Crow Theology

Peanut eater

I feed crows. I am definitely not alone. People have probably felt a need to feed crows from time immemorial, but recent documentaries on crows and crow behaviour have certainly increased their admirers.

Crows are very intelligent. There is a video of a crow fashioning a straight metal wire into a hook that allows it to pull some otherwise inaccessible food from a glass beaker. Tool making is a skill that is generally thought to be unique to primates. One academic ornithologist claims that crows are smarter than the average undergraduate.

One reason I have started feeding crows is that they are now part of the landscape where we live. Six years ago we moved from Edmonton to Victoria. Edmonton doesn’t have many crows.  It has lots of magpies, which are certainly closely related to crows. Magpies are also very smart, but as far as I can tell, they’re much more aggressive than crows. Our cat, Benito, who was the terror of small animals and birds in general, studiously avoided making eye contact with magpies. He was terrified of them. It never occurred to me to feed them. They stole plenty of Benito’s food. Benito, or rather Benito’s absence, is probably another reason I’ve started feeding crows. The condo we now live in doesn’t allow pets of any kind, and I miss having a relationship with another species.

I feed the crows unsalted peanuts in the shell. At first I fed them in the parking lot of our condo building, but I got unpleasant looks from other residents, and it turns out that there’s by-law against feeding birds on the premises.  Now I drive a few blocks away and toss the peanuts out the window on a quiet street. So far nobody has complained, but then I drive away pretty fast. What’s amazing is how quickly the crows caught on to the new routine. Often when I get into the car, a couple of crows will swoop down and make eye contact with me. They and several other crows follow the car to the peanut distribution site. They fly right alongside the car, and occasionally one will fly directly in front of the windshield. It must look very strange to other drivers.

I have come out of a grocery store not far from our condo to find a crow waiting for me. I keep the peanuts in the trunk. I could swear they know the license number.

I sometimes imagine that I have fostered an irrational belief system among the crows I feed. Because I’m retired, I don’t follow a regular routine. Sometimes I get up early to drive to the store for milk, but often I don’t drive anywhere until the afternoon. The crows have learned not to expect the peanuts when I’m walking.  Surely the crows have speculated about the reasons behind this beneficence. I suspect that they have developed a theology around it.

A central doctrine must be that some Being cares for them.  There are probably theological disputes around whether I am that Being or merely its servant.  I have noticed that when the crows make eye contact with me, one of them will bow forward, spread his wings slightly, and caw loudly.  It may well be something that crows do, and this particular crow happened to do it once just before I tossed a handful of peanuts out of the car window. Now he does it whenever I get into the car, and the peanuts follow. A sacred ritual is born, and the crow has acquired the status of a shaman or a priest. Its status is reinforced each time the ritual appears to produce the peanuts. Our periodic absences on holiday probably produce crises of faith, and the power of the shaman/priest crow may be called into question. Some other crow that swoops down with a particular flourish on the first day that the giving of the peanuts resumes becomes the new shaman/priest, and the flourish becomes a new ritual.

Intelligent as they are, of course, the crows are utterly incapable of divining the actual reasons behind the peanut largess. Crow theology and its rituals are all complete nonsense. Well, except for that central doctrine—some Being cares for them.

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