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The old shell game

Jack Bulmer

This is about crows. Or rather, this is about a crow. I stress the singular, because if there’s any lesson in the incident I’m about to relate, it’s to caution us against generalizing about other animal species. We’re all too quick to talk or write about “owls” or “woodcocks” or “whales,” as though each one we encounter is totally representative of all owls, woodcocks and whales, and that individuality is purely a human trait.

Anyway, the other day, I stepped out onto my front porch and was confronted with a large black crow, who was perched on the porch light fixture. It was less than two feet from my head and peered down inquisitively into my face. If you’ve never been looked down at the nose, or beak, by a crow, I can tell you it’s a somewhat unnerving experience. I say it was “large,” though it was probably only average in size. But I’d never been this close to a crow “in the wild” before and was impressed with its appearance. The complete blackness of a crow at short range is startling. It has sleek, jet-black feathers, almost iridescent, that overlap like fish scales down its back, and large black feet with “nails” rather than claws. Most impressive of all is the thick, formidable, black beak.

The bird seemed absolutely unintimidated by me. In fact, he exhibited a noteworthy aplomb, a sort of dignified curiosity. And so, I did what all humans do in the presence of wild animals that appear tame: I fed it. I offered him some Ry-Krisp crackers, which he took, and when I placed a bowl of water before him, he dunked the crackers in the bowl for several seconds to soften them, then happily devoured them.

I remembered reading that crows like shiny objects, so I held out a couple of new pennies. These he deftly snatched from my fingers and proceeded to bury them in the driveway. After this, I decided I’d really test him. I went into the kitchen and came back with three small cups. I put another penny under one of the cups and then mixed them up in the old shell-game fashion. The crow watched intently, and as soon as I removed my hands he walked over and picked up the cups one by one, found the penny, and buried it as before. Now it’s true he only found the penny on the second try, but I repeated the game and each time he found the penny on the second try. Perhaps he didn’t want to stretch my credulity too far.

I watched, fascinated, wondering what to make of it. Perhaps he was a tame crow, perhaps not. Crows are, after all, individuals by nature. Their cleverness is legendary, surpassing that of their human adversaries. It took us until 1972 to realize that we couldn’t exterminate the crow, and so we declared him a “migratory songbird.” Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, protect ‘em.

At this point a second crow appeared, landed on a nearby branch, and cawed sharply. The first crow stopped playing the shell game immediately, looked up, and without so much as a backwards glance, flew off with the other crow up over the pitch pines and out of sight.

Some day I may study crows – Corvus brachyrhyncos. Some day I may even try to put this afternoon’s encounter into some behavioral perspective or objective interpretation. But all I know now is that as this crow flew precipitously off with his companion, I felt snubbed. He had, it seems, only been slumming.

This piece first aired in May 2023.

A nature writer living in Wellfleet, Robert Finch has written about Cape Cod for more than forty years. He is the author of nine books of essays. A Cape Cod Notebook airs weekly on WCAI, the NPR station for Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the South Coast. In both 2006 and 2013, the series won the New England Edward R. Murrow Award for Best Radio Writing.