Recounting Crows

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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 i
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  Recounting Crows For three days now, from the safety of my window, I’ve been watching a crow eata dead rat across the street. First, the bird pecks, pecks, pecks, like a woodpecker, itschiseled beak digging into the rodent’s flesh. Eventually, satisfied with the frontalextraction, 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 thetrash. 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 theschool buses have swept away the noisy children, I find myself drawn back to mywindow, transfixed at the sight of this crow and its relentless determination. I standwatching. 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 inMexican folklore, and protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act of 1960, but they arealso urban pests; they dominate the parks and skies in my neighborhood, raid nests, andchase off the more delicate songbirds. Now, with the arrival of West Nile Virus, the crowsare 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 itdifficult to see anything positive about these noisy, dumpster diving birds who will makea 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 woodpeckerstapping on trees, nesting mallard ducks, an occasional heron making its home in thenearby 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 tothink of them as chipmunks sometimes.What could be more unpalatable than a crow picking apart a rat, though? From adistance, other scavengers are easy to admire—the hyenas and vultures, waiting for thezebra spoils on the African Savannah. Or viewed from the lens of a microscope, the tinydetritus 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 nodifferent. It’s just ugly. And urban. And in my front yard. Perhaps I have fallen into thesuburbanite trap of wanting to pick and choose my neighbors: yes, thank you, we’ll take asingle family home next door, three woodpeckers and a cardinal, but hold the noisyneighbors and the rats and crows and mosquitoes please. Nature of course, doesn’t work this way, and as the crow finishes off the rat, Iunderstand 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 crowshave scattered on their weekly raid, I cross the street and check: not a trace of the rat isleft. 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 thecrow. 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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