Last week, while in the garden weeding, I heard crows cawing excitedly in the meadow. I turned around to see what the ruckus was about and noticed a single crow flying toward me, screeching loudly, apparently headed for a landing on me. I was not sure at first if I was being attacked by a deranged outcast from the flock or being paid a visit by a deceased ancestor.
The bird registered my confusion and fear, backed off slightly, then continued its determined descent. He landed, gripping my shoulder with his sharp claws, directing a piercing caw right into my ear, and with his mouth wide open, demanded food.
I cast a desperate look around the garden wondering what in the world to feed a hungry baby crow. A grasshopper sat sunning itself on a hollyhock leaf. Careful not to cast a shadow, I moved swiftly, pinched its tender green body between my fingers, and deposited it in the crow's mouth. A moment of blissful silence was soon followed by loud screeches for more.
Squatting down, I removed a dandelion tap root from the garden edge. A few earthworms tumbled onto the surface of the compost-enriched soil. The crow's head cocked intently watching their wriggling bodies. Gently I picked up a worm with damp soil clinging to its cool body, and popped the earthworm into the bird's mouth. All morning long the crow hopped along the ground following my hands as I weeded the borders, pecking at the overturned soil, gorging on worms.
The previous week, as we moved mulch together, my friend Bruce had recounted the story of his childhood pet crow, Shiner. Raised from birth, fed with an eye dropper, but left to fly free, Shiner would come bearing shiny gifts, perch on Bruce's shoulder for a bite to eat, then go at will. One day he left, presumably to mate and raise a family, and never returned.
"Bruce, you're so lucky," I said. "I've always wanted a pet crow that I could feed and watch up close. They are such intelligent birds." Four days later, this crow flew into my garden. I named him "Bruce."
At dusk, weeding the raspberry bushes, with Bruce still at my side pecking the soil for worms, I wondered if he would find a safe place to sleep during the night. Crows are social birds. They help each other find food, protect each other from predators (like hawks) and cooperate to help raise orphaned fledglings. But this juvenile crow appeared at ease with humans and fearful of his fellow crows. How would this solitary, juvenile crow with a strong human imprint fare on his own during the night?
The next morning I awoke anxiously, resolved to accept the loss of my new friend. Stepping out onto the back porch a chirping sound from the nearest tree was followed by loud cawing and a flurry of feathers as Bruce landed on my head demanding breakfast. I was elated and relieved to see him. Now my day in the garden involved new chores, feeding Bruce when he's hungry, protecting him from our three cats, and being the best mother crow I could be. My new friend would fly onto my shoulder, insisting on a quiet chat amidst the many lists of things to do, leaning his soft head against my cheek, cooing quietly.
That day my neighbor Sandy called me, worried about the new crow in the neighborhood, his constant demands for attention and somewhat unsanitary bathroom habits. It turns out Bruce had found a number of new friends and mothers throughout the neighborhood. It was now clear that Bruce had been found or taken from his nest close to birth and saw people as his flock. Both Sandy and I worried that Bruce's harsh voice and imposing presence while landing might give some unsuspecting person the idea that they were living a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds. I was used to Bruce but had not forgotten my own moment of fright when he first landed on me.
Bruce has now been with us for a couple of weeks and I wake each day surprised to see him, unsure of my new companion's fate. Like a child, he is surprising, mysterious and sometimes irritatingly demanding at the most inopportune moments. I hope that we will be able to wean him of his dependence on his human family before the winter comes or he is inadvertently injured. We have altered Bruce's life for our own pleasure and enjoyment, and I hope we can live up to that responsibility.
And I, for my part, am more thoughtful now about the things I wish for.
-- Laura Spear gardens in the Black Forest at ForestEdge. Her gardens will be open to the public this Saturday and Sunday, July 15 and 16, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 535-7457 for more information.