The Process of Crows
The reward is in the journey.
The greatest rewards in art, and often in life, are in the process and not the outcome.
This morning, doing chores in my backyard, I heard the harsh caw of an American crow. Its silhouette passed in front of me as a shadow and as I looked up, it tipped its wings at me. In that moment I realized that I had finally accomplished a lifelong goal.
In 2004, West Nile virus decimated the corvid population in Southern California. West Nile virus was first detected in New York City in 1999 and quickly spread across North America. This newly introduced mosquito-borne virus infects over 250 species of birds, but corvids like crows, scrub jays and ravens were the most susceptible to dying from the disease. The year the virus arrived in California you could literally watch crows drop dead from the trees.
Crows, ravens and jays have always been some of my favorite bird species because of their mystery, intelligence and willingness to interact with people. When I was 10, I called every pet store and bird farm in the Inland Empire, asking if anyone had pet crows. This was before the Migratory Bird Act and in a time when people who had no business having a crow for a pet could have one anyway. When one of these places called me back with an offer of two pet crows, the gentleman on the other side of the plastic rotary dial phone had a small crisis realizing he was negotiating a crow sale with an elementary school kid.
My grandfather took me to pick up my new pet crows for $20 and I wish my memories were sharp enough to recall the looks that must have been shared between the two men. Still, I was the blissful owner of two of the meanest, angriest, people-hating crows that probably ever existed. Somehow this experience did nothing to dampen my love for them. We did not become friends, but I was still determined that someday my crow love would be returned.
I’m 52 years old and I’m working on that. Still, in 2004 I thought I had lost my chance. I underestimated nature though and slowly, but surely, the crows and ravens came back. My urgency to make friends redoubled.
Since about 2015, there has been a very healthy population of American crows in Banning. This included a family group in my neighborhood. I have kept a close watch on them, ready for reciprocal friendship. That year I pulled over in a rainstorm to rescue a sodden juvenile that was so wet that it couldn’t fly. I thought I was about to prove myself.I brought him home and let him dry out in a dog crate. The next morning, he was dry and calling back and forth with his family. So, I gleefully released him in their direction. Unfortunately, the red-tailed hawk on my street was of the opinion that I had just released her dinner and for nearly a decade, the crows have not forgiven me.
We are all the villains in someone’s story, but the crows had a valid opinion.
Crows are well known for leaving trinkets for the people who feed them. If they know you and can rely on you for a snack, they are likely to leave a stone, buttons, bones and sometimes of bit of cash in what scientists think is gratitude. All I’ve ever wanted was a button from a crow and I refused to give up. Every time I saw them, I left snacks for them. They ignored them.
This year’s youngest crows seemed a bit less convinced of my evils. Even in crows, I imagine stories get diluted eventually. I was a little more hopeful leaving out peanuts for them. It took three months of filling a bowl in their line of sight, but eventually the bravest crow decided to grab one. Now, they demand snacks when they see me.
I don’t know how long it will be before my acts of kindness are reciprocated with a button. Now I realize though that it doesn’t make a difference. A button would just be a token representing what has been a lifelong journey, which is worth vastly more than a trinket.
I also realize that this is how writing and every other form of art truly matters. It is wonderful to get to the finished product, but the finished product is something separate from the journey. Every book and every piece of art stands on its own and outside of you. What you truly get from it is what you learn and experience when you do the work.
I won’t lie though. I still want my button.