Friday, June 13, 2014

Why Crows Don't Make Good Pets

Alternately winging and stalking around our local wildlife rehabilitation office, investigating the philodendron leaves, the computer keyboard, the top of the bookcase, a stray piece of paper, an electrical cord, a bit of red pepper… is a juvenile Corvus brachyrhynchos, American crow. Last spring, a nearby resident found this bird, then a nestling that had apparently fallen from its nest, and brought him to his house. The man and his family fed the crow (no small task as nestlings must eat every half hour) and provided shelter and affection. The crow survived and, in the process, became thoroughly imprinted on humans. Being a crow and more curious than was good for him, he somehow injured his beak, and the man brought him to the wildlife rehabilitation center.
The website, warns that, while baby crows might seem to make appealing pets (being exceedingly curious, crows can be quite entertaining) it’s important to remember that, because they’re wild animals, keeping them as pets is illegal. It is also a lot of work. Crows are extremely social and will demand constant interaction. Constant. This crow spends part of every day in the wildlife office, where he flies from bookcase to file cabinet, hops from chair to shoulder (and, keep in mind, crows cannot be diapered) splashes in the pan of water staff members have provided for him, and strews his food, including “pinks:” hairless, control mice donated to the wildlife rehab department by labs. There’s one reclining on the chair beside me now, and another submerged in the water basin. Having a crow around is not unlike having a toddler under foot, albeit one with very odd eating habits.
The crow has just stolen a staff member’s pencil from her desk and now struts off with it. She trades the pencil for a pea pod so she can get back to work. The crow accepts the exchange, and then tosses the pod on the floor. The staff member returns it to him. He drops it again. She, wisely, leaves it there. Within seconds, the crow has hopped down from the back of her chair, vigorously disemboweled the pea pod, removed the peas, and scattered them across the floor.
Now bored, he stalks around the office, holding the peapod with one foot, occasionally tearing at it with his beak, which is very sharp. I know this, because he has communicated his displeasure at my insistence that he not peck at my keyboard by pecking at my hand. The crow, like most toddlers, does not like the word, “no.”
The rehab staff is now this young crow’s “murder” (crow flock). They play catch with him using a balled up bit of paper towel, bring him “toys” to keep him stimulated: a feather, an empty gum package, dog toys, a chicken foot dangling on a string... He’s especially taken with computers, however, and pecks relentless at the towels covering the office computer and printer. He eyes mine greedily as he parades around the office now holding a peanut in his beak. Crows in captivity require special care and lots of patience.

What should you do if you find a baby crow on the ground?
 If the young bird has almost no feathers and cannot perch by itself, i.e., a nestlingor you are certain that the bird has been injuredcall a local wildlife expert. If the bird is partially or fully feathered and can perch by itself, it’s probably a fledgling. Leave it alone. The parents may well be nearby, watching. Watch to be sure the bird isn’t injured or in danger. If you have a pet with you, restrain it. If necessary, move the bird to a high, well-protected branch for safety. To avoid imprinting, try not to let the young crow see your face. (At our rehabilitation center, staff members don feathered masks whenever they feed any of the young raptors.)
Once imprinted on people, crows are unafraid of them and cannot be trusted in public areas, such as neighborhoods or schools, where uninitiated humans (especially Hitchcock fans) are likely to misinterpret a crow landing on their shoulder and giving them a few friendly pecks on the neck. Nor can imprinted crows ever be returned successfully to the wild. Not realizing that they’re birds, they’re vulnerable to attacks from other crows and raptors. The Cornell website reports that crow ownership generally ends in one of two ways: “1) The crows start leaving for a day or so at a time (usually in the fall), and then are never seen again, or 2) some neighbor… kills them when they are too friendly/aggressive.”

There’s good reason for the law that prohibits individuals from capturing and keeping wild animals. As adapted to captivity as this crow, now gazing out the office window may be, he would have been better off left wild.

When Writing is Like Gardening

Each spring in Vermont I shuttle from garden center to garden center, buying plants to fill what appear to be holes in my garden. I fill pots and window boxes with Moo-Do and pile in as much color as possible. (Impatiens do the trick with, really, very little effort on my part.) Gerananium, angelonia, lavender... go into pots. Lettuce, basil, and bean seeds land, inexpertly, in four, 3X3 foot raised beds. Cherry tomatoes live in large pots on the patio. I water, fertilize, and anticipate. 

For weeks, it seems, not much happens. Then I forget to check on things for a few days and when I go back, those holes in the garden turn out to have been the spaces the plants needed when they grew to full size. Lilies now overshadow iris, echinacea fight for space and light, the phlox has marched right over the sedum, and monarda has insinuated itself everywhere. Out in the vegetable patch, the basil has gone to seed, and the deer ate half the lettuce. Okay, so maybe my absence was slightly longer than a few days, but still. 

Novels, if you leave them alone for too long, will also run amok. When life first calls me away from a new manuscript I'm working on, I experience acute separation anxiety. I long for those relationships I've come to rely on and the characters who've kept me company for months. Plots often unfold as I go along, so writing a novel engenders almost as much eager anticipation as reading one. What will he say the next time they meet? When will she discover the girl's true identity? It's like a thirst for knowledge. 

By day three, my anxiety becomes nostalgia for friends fondly remembered. By day ten I have trouble recalling characters' names. By day fouteen I am afraid to go back. Much as I am when I haven't visited my garden in two weeks. (See note above.)

My initial reaction when faced with my garden in mid-July, after a two-week hiatus, if the weather has been (as it was this summer) very wet is panic. "This garden looks terrible!" I say to anyone who'll listen. "What was I thinking planting all those lilies?" Those lilies looked so petite and perky in June! They now bristle with unadorned stems, their foliage sags, spent blossoms litter the ground. "Off with their heads!" I want to start pulling plants immediately, despite the fact that it is 90 degrees and digging them up will, truly, leave some holes in my garden.

Gardening is a process. So is writing. It is a love of the process-as much as, or more than-the outcome, that gardeners and writers must learn to cultivate. There are days, even weeks, when my garden looks great. And days and weeks when it doesn't. The same is true with a new manuscript-or even one well into a fourth or fifth draft. Moderation is the key. Putting in too much material, too early, tempting as it is, isn't good in either medium. Impulsivity rarely pays off: whacking out huge sections of a book or garden now often leads to regret later. Better to pull weeds, edge, take notes, contemplate, watch, wait. Just don't leave it alone for too long.