Putting the “crow” in necrophilia

It’s early April 2015, and John Marzluff and I are standing with a film crew attempting to capture some footage of a crow funeral to compliment a story they are working on about Gabi Mann.  I’ve already set the dead crow on the ground, it’s placed just out from a cherry tree resplendent in springtime blossoms.  After only a few moments of waiting, the first crow arrives and alights on the tree, its head cocking around to get a better look at the lifeless black feathers beneath it.  I hold my breath for the first alarm call, ready for the explosion of sound and the swarm of birds that will follow it.  But it doesn’t come.  Instead, the bird descends to the ground and approaches the dead body.  My brow knits together in surprise but, ah well, I think, the shots of it getting so close and then alarm calling will make good footage.   The audience will have no questions about what it is responding to.  To my continued surprise, however, the silence persists; only now the crow has drooped its wings, erected its tail, and is approaching in full strut. No, no, this can’t be, I think.  But then it happens.  A quick hop, and the live crow mounts our dead one, thrashing in that unmistakable manner.  “Is it giving it CPR?” someone asks earnestly.  Still in disbelief, John and I exchange glances before shaking our heads and leaving the word “copulation” to hang awkwardly in the air.  After a few seconds another bird arrives to the cherry tree and explodes in alarm calls, sending our first bird into its own fit of alarm, followed by a more typical mobbing scene.  The details of what I’ve just witnessed as still washing over me when I hear John lean over to me…”You need to start your field season tomorrow.”

***

What crows do around dead crows is something I’ve dedicated much of my academic life to understanding.  In the course of my first study, my findings made for a nice clear narrative: crows alarm call and gather around dead crows as a way of learning about dangerous places and new predators.  Although there are other hypotheses we can’t rule out, certainly danger avoidance is at least partially driving this behavior.  An important detail of that original study though, is that because of the way it was designed, with a dangerous entity always near the dead crow, our live crows were never in a position to ever get very close to our dead stimulus. So the possibility that they do other things around dead crows, like touching them, couldn’t be explored.

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It’s been 3 years since that day in April and during that time it has taken every ounce of my power to remain tight lipped when journalists would ask “what’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from your studies?” Because until we were able to scientifically vet the prevalence of this behavior, I wasn’t willing to say much about it for fear of making necrophilia mountains out of mole hills. But with our findings now officially available in the journal Philosophical Transactions B, I am delighted to finally share what has been the most curious secret of my PhD: crows sometimes touch, attack, and even copulate with dead crows.

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Although this statement is jarring in its own right, what really gives it power is that we know this not just from that first fateful day with the film crew, but through an experimental study testing the response of hundreds of birds over several years.  That’s important because it allows us to say not just what they’re doing but possibly why they’re doing it (and at least why they’re not doing it).  So how did we conduct this experiment?

First, I dove into the literature to try and see if there was any precedent for this kind of behavior in other animals.  Although there have been no systematic studies, repeated observations of animals touching, harming, even copulating with their dead occur in dolphins, elephants, whales, and many kinds of primates, among some other animals.  Based on this, we hypothesized that this behavior may arise from: attempts to eat it, attempts to learn from it, or a misuse of an adaptive response (like territoriality, care taking, mate guarding, etc.). To test these ideas I searched the neighborhoods of Seattle until I found a breeding adult pair and (while they weren’t looking) presented one of four stimulus options: An unfamiliar dead adult crow, an unfamiliar dead juvenile crow, a dead pigeon or a dead squirrel.  The latter two stimuli being key in helping us determine if the behavior was food motivated, whereas the nature and prevalence of the interactions themselves (common, uncommon, exploratory, aggressive, sexual) helped us address the other hypotheses.  In all, I tested 309 individual pairs of crows; or in other words, once again I freaked out a lot of Seattle residents wondering why there was a woman with a camera, binoculars, and some dead animals loitering in front of their house for long periods of time.

Our main findings are that crows touched the animals we would expect them to eat (pigeons and squirrels) more than the dead crows, and although crows sometimes make contact with dead crows, it’s not a characteristic way they respond.  Because this behavior is risky, this seems to back up previous studies in crows that suggest that they are primarily interested in dead crows as a way of self preservation and avoiding danger.

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A crow tentatively pokes at one of our dead crows

That said, in nearly a quarter of cases, crows did make some kind of contact with dead crows.  Like with mammals, we saw that these behavior could be exploratory, aggressive and in rare cases even sexual (about 4% of crow presentations resulted in attempted copulations), with the latter two behaviors being biased towards the beginning of the breeding season.  Importantly, the latter two categories of interactions were rarely expressed independently, and it was often a mixture of the first two; in rare cases, all three.  In the most dramatic examples, a crow would approach the dead crow while alarm calling, copulate with it, be joined in the sexual frenzy by its presumed mate, and then rip it into absolute shreds.  I must have gone through a dozen dead crows over the course of the study, with some specimens only lasting through a single trial. It was an issue that may have been insurmountable if not for the donations of dead crows by local rehab facilities and the hard work of my long time crow tech turned taxidermist, Joel Williams.

It’s hard to witness this behavior without wondering if maybe the crows somehow don’t recognize that it’s dead and are instead responding like they might to a living intruder or to a potential mate.  So we tested that idea too, by conducting a second experiment where we presented either a dead crow or a life-like crow mount.  The differences in their response was clear.  They dive bombed the “live” crows and less often formed mobs, just like we would expect them to do for an intruder.  They also attempted to mate with the “live” birds but in these cases it was never paired with alarm calling or aggression.  So the issue doesn’t seem to be that they think it’s alive.

The fact that this behavior was rare, and often a mix of contradictory behaviors like aggression and sex, seems to suggest that none of those hypotheses I outlined earlier are a good fit for this behavior.  Instead, what we think happens is that during the breeding season, some birds simply can’t mediate a stimulus (the dead crow) that triggers different behaviors, so instead they respond with all of them. This may be because the crow is less experienced, or more aggressive, or has some neurological issue with suppressing inappropriate responses.  Only more experiments will help us determine what makes this minority of birds unique, and whether expressing these seemingly dangerous behaviors are the mark of the bird that is more, or less reproductively successful in the long haul.

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So while there’s still much more left to be explore here, I can finally say that this is without a doubt some of the most interesting behavior in crows I’ve ever witnessed.  I hope you will check out the publication here, and seek out all the other amazing work being reported in this special thanatology (death science) themed issue.

***

57 Comments

Filed under Being a scientist, Breeding, Crow life history, Field work, Graduate Research, New Research, Science

57 responses to “Putting the “crow” in necrophilia

  1. This is fascinating… the only thing that comes to mind for me is this article, about mallards, or, a mallard in particular: https://www.hetnatuurhistorisch.nl/fileadmin/user_upload/documents-nmr/Persberichten/Persberichten/persberichten_2013/DSA8_243-248.pdf

  2. Whoa! It is dead fledgling season right now, I need to keep an eye out for this!

  3. Dayne

    The dead crow being left is not a member of the murder or flock. As crows respond differently to a member of their group vs an outsider wouldn’t you expect members of the murder/flock to respond differently to a dead crow that is not a member of the flock than it would if it was a member?

    • I think it’s very possible. That said, we have done some anecdotal tests/observations were we were either in the right place right time to see a bird get killed or we found a banded dead crow on it’s territory and then removed it and put it back out. In both cases the responses weren’t different from they typical scold/mob response. But again, that’s just a few observations so I’ll say the jury is still out!

  4. Michael Cunningham

    Reblogged this on Mikey's Ramblings.

  5. In Seward Ak we have a murder of crows with between 130 and 150 members per Christmas bird counts. I spent hundreds of hours each year with them from 2007 through 2014. I continue to visit them but not nearly as often or for as long during the years since. I have witnessed many funerals, but have never observed a dead crow being touched by another. Did you by chance control for familiarity of the dead crow?

    Is it possible that this behavior varies from one geographic area to another or according to type of crow? I’ve read that there is some disagreement whether or not Northwestern crows are different from American crows, but think I recall your crows being Northwestern crows, too, which disproves that hypothesis!
    Of course , most likely I was simply not present when the touching of dead crow occurred. Silly of me, but I hope not.

    • We did control for familiarity. These were all unfamiliar birds. Crows can certainly vary a lot behaviorally from region to the next even within the species, so I wouldn’t discount the possibility of regional differences (though for the record our crows are hybridized, mostly American crows). Were most of the deaths you witnessed biased towards one time of the year?

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  7. Robert K. Herrell

    Thank you for your research and the sharing of your information. It is so amazing. I care for the neighborhood crows by feeding them, calling them meals, and talking with them. I can’t learn enough.

  8. GB

    I would strongly suspect that there would be huge difference in responses to an unfamiliar crow, as to a crow that is actually a member of their group, a family member/spouse/offspring etc.

    Humans can feel very much less about the death of a stranger than they will about the death of one of their own family or social group, so why wouldn’t another intelligent animal have a similar disconnect depending on if it’s a stranger or not?

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  15. Carolee Caffrey

    Wow! And that last pic is NICE. I’ll bet that they didn’t know the dead individuals, dead in -their- neighborhoods, had something to do with the varied and surprising responses; it’s not something that normally happens. (The West Nile virus part of the story was unprecedented, too, but) I saw surviving friends and family stand quietly over dead indivs, juveniles vocalize agonizingly over dead parents, and mourning and grief in the weeks-months thereafter. Habitat Desaturation at Carolee Caffrey.com

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  18. Hm maybe they wouldn’t be acting so odd if a lady scientist hadn’t been sexually torturing them for YEARS. I am SO DONE with her terrible research. I hate to say these words, but this woman is a BIRD PERVERT. 🤢 SICK!

    • Couple questions. 1) why are you addressing me in the 3rd person? When you leave a comment on my blog you are essentially writing me a public email. Do you write all your emails this way? 2) I hate to discredit myself here, but I am only a scientist. It would take an additional FIVE YEARS of grad school to earn my Lady Science degree and, I’ll be honest, I’m just burnt out. 3) These were wild, free ranging birds under literally no obligation to do anything. In what way do perceive that I am “sexually torturing” them? Is being exposed to a dead body “sexual torture”? If so, I hope you are not pursing any kind of work in the mortuary sciences.

      I hope you don’t feel peppered with questions, but I can’t help it. When I see something curious I pursue it. That’s how this whole this started, remember. I saw something I wasn’t expecting to see and then did three yeas of research in order to determine if it was a trend or not.

  19. Joey Shyloski

    Kaelis! Wow! Thank you for your fascinating research. I’ve always wondered about crow cannibalistic behavior. They have such a love for road pizza, I wondered if they would eat another dead crow?

    • So that has been observed, but extremely rarely. So it’s definitely not a typical behavior but it’s not completely unheard of.

      • Ah yes, well now I don’t feel so bad about not seeing crow necrophilia. I did see several crows eating a (not dead) crow hit on the road. The poor struck bird was disemboweled, so no chance of veterinary care, so I euthanized it by cervical dislocation. This earned me my very first “marked for death” badge by the local crows, which lasted about 3 months thereafter. It was only 2 blocks from my house, so it was not super convenient, as the mobbing would happen soon after I left.

      • Dayne

        So they took you for a predator but it wore off after three months. That was fortunate. The crows mob red fox and all kinds of hawks that come through their territory (my backyard) relentlessly. In fact a beautiful hawk took down a crow, had it in its claws on the ground, and was mobbed by not only the crows that claim my yard but other crows (neighbors?). They swirled around it, attacked it from the ground and the air with claws, wings and beaks. There were so many surrounding it at first I couldn’t figure out what was going on because I couldn’t see the hawk with the crow. The crow was definitely alive. Eventually the crows relented and most of them flew into the trees surrounding the hawk. They did a lot of screeching. But the hawk won in the end. Seemed totally unfazed by the mob. It was a few days before the crows that claim my yard came back.

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  23. Karl Kotas

    To paraphrase the announcer at the crash of the Hindenberg,

    “Oh, the corvidity!!!”

    Feathered imps of the perverse, indeed.

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  32. Hi Kaeli, Congratulations on your research and Doctorate.
    As a lamb producer, I have heard it said before that one way to scare off crows (our Australian ravens) from being around lambing ewes and fresh lambs is to leave a dead crow in the field. Or more than one. Would that work, and why? Would we hang it, or leave it on the ground? And when placing it there, would we disguise ourselves and use a different vehicle? If I’m understanding the research, I would want crows to associate the danger to be with the place, or the stock, not with me.

    • Hi there,

      Yes effigies can work as a deterrent for corvids, most effectively if paired with other negative stimuli like lights or noise, but obviously those latter two are not always as practical. Hanging them is probably a bit more effective because it will maximize exposure. More is more in this case, but I doubt you need more than three depending on how much area you’re trying to protect.

      I would actually associate it with you and your work vehicles as much as possible. Their memories are not an either/or situation so they’ll learn the place regardless and then if they make the association with your car then that just further reinforces the scariness every time they see it out there. Hope that helps!

  33. Katya Kiseleva

    Hello, I stumbled upon your research on this matter purely by chance (I am a high school statistics student conducting an observational study of American crows). To be honest, I literally did a double-take at the title, like “wait… What!?” I read the article and was not disappointed. This is fascinating stuff! Just… corvids. I would never have guessed. Thank you for publishing this research!

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  35. I witnessed similar behavior, yesterday. A mob of crows (maybe 2 dozen) gathered & were screaming a terrible racket from power lines & trees, surrounding a black lump in the street gutter. Eventually, one, then several, descended & were pecking then tearing at this lump. Eventually, their actions were violent enough to toss about this body, so that a wing or tail were extended, revealing the body of a crow. The difference being that the body appeared to be initiating some of its own movement. Closer inspection revealed the bird was indeed alive, blinking, moving its eyes, one leg at an odd angle. Unfortunately, my closer presence disturbed the process. The crows became quieter, & after I left, did not resume the violent behavior. I’m still horrified that I may have interfered with a kind of community euthanasia. Thoughts?

    • Hi Lou,
      So it’s tough to say what was happening here. The bird could have already been injured before they started attacking, as crows will try and kill weak or injured crows though we don’t know why. Honestly my guess (which is not very popular among the general public) is that they probably want to kill each other more often than we give them credit, and an injured crow is too vulnerable to pass up. These birds are social but they are also fiercely competitive, and that competition does turn deadly as possible. Alternatively, it could have been a healthy crow that was attacked by a territorial pair. Any idea if it survived?

  36. Gem

    Hi, I am quite intrigued by your article as it reminds me of similar behavior that I observed in budgies at my place. One of the baby budgies had died, and I saw one of the adult budgie (not parent, but used to feed the baby) trying to peck at it as if to hurt the dead bird and then trying to hump it over and over again. It was quite shocking to see that, and another bird actually tried getting this one off the dead bird, but it would keeping going back at it. Hope this adds to your research.

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  39. Emma

    Considering this isnt very common behaviour, can we also assume that it may be something similar to the way a minority of humans behave? Necrophilia, rape, murder etc. Maybe they are just individuals with their own mind and something is not right upstairs, much like the minority of humans. This seems the case with the beginning of your article, when the crowd observing the necrophiliac called out an alarm and mobbed. That appears to me the majority of crows did not approve of the situation and responded accordingly. It would be very interesting for more research in this area. Fantastic article! And I thought human serial killers were an interesting study Haha!

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  42. Jeremiah Sullivan

    I’m so sorry for the wall of text, but these articles of yours has just excited me SO MUCH, I couldn’t help but share…

    I grew up in Edmonds, always trying to talk to and interact with the birds- any of them. A kinglet was the first bird that landed right next to me while I was waiting patiently by the bird feeder in the backyard. I grew up with a Grey-Cheeked Parakeet named Turkey (allegedly named because he was ornery and mean- not really, and when I’d adopt a Bronze turkey much later, I’d have even less association with the meaning, as my Loren was a very, very sweet boy), and despite all this, I was actually terrified of birds. Loved them, longed to be near them, but was terrified when they came within reach- even the little ones!

    I’ve now rescued roosters for about a decade. This was after roommates threw chickens into my room and PROMISED they’d be “in their coop in about two weeks”- So, I decided, any animal living with me was to be well mannered, well tamed, and well trained. To my surprise, they trained up quicker than any dog I’ve had- and I was sold to the chicken next door. So to speak.

    In this decade, I’ve come to be known as the Bird Man of Olympia, the Chicken Guy, or simply, That One With All Them Roosters. I was told, after watching “my” first birds hatch (my roommate asked me to mark four eggs as “mine”, so I could have the experience of raising something- an experience my parents vehemently withheld from their children), and watching them grow, that the two that were absolutely mine were boys. Of the four, I raised two in “payment” to my roommates, and kept two for myself to do with as I pleased- eat them, eat the eggs, keep them as pets, etc. Upon hatching, I painted their little claws to tell them apart from their brood mates- this was the product of the first four chickens. My two had green nails, and the two fosters had pink, out of about twenty.

    As boys, I’d have to get rid of them. I asked why, and when told it ALL came down to noise ordinance violations (which I researched- and it’s true! A rooster can only be taken from you in an area where chickens are legal IF he crows- and it has to be for thirty minutes straight! A lot of these cases taking roosters from loving homes are completely out of line with the law as it’s written across the nation, AND state by state!), I again asked… Why? But this time- Why does a rooster crow? Answer: Actually, for a lot of the same reasons that dogs bark. Primarily, dominance and distress. They also play Marco-Polo, conveying as much information in a single crow as- An individual is missing; I found water; I can’t find water; I found food; I can’t find food, and much more. In the wild, chickens (or Red Jungle Fowl in this case) form flocks that CAN be hundreds in size (usually closer to twenty), but break down into sub-flocks of about 5-8 each. Sub-flocks can vary from 4 to 12 individuals, both sexes represented equally (1:1 hatch ratio of males to females). A male USUALLY reside as head of flock and sub-flocks, but this is not always the case. FEMALES CAN AND WILL ALSO CROW IF THE NEED IS THERE. The head of flock will always crow at the beginning and end of the day, and intermittently throughout the day, with the intent of a head count. At this point, all heads of sub-flocks will crow back, which is usually where information is passed if an individual is missing.

    In my own time, I made sure my birds looked up to me as THE dominant figure by being in their lives nigh-constantly, taking them with me (usually only one or few at a time- NOT the whole flock unless I had special transport, and a way to keep track of everyone), making sure they absolutely understood when I disagreed with their behaviors by using their own language (a sharp poke to the side simulates a disagreeing peck; they’ll give each other a harty shove as warning, so a gentle push with the foot, just enough to unbalance them a little is enough to get the point across; a low, warning, “Buuuuuu”- WITH REPETITION- a bird is nothing if not experimental with their boundaries when boundaries are given), and made certain that they knew I was a source of kindness and comfort otherwise. I’d spend each morning taking out each individual, checking them over, talking to them, and each would get a small morning cuddle session before being released. In the evening, they’d ALL come inside and pile on my bed, so I’d just shove myself under their blanket (I had a poop-guard throw just for them), reach out and grab one at a time, cuddle for awhile, then put each one away. I had to carefully calculate who went into which carriers with who- some would sleep together peacefully, others would be fine in the yard, but hate sleeping together, while others would get listless and depressed when separated from their friends at night.

    Now, almost to the relevancy, though mayhaps not to this article in particular. So, I’m homeless. Not a problem for the chickens, who are already used to living outside, and living WITH them certainly makes me a more attentive care giver. Since my first rooster, Bo, whom I accidentally trained to be my service bird (he’d sit on my handlebars of my bike, and give me quiet concerned noises when I was about to have a panic attack, so I’d know to stop and spend some time just holding him), these birds have become my life.

    So, how do I keep them safe? The same problems arise, homeless or not- a safe, enclosed, night-time area, a safe outdoor experience, keeping the food without attracting pests, etc. I stay away from those risky at-home “toys” like putting rotting meat in a bucket, drilling holes in it, and letting the maggots fall through. I’ll give my birds mealworms, and I DO believe they live healthier with SOME “natural chaos”, as opposed to completely sterile environments. I do not condone the deep litter method, too much ability to give into laziness.

    Well, the lady who threw chickens at me also believed in 100% sustainable farming practices, including using the nature that’s already there. So, my first camp with these birds was absolutely “fenced” with Himalayan blackberries, and I started my flock just standing out with them, and repeatedly guiding them back “home” when they’d wander too far. After awhile, I was able to just shout a name, followed by “Too far! Come back!”, and that individual chicken would stop, hesitate, and in that moment I could tell if they were going to make their way back, or if something has piqued their curiosity just too damn much. And sometimes- I swear- they just proceeded BECAUSE I’d said anything at all. Agatha, my VERY first, when introduced to the hockey stick on the ground as a visual barrier, RAN across it several times after I’d ushered her back, and we began to actively FIGHT about it! She’d puff up, and CHARGE across the stick, then just stand there, as if challenging me, but never fully ducking her head or spreading her wings, just the puff, heavy breathing, wings only slightly spread, the she’d flatten her feathers and squat in submission as I’d reach for her, and tell her, “No, that’s not what I want of you. That’s not what I’m asking of you.” Then I’d pick her up, walk her across the room, set her down, and she’d again CHARGE across the hockey stick, just to stop, turn around, and start eyeing me in that left-right-left-straight manner of birds. This went on about 45 minutes, and was one of the few times I gave up. I’d only just started to get to know chickens, and I sure didn’t want to stress her out too much, as much as she was showing to be hard-headed and challenging in nature. Not to say she was a challenge, she just challenged every new thing that came her way. Then would come running, screaming, to me. She’d scream, I’d call, “Aaaagatha!”, and I’d hear her little toes scuttling across the floor, or the grass rustling, but if she didn’t find me, she’d scream again, and I’d walk away just a little, and call again. The day she “defeated” me, I walked away from her, telling her I had more important work at the time, and we’d get back to this later. She just stood there, watched me go back to the couch, pick up my textbook, and start writing. She whined. She peeped, as best she could at that age. She whined.

    “What?” I demanded of her, not expecting a response, but knowing that ANY interaction with a pet is worthwhile, censoring yourself to a pet is not, and even if I’m upset, it’s still a little bit of play. She cocked her head, and let out a soft squeal, something I’d later learn was actually a chicken purr- they contract their throat LIKE cats do, and this cross between a purr and squeal comes out, and means, “I’m not so sure about this situation, I’m kind of scared… but I think it’s okay.” They use it primarily to comfort each other in times of potential stress. Then, slowly but deliberately, she walked straight to me, not taking any mind to anything else in the room, then stood right by me, squeaking, quiet juvenile clucks, so I set down my book, opened my arms as I leaned back, and she began her squat-and-rise routine just before lift off, and asked again, “What? What do you want from me?” to which- likely coincidence- she leapt up and settled right on my belly, softly churring, attempting to preen my shirt and arm hair. This was THE MOMENT that forced me to stop, and ask- Wait, so… Just HOW attentive can a bird be to a human’s needs? Can they really pick up on our emotions as well- if not better- than dogs can? I grew up with several dogs, the one parakeet I already mentioned, two mice, a guinea pig, the next-door neighbors (only other child in an otherwise elderly neighborhood) had two horses that took their kid and me to and from school, several dogs, and thirteen cats when they took in a pregnant stray that gave birth to twelve kittens- all lived, all fixed. So, I know all about the relationships I can build with these animals, but growing up my mum would always yell, scream, physically push me away from the bird cage, saying things like, “He’s just a bird! He doesn’t understand us, he understands BIRD things. Leave him alone! You’re overwhelming him! Stop poking at him! Birds should NEVER be kept as pets. They CAN’T be kept as pets, they’re just too different from us. Stop trying to teach him to say things, he’s not that kind of parrot!”

    Well, I’ve learned that my mum was actually a pretty terrible pet owner, especially once I began pursuing veterinary careers, and ESPECIALLY when I moved in with a dog trainer who was talking animal psychology classes at Evergreen at the time. This was immediately before moving in with the chicken smugglers, hence my attitude and expectations about well-trained, and well-mannered animals. I’d also by this time met an interactive beta fish who totally knows his name, a corn snake that I nearly had to adopt because, according to his owners, he became so depressed after meeting me, that he wouldn’t eat unless I visited, then he’d anxiously push against the top of his enclosure until he was let out, in which he’d rush to my lap- no one else’s- and just rest with me. If I had to get up, he’d climb up over my shoulders. This family had several reptiles and were VERY attentive to them- lizards and snakes alike would beg to be let out, immediately identify “their person”, go to them, and stay with them until they were “done”, in which case they’d become restless and start exploring further and further away from their person. One, a Japanese Water Dragon named Isa, had a harness and leash, and would readily walk with her person.

    So this all really floored me. I’d grown up being taught ONLY mammals can associate with mammals, and at that, dogs are uniquely qualified. I’d always suspected this was a load of crap, but with my parents, who outright dictated what I studied, I had little chance to contradict them. It wasn’t until I was on my own that I was able to start learning, really learning about the world around me.

    I am now an avid bird watcher. I have a local Pacific Northwest bird book (That One With a Hummingbird), a Peterson guide from the mid 80s I stumbled across at Goodwill, and have made many notes on how ranges have changed, species names, etc., and an Adubon in similar condition. I have the Merlin Bird ID app, am a member of eBird (I made my first sighting recently! A Common Nighthawk!), and I am LOVING my new, bird-oriented life. I SAW AN IMMATURE GOLDEN EAGLE BEGGING FROM AN ADULT BALD. I was arguing with my partner about whether or not it was a young golden or bald, when I was walking across the park, and the Golden happened to catch the wind and hover for about five seconds only about twenty feet above me- It was clear to see the white wrist and rump patches, the smaller beak, and so on. I saw an albatross in Shelton I’d initially mistaken for a young osprey, and have seen several more in Olympia recently, though I’m having difficulty 100% identifying the exact species. Black-footed, absolutely, in Shelton, but this year in Olympia, my partner and I have been seeing markings somewhere between the Laysan and Wandering.

    SO! The relevancy! How DID I keep my birds safe? Crows and jays. Most recently, I’ve managed to befriend a couple of ravens, too. Back in my first spot, which I was at for nearly seven years, I bought special bird and suet feeders I put up high, where my chickens couldn’t get to them. When the crows and jays (they’d come in alternating flocks- usually the jays butt-early in the morning, then the crows in mid morning, etc.) started coming in, I’d make sure they’d see me throwing scratch for the chickens. I’d talk to them. They began to fiercely defend my flock from ANY intruder, and I have NEVER seen them attack or take advantage of my chickens in any way. They chased away squirrels, weasels, hawks, eagles- just about anything I wasn’t friendly to. I had two bald eagles come right in one day, and though they only looked curious, and though they’re primarily fish-eaters, I still didn’t like the idea of them so close to my birds. One was so close, I could’ve touched it with a step-stool. I waved a sick at him(?), and told him that though he was very pretty and regal, he wasn’t welcome in my home. He wasn’t impressed. So, I started making my angry crow screeches, and in they came in just a few minutes to chase those two eagles away.

    Tragedy struck when my flock was stolen from me- by a friend who promised they were going to take care of them while I got a new place set up for everyone. They told me they were taking my boys to McCleary, but then I didn’t hear a single word from her ever again. I was so devastated that I just… stopped. I attempted suicide. I had nothing left. My schooling was taken from me (2008 economy crash took my WAVE scholarship), my mum would soon announce that she’s disowning me because maybe adoption wasn’t the right choice for her (grew to resent raising someone else’s child), my art wasn’t going anywhere, my best friend broke a trusted bond by entering the military, the one I could call “little sister” became consumed by her mother trying to live vicariously through her. It wasn’t a pretty time in my life. Then, someone says, “You’re not the same without your birds. Can I get a couple for you?”

    I was… I still don’t know. That was two years ago. Rocky, and Little Man. Little Man just… one night, he was demanding time with me, the next morning he was dead. I looked him over, I cut him open, I have NO idea what killed him. No wounds, no internal signs of wrongness… then Rocky got hold of some tent caterpillars before I could stop him. He stayed with us several more months, was making a wonderful recovery, but he was still struggling with his thermal regulation when last summer came on so suddenly. 80* day after so many in the 60s or so, and even with his cooling towel, he couldn’t make it. We kept him in the shade, I’ve taught all my birds to drink from a water bottle when a dish isn’t available, so I was dribbling water into his mouth. While we had Rocky, my partner and I found… a young, scared Indian Blue peacock wandering south Lacey at 22:30. Ten minutes, maybe, it took my partner and I calmly talking to him to approach and catch him, then I took him round to the back of the building where it was dark, set him on my lap, and just sat with him the rest of the night. We later found out that the police had recruited local children to catch this peacock and had been at it for over THREE WEEKS. Rocky was so confused, but very appreciative of the company. The pea would become known as Lord Shenzen Clementine, and he, too, seemed grateful to have Rocky. After Rocky passed, I had Shen with me all the time so he wouldn’t get lonely. Then, two women, again in the middle of the night, called me over to a Lowe’s parking lot in a huge muddin’ truck. They were interested in the peacock, but quickly asked if I’d be willing to take on a rooster. He was kind of mean, and literally just dropped on a customer of theirs. Turns out, they worked at Tenino’s local feed stop, and someone had a flock of chickens end up on their doorstep. They’d love to take the girls, but this boy was too much. So my partner and I rode our bikes from Lacey to Tenino, sleeping three times on the side of the road for this wild goose chase. ONCE I’d ridden from Tumwater to Maytown for a roo in need, but that was by myself! How could I ask my partner to do this? For some RANDOM bird I didn’t even know or care about? If I just wanted a rooster, we could’ve popped on Craigslist and found something nearer! But something about THIS one seemed… important.

    So we arrive at Tenino. They say we have to wait until night, because the lady doesn’t want us chasing chickens and scaring them all. My partner and I TRY to persuade her that we’ve been doing this for YEARS, we can catch a chicken! But she won’t have it. So, the ladies offered to go get him in the evening, and we’ll meet at The Park (don’t you love small towns?). November, freezing, I’ve got Shen wrapped in my trench coat while he pushes himself up against me, and occasionally pops his head up out of my collar to get a peek, then he’d settle right on back down. Nearly 21:00, and a BIG truck shows up, and starts flashing its lights. My partner says he’ll go see if that’s who we’re waiting for, I slump my head into my crossed arms, give him a thumbs-up, and groan. I’m tired, I’m cold, this was stupid, I just want to go home…

    “This looks like one of the ones you had back at Janet’s,” I hear called out to me. Grumbling, I extricate Shen from my belly, who vehemently wants back in, and shuffle across the field to see the new bird. We’ll be giving them both overarching treatments for worms, parasites, etc. at the same time, so I wasn’t too worried about that, but as I approached the bird… something wasn’t right. Or it WAS right. Too right.

    “That’s not like,” I said hesitantly, not believing my own words, “That’s Zebulon.” He looked at me. “No, it can’t be,” I murmured. I’d read that chickens can recognize faces- their own and humans- for up to five years. It would have been three since I last saw him. “Zebulon? Can you… step up?” I asked a I placed my hands under his legs- unlike passerine birds, galliformes “natural step-up” instinct is not induced by pressing on their bellies or breasts, but by coming up from behind their legs instead. I’ve also found SOME birds simply prefer this. I had a starling, Juno, that was more comfortable stepping on to a finger offered behind her instead of in front.

    And he stepped up. It had been three years since I last saw him. I held a hand up to him, and he jerked away- first indication that someone had been beating him. “Zebulon,” I said softly, “It’s okay. You’re okay. You’re back with us, now. Do you remember us? I know it’s dark, but do you remember this? Let me see,” and I put my finger to his cheek, pushed his head to the side and started scratching at his arriculars (my FAVORITE feathers along with alulas), then I slipped him under my arm, took gentle hold of his beak, slid a nail in, then my finger. “Let me see,” is their command phrase for “I’mma poke and prod at you lots, but it’s not gonna hurt, promise.” He let me open his beak, look in, take my finger out. Normally, birds I HAVEN’T worked with fight and fight the first time I try to look in their mouths, but MY birds are familiar with it- and Zebulon was PARTICULARLY familiar. He wasn’t MEAN by any stretch of the imagination, but the last time I saw him, he was five months old, hard-headed, dominant, and had a tendency to “bite” when he wanted something- still does. When my birds bite, I tell them, “There must be something you want me to see in there. Let me see.” It tends to dissuade biting pretty quick. He doesn’t bite hard, and I stress to people that more often than not, a bird ISN’T biting- their mouth is literally what they have to interact with the world with. Hell, spiders aren’t usually biting when they press their fangs down on you- they use their pedipalps and fangs as extra appendages when grip is tricky!

    Zebulon, in particular, can get overzealous, but a quick poke, or even just pulling away from him and exclaiming, “Ow! That hurt!” and his bites from there on out will be little, but stern nibbles. He hasn’t hurt me with a nip in about a month, now. But he’ll keep doing it until I let him climb into my lap. ALL of these behaviors were consistent with my boy, the most recent I was training to be a service bird, too. How could HE come back to me, of all of them? Then again, I’d be saying that about any of them. They were all so special.

    I began to cry, and I don’t cry easily. Then… he pushed himself, as hard as he could, into my chest, raised his neck as tall as he could, and just like he used to… shoved his little top-hatted head, and squishy walnut comb right into my throat. I hugged him, squeezed him. I give my birds tight, but brief squeezes, which they seem to reciprocate by shoving themselves against me harder when I let go, and trembling.

    (I just reminded myself- I read an article on Bird Talk Magazine- which I understand is now defunct??- about Happy Birdy Trembles, as I’ve come to call them. The article was right up front, readers send in questions, and the question was something like, “Why does my cockatoo shake whenever I talk to him? Am I scaring him?” I CAN’T FIND ANY RELATION TO THIS ARTICLE, and I wish I could, because this was a HUGE game-changer with how I interacted with my birds!)

    I thanked the two ladies profusely, who were completely taken aback in this “God works in mysterious ways” kind of shock. Dear God, the state I got him back in, though… The WORST case of Scaly Leg Mites I’ve EVER seen- and not even in person! To this day, he doesn’t have scales on his toes anymore, FIVE of his claws popped off (he’s a silkie-serama cross, so he has the polydactyly that gives him “extra thumbs”) as I was brushing the debris off his feet after treating him. He’d scream and attack if a hand was even raised, and he’d absolutely flip out if we balled our hands into fists, or held ANY sort of stick-with-thing-attatched, such as shovels or brooms.

    Zebulon loved meeting Shen. Zebulon’s a born bully, and Shen was, well… a pushover. So HUGE bird is being “torrorized” by mini-chick. Shen WOULD occasionally make a threatening gesture towards Zebulon, but I never saw him make contact. The ONLY things Shen would reliably brutalize (not including prey items) were tubes (peas have instincts to recognize and go after snakes), and anything BLUE. He’d attack rings, earrings, shirts, pens, literally ANYTHING that was blue. No idea why, and we did work on it, and he was able to get over it- mostly. By the end, he’d warn us that he SAW something, damnit! Then wait and see how we’d react to it. Unfortunately, his end was our coldest winter night in December, when I was rushed to the hospital. His body was still warm when we made it home. He was only just beginning to go to his own bed without us guiding him in at night, but his routine was to start peeping / chirruping most pitifully around dusk. He had HORRIBLE night vision, so when it got dark enough, he’d just lie down and keep crying. If we came out when it was still light enough for him, he follow us to bed, and he’d begun to follow the flashlight at night, but I do believe that his problem was that he wanted to be with US, not in a coop all his own. Zebulon and Rocky would perch with him, but he’d try so very hard to get into bed with us.

    Now, back to relevancy, my partner and I had noticed a pair of ravens near the area we were camping. It stayed by just calling, “Hi, Ravens!” whenever they were near, and we could hear them. Then they started coming closer. A game I play with local crows is to caw back at them the number of times I hear them caw. This started with an African Grey parrot I knew, Max. Max was a very cautious, quiet, and shy bird. Super, super reserved- he hardly ever screamed, and it was because his previous owners beat him severely whenever he was “too loud”, so a game he started was to knock on his perch, and await a response. He usually wanted ME to repeat HIM, but he’d reciprocate sometimes, and the specific goal of the game is to tap a certain number of times, or even in a specific rhythm. The crows, too, seem to play this game. The first few call backs are usually ignored, but when I copy them two to five times- number of caws, intonation, volume, length- they’ll usually start taking interest in me, if not come closer. Max taught me to squint, open my mouth wide while making a small sound, and bow, while head bobbing as a friendly gesture, and it seems to work with the ravens and crows, as well.

    These two ravens would come in, and just “chat” with us several times a day. We held up Rocky, Shen, and Zebulon for them to see. I’d also frequently strut around holding a very happy chicken when I’d notice the crows and jays in my first camp. So, one day we’re hearing… three voices out there? Sure enough, a very large, fluffy, clumsy raven is flying with the other two. NO ONE BELIEVES ME THAT BABY BIRDS CAN APPEAR BIGGER THAN THEIR PARENTS, BUT IT’S THE FLUFF! IT’S THE FLUFF! We had barely a flash as they soared overhead.

    A few days later, about a half mile away, we see three ravens flying over an open field. One veers off, lands on a tree right above us and starts cawing (still sounds like a “caw” to me, I have a hard time calling it a “croak”) down at us, flipping it’s head side to side, then straight at us. We call back, then I call, “Are you the same ones that we usually see back home? Is that you? Did you bring your baby by to show us a few days ago?” That’s when I notice, the two still flying over the field are… just flying. To reduce confusion, I’m just going to say Mum perched above us, and Dad was teaching Baby to fly. The glossier, and more graceful one was just cruising to and fro while the other was sallying, swaying, flailing, screaming with a stretched, raspy juvi-voice, occasionally catching up with Dad, stretching its legs out, tapping his shoulders, then rising away, and circling back to try again. This went on and on for about a half hour. Mum eventually let out a particularly scolding-sounding scream, and both fliers banked back towards her, flew overhead where I was able to see that the rougher-looking one also had NO TAIL. Okay, I could see the blood-filled quills at the base of the tail with tiny, black POOFS on each tip. Then they came and settled next to Mum.

    On one hand, I’m super skeptical that they actually came by to SHOW us their baby, but every year for the past five years, I’ve also been interacting with local Towhee and Song Sparrow (these are just called “Little Ones”, but we’re specifically talking about Song Sparrows) populations. The Little Ones don’t so much, or at least it’s more difficult to tell their juvis UNLESS they still have some fluff on them, but EVERY YEAR the Towhees come in one morning, and start making an abundance of noise. EVERY YEAR, I wake up at least once to Towhees SCREAMING, flapping all over the place, scratching SUPER VIGOROUSLY, then I sit up, pop my head out where they can see me, and demand, “WHY?” All goes silent, every time, and there’s a flock a GIANT Little Ones with heavy, dark bills, and one or two adult Towhees, and- OH, THOSE AREN’T LITTLE ONES. None of my books told me what a juvenile Towhee looked like. Every year, after this rude awakening, they come in quietly from there on out. First with their parents, then random drop-ins from the juvis, solitary or with only one or two others, seldom with adults anymore- that’s where we’re at now.

    So, it’s only a couple of weeks after we hung out with the ravens at the Fir Tree Trailhead (to the Western Chehalis bike trail), when I’m at home, alone. My partner had just left, Zebulon was in the back. I came outside, did a little tidying, went back to my tent and was about to duck inside… when the whole damn forest goes silent. Not a Towhee, not a Little One, not a single Wren or Trush. Not a Squirrel, or Chipmunk. Even the insects had gone quiet. I start to hear smashing sticks, and hesitantly I call out to my partner. No answer. I call again. We call to each other using chicken noises, so that back when we had our flock of 30+, THEY would understand us. More crashing- it’s above me, and I know why they’ve gone silent. Zebulon! Before I can turn, before I can think, a Red-Tailed Hawk comes bursting under the tarp, and for a fraction of a second, we stared each other in the face. The hawk banked, I screamed, “Hey! No! Hey! No!” while clapping loudly. It’s all I could do. Zebulon was too far away, and that hawk had the dexterity and areal advantage that I couldn’t even hope to compete with. I heard the scream.

    Zebulon WENT FLYING UP AND OVER THE TENT, leaving that hawk on the ground looking rather frustrated and upset. It flew up into a nearby tree, and began to cry- loud, harsh, piercing cries, as it turned to scan the forest below. Now really scared for Zebulon, I watched that hawk, wondering what to do.

    “GRRAAH, GRRAAH! GRRAAH! GRRAAH!” I heard the ravens, and my first thought was to tragedy. No, don’t let them come by when there’s danger! I trusted my crows and jays with this task because there were SO MANY! But this hawk was HUGE. A red-tailed, to be sure, but I’d never seen one this big. One shoots by, clipping the hawk with its wing as it passes, screaming. Then two others shoot by on the other side, and I see them circling back.

    Well… Good! The ravens have the hawk, I can go look for Zebulon! So, I ran after his bells that I could still hear tinkling off further and further, then they stopped. I shouted, I called. Chickens rarely verbally respond, but sometimes… sometimes…

    I was giving up. I was coming back, I grabbed the bike, ready to chase after my partner and give him the bad news. We could HOPE Zebulon found his way home by the time we got back, or that he’d be so distressed tomorrow that he’d be crowing. Throat clenched, telling myself I’m not going to cry, and a tiny, quiet, “Bu bu bu?” I looked down. He was RIGHT THERE. He had gotten back before I did. I did exactly what I shouldn’t have in that situation- I lunged for him. He squatted, and let me pick him up. I say animals are forgiving, because that HAD to be scary for him… and yet, he let me pick him up, and even comforted me. A few days prior, I’d scared him and he made to lash out at me, then stopped, literally mid-bite, and he stood frozen. I cried. “Zebulon, you did it,” I said with so much pride I could barely contain it. “Zebulon, you saw a scary situation, and you were able NOT to act. That’s right. That’s exactly right. That’s what I want from you. You’re such a good boy.” I stayed still until he broke first, lowering his feathers, shaking his head, then- oh, and if I wasn’t already crying- stretched his head out TOWARDS me, scanning my hand FOR TREATS, just like he used to, and just as he has since, for the first time since we got him back. He WALKED UP TO MY HAND. His own will, his own accord! He LET ME unfurl my hand, reach out and touch his cheek. Unleashed, uncaged, free to run away or back off. My little prey animal. My little dominantly disproportionate boy.

    If that wasn’t enough, the ravens then circled and cooed softly for over a half an hour. I have read that this gravelly “purr” is often used amongst family units, and that it’s akin to the chicken’s purr, that it could be a comforting sound. It sure FELT like that, and they came down and perched as I brought Zebulon out in my arms, and called to them. I call using THEIR sound first and foremost, but it didn’t stop me from calling to them, “Look! He’s okay! Thanks to you guys!”

    That’s it for my bird stories today. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions (will I be informed if you reply to this?), or if there’s any way that my wilderness-based or South Sound observations can be of use to you.

    • Hi Jeremiah. First, I’m sorry to hear your communities have failed you, and you and your partner are unsheltered. I’m glad though that Zebulon and the wildlife are keeping your company. Those relationships are so important. Your stories were quite fascinating to read. I think it’s you that needs the blog. Your intimacy with animals is an inspiration. Please keep sharing your stories here, or elsewhere. My best to your family. If there are any bird resources I can provide you (maybe you’d like a new field guide?) please let me know. I’m sorry I can’t do more.
      –Kaeli

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