Some would say it’s difficult to determine with certainty if this interspecies relationship can be considered a friendship. I think it is. It grew slowly, with tentative steps and cautious acts. We watched each other’s movements and responded to subtle hints and before long, trust developed. We rarely communicate vocally but we have come to understand each other fairly well.
In 2006, my garden was attacked by a gang of starlings (officially, a group of Starlings is called, oddly, a chattering. That’s not what I would call it). These birds would not be dissuaded by my very enthusiastic beagle nor by my cat who always wanted outside on the porch to watch them gather, and not even by a beautiful great blue heron who would sometimes breakfast at our fish pond. And certainly not by the irritated gardener who would charge outside, arms waving widely, running in their direction yelling rude things. They would wait until I was almost on top of them before taking flight. This chattering was not just great in number, but tremendous in noise. Their vocal abilities are equivalent to that of mocking birds in the south, which reminds me of the time my spouse heard what he thought was a typewriter being used outside, in a tree, at 6 am (this was in New Orleans in the 1980’s. In New Orleans, a person in a tree at 6 am would not be unusual – typing, I’m not so sure.) Our friend told us that the sound was actually a mocking bird who had learned to mimic the sound of his typewriter.
Anyway, these starling visits continued throughout spring. There were only 2 times I noticed genuine alarm among the birds; when a Cooper’s hawk would swoop through my garden, or a crow family would perch in the apple tree across from my blueberry plants that the birds so loved. Knowing full well that I could not attract the little hawk on command, I decided to train the crow family to come into my garden at specific times. Being very bright birds, it took me just a week and a few days to train this family to come into my yard when the starlings visited. (By the way, walnuts are a favorite food!) Before summer was over, the crows were very well fed and the starlings were long gone.
I slowed, and then stopped, feeding the crow family and life seemed to return to normal. Except that occasionally I would notice a member of the family sitting in our apple tree, watching me as I worked. Always the same bird, identified by a small gray patch on its shiny black wing. At first, I didn’t pay much attention to the bird because my life at that time was hectic – I worked, had returned to school, volunteered at my daughter’s middle school, and volunteered with EarthCorps. As a result, my time in the garden was short, intense, and very focused. But eventually I began to slow down and to give the bird some attention. It seemed to be young. I decided to refer to it as ‘my crow’, and chose to call the bird him rather than it. He may have thought of me as his human. Eventually, I would put out a few walnuts for him which he always appreciated. Before long, I found myself looking for him whenever I worked outside. It didn’t take a great amount of time before we were interacting – he would sometimes drop items on my head (Doug Fir cones, small twigs – nothing too hard). We would watch squirrels bury nuts in my garden and then inexplicably run away; my crow would then fly down to dig out the nut. A couple of times I would point to a spot he had missed. He watched me and my family when we would eat dinner outside during summer, and one evening after we went inside for the night he took one piece from a group of small glass creatures I used as a centerpiece on our table. In return, he placed a tiny plastic doll in the same spot. My crow alerted me to the presence of a feral cat that had begun using our garden as hunting grounds, and called me to the living room window when the heron came by to fish.
Over the years, my crow and I have become very fond of each other – we take care of each other. Does that sound like a misunderstanding of another species actions? Just a common anthropomorphic interpretation of unintentional acts? You can decide for yourself. On a late July evening 2 years ago, I sat on the front porch. I was crying (very quietly) – no one else home, no one around – about something that was excessively cruel and dishonest. I sat outside until the sun began to set. I was unaware of anyone around me until I looked up to see my crow perched on the garden gate nearby. He was watching me closely. Small, quiet clicks and clucks came my way. He stopped, as if waiting for me to respond. I asked him how he was and he responded with a slight body fluff, a few more very quiet clicks, and then moved a couple of steps my way. We looked at each other for a short time, and then I said “It’s nice that you’re here. Thanks.” Another slight feather fluff, a bob of his head. Sometime later, I said “I’m going to bed. It’s getting late.” I stood up, walked up the steps to the front door, and turned around to thank him again – to say “I’m ok.” I received one more very small click or two, and he flew away.
Friendship? Absolutely. And he didn’t even ask for a nut.