "the crows left them entirely alone."
Like human beings, Haupt explains, crows are one of the "few prominent, dominant, successful species" that prosper in the modern world. Their hardiness means they will outlast more fragile species.
Before we revile them, she suggests in a lyrical narrative that blends science and conscience, we ought to understand that there are so many of them because there are so many of us. Because we have built, they have come.


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