Recounting Crows

For three days now, from the safety of my window, I’ve been watching a crow eat a dead rat across the street. First, the bird pecks, pecks, pecks, like a woodpecker, its chiseled beak digging into the rodent’s flesh. Eventually, satisfied with the frontal extraction, the crow lifts the rat by its tail, shakes it a few times, then turns it front to back, the way you and I might when roasting a leg of lamb. What I should do, I know, is grab a shovel, scoop up the corpse and toss it in the trash. After all, this is a dead rat—probably diseased—in front of my neighbor’s house, no less. But during the day, when the cars have taken their owners to work, when the school buses have swept away the noisy children, I find myself drawn back to my window, transfixed at the sight of this crow and its relentless determination. I stand watching. And wondering. Why, obvious Washington D.C. metaphor not withstanding, am I so drawn to this scene?

Like most suburbanites, I am not particularly fond of crows. They are revered in Mexican folklore, and protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act of 1960, but they are also urban pests; they dominate the parks and skies in my neighborhood, raid nests, and chase off the more delicate songbirds. Now, with the arrival of West Nile Virus, the crows are also principal disease vectors. They may be resourceful, adapting to human populations to take advantage of the plentiful shelter and food supply, but I find it difficult to see anything positive about these noisy, dumpster diving birds who will make a meal of, I guess, just about anything.

Nature, when it is aesthetically pleasing, is so palatable, delicious. I feel blessed, that from the environs of my suburban neighborhood, I can spot pileated woodpeckers tapping on trees, nesting mallard ducks, an occasional heron making its home in the nearby creek. Even the squirrels, ubiquitous pests that they are, can sometimes be cute: with those big heads and funny little upright postures they use for eating, it’s hard not to think of them as chipmunks sometimes. What could be more unpalatable than a crow picking apart a rat, though? From a distance, other scavengers are easy to admire—the hyenas and vultures, waiting for the zebra spoils on the African Savannah. Or viewed from the lens of a microscope, the tiny detritus feeders such as bacteria and fungi, laboring to break down mounds of leaf litter and animal parts. But as I watch the rat start to disappear, piece by piece, I realize this crow is no different. It’s just ugly. And urban. And in my front yard. Perhaps I have fallen into the suburbanite trap of wanting to pick and choose my neighbors: yes, thank you, we’ll take a single family home next door, three woodpeckers and a cardinal, but hold the noisy neighbors and the rats and crows and mosquitoes please. Nature of course, doesn’t work this way, and as the crow finishes off the rat, I understand what has pulled me here: it’s not as romantic as the heron taking flight with its powerful wings, as thrilling as the sound of the woodpecker drilling through bark for insects, but this interaction, in its visceral hideousness, is the same: nature, urban or wild, romantic or repulsive, restoring balance.

On Friday, garbage day, when I head outside to pick up the trash that the crows have scattered on their weekly raid, I cross the street and check: not a trace of the rat is left. Not even the tail, which I imagine must have been pretty tough to peck through. I ask my neighbors—no one has touched the rodent. I conclude that it must have been the crow. Down to the last bite. A thankless job, no doubt, but, in the natural order of things, a job well done.

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