One morning on my daily walk last spring, a crow began to caw ferociously. It was behind me, hopping from branch to wire, in what seemed like pursuit. I walked faster. Soon it hopscotched past me, swooping closer to my head with every pass, cawing with increasing trash in its talk, amassing a posse.
Then it struck.
The crow sort of pushed off the top of my head with its feet—not painfully, just horribly. Birds freak me out, their manic skittishness both scary feral and weirdly likely to bring out the same in me. Years ago when a robin flew in our window I ran around the house ducking and shrieking while my then-eight-year-old daughter calmly eased it out the door with a pasta strainer. On a ferry, I once found myself galloping in circles around the deck when I became convinced that the gull above me was out to poop on my head. (What was I supposed to think? He hovered over me the whole time!)
And so my response to the dive-bombing crow was to break into a screaming sprint for home, waggling my extremities while stealing frequent Tippi Hedren glances back over my shoulder. Days after, that classy image still ran in an endless loop through my brain—though it needn’t have. I was in excellent company last spring.
There was the older guy with walking sticks I spied near the 520 overpass, turning periodically to shout and beat tree branches with his sticks. There was the young runner I saw in Interlaken Park, madly swatting at her hair. Our neighborhood chat thread bulged with anecdotes—“I have been attacked three times this week!”—and a Q13 Fox headline screamed about my neighborhood, with characteristic subtlety, “LOOK OUT! Dive-Bombing Crows on Attack in Montlake.”
Holy crap, was this…crowmageddon? I called UW wildlife science professor and crow expert John Marzluff. Yes, crow populations have increased dramatically over the last four decades; no, last year wasn’t unusual. This was simply crows being protective parents in May and June, the months when their fledglings are learning, and often failing, to fly. Like many Seattle neighborhoods Montlake is “absolutely packed” with crow territories, where they build nests and hang out by day before decamping (making sure to leave one parent near the nest) at dusk for their roost.
How to protect against an attack? Avoid the areas with nests, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife website rather unhelpfully counsels. And: “If you must walk past a nest, wave your arms slowly overhead to keep the birds at a distance. Other protective actions include wearing a hat or helmet, or carrying an umbrella.”
So in the stupid-looking Olympics, who do you suppose scores higher: the fitness walker carrying the umbrella, the one waving her arms over her head, or the one rocking the helmet? Given those alternatives, I honestly might choose the attack.
Ha ha! Ha! Just kidding, crows! Because now that I’ve researched them a little, I would not be surprised to learn that crows read lifestyle magazines, papering their nests strictly with real estate features. Crows are famously smart—employing tools, dropping nuts onto roadways so cars will crack them open, constructing decoy nests to fool predators.
They remember faces, Marzluff’s research found, bestowing presents upon humans they like, such as Seattle eight-year-old Gabi Mann, who made international news this year when the crows she was feeding began to reward her with gifts of bling: shiny beads, small trinkets, sea glass—even, freakily, her own misplaced camera lens cap.
Of course that heartwarming tale carries a seriously creepy flip side: Crows also remember the faces of humans they don’t like. Say, humans on their innocent morning walks who innocently wander too close to a nest. Marzluff’s research suggests that once a face is in a crow’s memory, it’s there for good—and also in the memory of the whole crow posse that the first crow called for backup. Crows use dozens of unique calls to communicate with each other, which have been conjectured to represent everything from funeral rites to pronouncements of capital punishment—presumably upon other crows.
Frankly, it’s their punishment of humans I’m worried about. Marzluff predicts that prime attack season this year will be early—mid-April through mid-June—thanks to our warm spring. His advice: Avoid a repeat visit to any place a crow has already scolded or bombed you this season. Don’t pick up a baby crow that looks stranded. Consider something to make them think your back is your front—walking backwards, for instance, or wearing a mask on the back of your head—as crows come from behind and don’t dive-bomb faces. Or carry, yes, an umbrella.
And for goodness’ sake—don’t try to scare a scolding crow by threatening it with sticks or rocks. “That’s when people get pegged for long-term retaliation,” Marzluff says ominously. Uh, roger that. (And I’m thinking it might be good if someone looked in on the dude with the walking sticks.)
This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of Seattle Met.