The Boldest Birds

Giles Ryan

© Copyright 2022 by Giles Ryan

Photo of the author.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Time and again across the years I have met crows, ravens, magpies and a miscellany of jays, and these encounters have often marked a stage in life. This is no random group of birds — they are all corvids, the smartest, most audacious birds, the birds who live their lives most closely to ours. Or does it seem that way because I’ve been living close to them? They certainly appear in more memories than I can count.

... The Fairlawn Hotel in Calcutta, an early spring day in 1979, the monsoon not yet begun. I had come over from Dhaka for a few days.  The hotel was an old building by the standards of the city, a nineteenth century edifice, a relic of the Raj, a pukka building, meaning properly built, a solid structure meant to last. In those days they served a generous breakfast out in the garden, nothing more pleasant on a fine morning before the rains set in, but you had to be careful and watch your plate or else you might share your breakfast with the boldest crows on the continent. 

But on my first visit I had no idea this was true, and so I sat there reading the Times of India with no concern, not paying attention until I sensed another presence at the table, then I lowered the page and found myself staring at a crow, who stared back with perfect aplomb. He was like a crow anywhere else, like his Bangladeshi cousins across the border, black except for grayish feathers about his neck and head, and he was not very impressive — in fact, rather scrawny — but his audacity made up for what he lacked in size. The fellow had my toast in his beak, and he seemed very pleased with himself, no doubt thought himself very clever. And he was not the least bit concerned that I’d caught him in the act. He stared back at me as if to say, “What do you want?”... and gave every impression that had intruded on his breakfast. And then he flew off — but he lingered in my memory and always comes to mind whenever I think of Calcutta.

..... Years later, in Tokyo in the summer of 1991, I took my little boys to the vast park that made up the grounds of the Institute for Nature Study, not very far from the Azabu neighborhood where we lived.  According to the lore of the city, many crows nested high up in the forest of tall trees in this park on the south side of the city, and we were there to see where the crows spent their nights. My sons were still little boys then — Kev was in third grade and Dave in kindergarten — and I told them there was nothing to fear, no matter what they might have heard and no matter what they might think of the crows’ appearance.

If the Bengali crows of my memory were physically unprepossessing, the same could never be said of their cousins in Tokyo. These fellows were not only a deep, deep black in color — indeed they shined in their blackness — they were also alarmingly big. They were heavy birds, over two feet in wing-span, with thick, intimidating beaks that might do real damage. Some people feared them, and each spring there were stories in the news of crows attacking people. Fearful parents walking out with their children were careful to avoid strolling under trees where these birds might nest. The big birds were everywhere in the vast city, especially anywhere food was served or scraps might be found. The people of Tokyo were scrupulously tidy and wrapped their trash up tight, but the crows were strong, skilled and determined, so that whenever we saw a mess on the street, we knew they had been there.

The trees in the Nature Study park were so tall and the paths so deeply shaded that we only had to go a short distance into the grounds to get the feeling that we were in some forest out of a Grimm tale. We could hear some of the crows in their nests high above but we couldn’t see them. The crows left their nests in these trees and spread out over the city during the day to hunt for food, then flew home as the day ended. Dave, who was still very little, wanted to know why the crows came here at night, and what did they do here. I explained that they made their nests high in the branches of the trees, that most of the big birds would go out in the daytime to search for food while the little crows stayed home. Then, at the end of the day, the mother and father birds would come home with food for the little ones, “...And they take care of the little crows, just like Mommy and Daddy take care of you.” 

Dave asked, “Do Daddy crows sing songs to make the little crows go to sleep, like you do?”

Faced with a choice between whimsy or truth, I never gave truth a chance. “Of course they sing songs, but not with the awful caw-caw voice we always hear. No, they sing softly and sweetly, just the way you like.”

What songs do the little crows like?”

They like the same songs you do, even the French song, the one that always makes you sleepy.” And then I sang the first few lines:

Sur le pont d’Avignon, / On y dance, on y dance, / Sur le pont d’Avignon, / On y dance tout ensemble.

And with this song Dave was satisfied — and I like to think the crows were too — and we passed the rest of the afternoon walking about the woods, watching these great birds in all their to-ing and fro-ing.

..... In the early spring of 2013 I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains — alone this day, for my boys were grown and gone — when I reached a peak with a clearing that overlooked the cedars in the tree line below. I stopped to rest after the three-mile climb and I sat on a rock, daydreaming as always and drinking my water and eating a few crackers, when, suddenly, I had company. Perched on a branch only a few feet away and staring intently at my crackers was an old friend, Whiskey Jack.

In Sibley’s Guide to Birds he appears as the Gray Jay, and his coloring is what you might expect of a bird so blandly named, with a whitish belly and some white about his head, but his strongest identifying mark is his behavior. He’s so common across our continent, especially in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and he so clearly enjoys the company of humans, that he has acquired more than one nickname. Many people call him the Camp Robber because of his unfortunate habit of stealing food whenever given the chance. The Gray Jay has all the boldness of his crow cousins in Calcutta but without the impertinence. He’s very sociable, even gregarious, the sort of fellow who will strike up a conversation in a bar. Perhaps this accounts for this other nickname, Whiskey Jack. And in the case of a female — what? Whiskey Jane? — I would call her flirtatious, but whatever this quality, I imagine it was acquired over countless generations and has now settled into the gene pool. They often appear in groups, flitting quickly here and there, flying back and forth with great élan

But on this day, this particular Whiskey Jack was clearly focused on the cracker in my hand, so I crumbled it into smaller bits and held out my hand in invitation. He flew over, settled on my palm and helped himself. Soon his companions came for their share, one resting on my fingertips and another perched on my wrist waiting his turn. The first crumbs gone, I crumbled another cracker and then once more, and again and again until I ran out, and during this time perhaps a dozen birds visited my hand. Some took their bit and flew back to a branch where they ate, while others stayed a moment or more, eating out of my open palm. When nothing was left, the last one stayed, at first staring at my empty hand and then staring at my face as if to say, “What? — no more?

I have lived my life across oceans and continents, and again and again these birds and others too have flown into my life and marked a moment. Crowding about my memory are the crows and jays and all their kindred in all the countries of my life....

..... in the Northwest, now home for many years, the Stellar’s Jay, whose dark hues shift from Prussian blue to midnight black and whose tough-boy tenor calls to me from the tall cedars late in winter, the first mild day, his call wishing winter away and promising spring, a promise kept each year,

..... and the ravens of the Tower of London who, for all we know, were there before the Conqueror threw up his walls, and they were surely there to pick the skulls of that sad succession of royals, aristos and ordinary rogues who lost their heads before crowds gathered to witness a last brutal penance,

..... and in a village in northern Spain where the pilgrimage road goes by an ancient church where storks nest in the bell tower, two raucous, obstreperous magpies squabble over some gobbet of food on the ground, so intent on their quarrel that they hardly notice me.

But I’ve always noticed them, all of them, and I’ve always held them in my mind and in my heart — and when I could I held them in my hand — and every one of them marked a memory, and I hope that others, too, will mark more memories in many years yet to come. 

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