Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

[14 April 2010]

By David Maine

Crows are everywhere. Close your eyes: if you’re within earshot of a tree, there’s a decent chance you’re hearing one caw-caw-cawing right now. They are, perhaps, the least glamorous birds in the world. Pigeons are kept in rooftop hutches and fed by old people in the park. Equally ubiquitous sparrows at least entertain the possibility of being considered cute. Nobody feeds crows in the park—not willingly anyway—and nobody calls a crow “cute”.

Lynda Lynn Haupt wants to change the way you think about crows. More specifically, she wants people to think about their relationship with crows as a kind of microcosmic example of their relationship with the natural world. Her book, Crow Planet, is both an appreciation for that world, bumping up against us in the urban environment, right where we least expect to find it, and an exhortation to pay more attention, to stop and look and consider this environment which we have helped create for ourselves.

She writes about crows, but really she could use any common organism as her starting point: ants, worms, mice. However, she puts it, “for the majority of people on the face of the earth, the crow will be the single most oft-encountered native wild animal in their lives.” We brush away ants without noticing them; mites and other such tiny creatures, although around us in their thousands, remain invisible to our notice. We may encounter feral dogs or cardinals or monarch butterflies or—if we’re lucky—owls or foxes or raccoons; but these encounters are memorable largely because they are so rare.

Crows, on the other hand, we see every day. It’s hard to ignore a crow, and as Haupt puts it, most everybody has a crow story.

It’s just about possible that every crow may have a human story, too. Haupt cites a study that “confirms that crows recognize individual human faces.” If you are one of the many people who have ever felt that a particular crow had it in for you—hey, you might be right. Crows apparently learn, and remember, and communicate much more than we are apt to give them credit for.

Strangely, I don’t have a crow story. (Strangely, because I grew up in semi-rural Connecticut and, well, crows were always just there.) But my wife, a native of Karachi, Pakistan, has vivid memories of eating lunch outside her elementary school, where the crows habitually dive-bombed the students, sometimes tearing sandwiches from their hands.

Haupt wants to do more here than talk about quarrelsome black birds, though. In a series of chapters she lays out her manifesto, which is essentially a call for human beings to become more attuned to what is around them. Her chapters, called “Preparing”, “Reading”, “Walking”, “Seeing”, “Coexisting”, “Flying” and so forth, each focus on a different aspect of the crow’s behavior, and of the naturalist’s job.

The chapter “Walking” allows Haupt to discuss the unusual physiognomy of the crow’s foot, then discuss its behavior (unlike many birds, crows seem perfectly content to walk about on the ground, often electing to walk significant distances rather than fly). The discussion then moves to the walking habits of the author, and the preferred method for an amateur naturalist (slowly, preferably with a magnifying glass and/or pair of binoculars, and a notebook) before touching on writers such as Henry David Thoreau, who spent his life wandering in the natural world and writing essays about it, and about humanity’s place in the larger picture.

“Helping” relates the ways in which crows take care of each other (they will gather around a wounded comrade, noisily fend off danger, and are reluctant to leave him or her behind) before moving on to a consideration of the ethics of human intervention in tending a wounded wild animal. “It is generally believed that the most ecologically advanced position [upon discovering a hurt animal] is to let nature take its course. But I am not convinced that this is, in fact, always the highest course of action, or that it is ever entirely clear what nature’s course might be.” Each chapter is rich with personal anecdote, historical reference, and thoughtful insight.

Given the ubiquity of crows, this lively little book should certainly resonate with many people. Haupt lives in Seattle and draws from her experience in that city, but her concerns are genuinely universal, and of great interest to anyone with an interest in the natural world in general. Or birds in particular. Or, yes, crows.

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