Pinching a peanut shell between my fingers, I pulled my hand out of my pocket and laid the nut on the concrete between us. GO cocked her head, catching the light on her left cheek and reflecting the deep blues that hid among her inky black feathers. “Please don’t die before I graduate,” I whispered. GO stared back at me a moment before galloping forward for her treat and making off.
Try as I might, I couldn’t will her to understand my foreign tongue anymore than I could will her body to keep working indefinitely. Today it finally stopped. Today I say goodbye to my companion.
For those that follow my blog regularly, you’re probably familiar with GO. Even if you’ve never seen mentions of her, you see her face every time you visit my site; she’s the bird staring back at you from my site’s banner. I first met GO while searching for banded birds to use as subjects in my early funeral experiments. Her name actually comes from her band combo: Green/Red/Metal x Green/Orange.
The location of her and her mate’s territory was ideal, and soon I was regularly feeding her as apart of the initial conditioning phase of the experiment. Like most campus birds, she readily took to feeding and soon enough I could hear the soft rattling of her bands as soon as I approached the food site each day. After the funeral event though, GO and her mate aggressively avoided the food and I wrapped up the experiment assuming that, like many of my other data points, she would be anxious to never have to see me or my ‘scary’ accomplice ever again. But a few months later, while waiting for the bus I heard the familiar rattle of her bands and turned to see her looking expectantly down at me from a branch. I offered her a peanut and she took it without pause. I never went to the bus stop without a few peanuts in my pocket after that. It’s been four years since then.
During the darkest days of writing my last publication I might have visited her 2 or 3 times a day, desperate for someone to shake me out of my writer’s block or my frustration with myself. Hearing her wing beats was like taking a Xanax; it was calming and reminded me why I was working 15 hours a day juggling field work and authorship duties. I adored her, I wanted to know and understand everything I could about her, and I wanted to be part of the community that was using science to enhance people’s appreciation for corvids. She wanted peanuts. I don’t think her side of things was any more complicated than that but that’s never cheapened the relationship for me. She wasn’t a pet or a human friend dressed in corvid clothing. She was a wild crow, and it was wondering about how she existed in that wild, urban space that most inspired my work. Still, I had always hoped GO would somehow be spared from the one thing I wonder about the most: death.
For all the advances our team has made about the function of crow funerals we know almost nothing about what the birds are really thinking. Like most other social animals, they do a great variety of things which makes getting at what they are thinking or feeling very difficult. GO and her mate had presumably been together many years. It’s hard for me to imagine this is lost on him, but I can’t say for sure. All I know with certainty is how I feel about her loss and I know the thought of silence in place of the soft rattle of her bands or the whoosh of her wing beats as I approach our spot makes my heart ache.
GO was at least 16 when she died. In that time she successfully raised many broods, contributed to two scientific publications, and undoubtedly befriended more people than just me. She embodied everything we love about crows: their deft skill at thriving among us, their bold demand of our time and attention, and the way they engender our curiosity and admiration. She was my data, inspiration, stress relief, and eager companion. I will never forget what this bird meant to me. Miss you already my lovely ladybird.