Keeping the Meat Clean

The following was told to me by Benny the Rock Dancer, a street artist who lives and performs on the street.  He knew I had written a book about crows, so he began to pay special attention to the ones that hung out in his neighborhood.

Because Benny fed the crows, he said the crows visited him regularly.  But, he said, the crows had a sense of the week, and visited him only a weekdays.  When I visited him on the more crowded weekends, the crows did not stop by, and so we couldn’t watch them together.

One day Benny put a Burrito out for the crows.  And the biggest crow, the head bully, would share it with the others, but first he’d take out the best part.  He’d take out the meat.  Really, he’d savor the best ingredient, eating a little bit of it and then hiding the rest.  He’d put the meat beside the sidewalk, in a place where no human would walk on it.  Then he’d cover the meat with a bit of a ripped napkin.  Really, said Benny.  The crow would do this.  The crow would cover the meat with a piece of napkin, to protect it when he put the pine needles and other debris on top if it, to further hide it.  In this way, his meat wouldn’t get fouled up with dirt and so on.  Then he’d let the other crows have at the rest of the burrito, the rice and tortilla and all that.


I was away from home on Christmas Day, in Sitka, Alaska with two co-workers. The town was closed up for the holiday and big, puffy snowflakes were falling. We decided to walk the Totem Pole Trail, a mile-long trail through the woods that follows the shoreline the first half-mile and then curves back to town along the Indian River.

We were halfway along the shoreline when we heard strange sounds from high in the trees: muted bleeps and squawks, like the sound of a computer held underwater.

“I think it’s a raven,” I said in response to my friends’ bewildered glances. I’ve spent a lot of time in Alaska, and I’ve heard the birds’ wide range of vocal possibilities. After I said this, a large bird took flight from the tree.

We walked a bit farther and heard the vocalization again, and another taking of flight. Then again, farther down the trail, as if the bird was coaxing us along. As we neared the turning point of the trail, a cacophony of raven sound rose. The cries were so uproarious that I thought there must be a predator in the area, or something unusual happening, to cause such a disturbance.

Creeping forward through dense saplings, we followed the sound to the river and spied ravens in the trees lining both banks. Probably a dozen. By now the birds were quiet. All faced out at the river.

As we watched, a big bald eagle came swooping up the river corridor. It whooshed down and snatched a small fish from the water. As this happened, the ravens broke out in a maelstrom of sound—caws, acks, sirens, computer squawks, throat clicks, bongos—as if they were the raucous audience at some sort of avian Olympics.

I felt we’d walked into one of The Far Side comics—like the one with the martini-drinking cows who get back on all fours when they see humans approaching. Only the birds hadn’t seen us.

As we exited the forest, a raven (I like to believe it was the one who led us in the woods) shot ahead and landed on top of a totem pole directly in front of us. At the top of the pole was a carved raven head. The real raven turned until its head was in the exact position of the carved head below.

Really, it did this.

Feeling a little dumbstruck, we decided we weren’t ready to return to our hotel. We found the Pioneer Bar open, shot inside, and debriefed on our bizarre experiences over a Christmas beer.

C. Stone,

Seattle, WA

Bird of Pomp and Vocabulary

The following is excerpted from Natural History, by Pliny the Elder of Rome, born 23 AD in what is now Northern Italy:

Let our thanks be given to the raven as it is due. During the principate of Tiberius a young raven, from a brood hatched on top of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, flew down to a shoemaker’s shop nearby, where it was welcome to the owner because of religious considerations. It soon learnt how to talk, and every morning flew to the Rastra facing the forum and greeted Tiberius by name, then Germanicus and Drusus Caesar, and, after that, the people of Rome as they passed by; finally it returned to the shop. The raven was remarkable in that it performed this duty for several years.

The tenant of the next shoemaker’s shop killed the bird, either out of rivalry or in a sudden fit of anger because he claimed that some droppings had spotted his shoes.  This aroused such an uproar among the general public that the man was driven out of the district and subsequently lynched, while the bird’s funeral was celebrated with great pomp.

The Animal Art of Imitation

Walking down the street one day, I heard a cat.  I looked around in the bushes, and all I saw was a crow – low enough in the branches to give the impression of a cat.  I soon gave up on my search and continued on my merry way (an activity reserved now for hobbits and insurgents in the forest of Nottingham)  when I heard the cat again.  I looked around, and again, all I saw was the crow, as I proceeded to heap all sorts of human motivations upon the creature: Trickery, Mirth, Irony, Impersonation.  This ‘meow’ was a notion both it and I could understand, and not bad – though a little nasally.  Still, there was no cat to be seen.  And the crow would not make the sound when I was looking, as its beak transformed itself into a smile.  Or did I just make the whole thing up?


“In the woods,
I am the absence of woods…”
Daniel Mcdawson

I just recently went birding (crows aren’t my only bird of interest) and then wrote me a sentence…

When you first enter a promising area of birding—be it near trees, bush, or field—most of the birds fly away. They hide. Although you still hear them, or a chorus of them, you can’t see a one.

It’s only after you’ve stood still for an unspecified amount of time, when you’ve forgotten about the hubbub of your compartmentalized life, when the nagging of bills and the obligations of deadlines cease, when all of it drifts off as far away as possible, away with the breeze and the rustle of leaves, when all of a half-hour passes, or more—you don’t know—when you’ve taken less than ten steps, when a tiny shadow of a creature alights on a far branch, when three of them do, when you put the binoculars to your face and discover of patch of color so brilliantly yellow on a songbird wing, when all of the colors of the afternoon, when all the trees and the sky and the water, when all is saturated in the calm of the day, when a harmless, colorful visitor alights into view and prompts you to do nothing but admire, when, in the woods, you become a part of the woods…