Crow Planet

In the mid-1960s, a woman purporting to be merely an observant stay at home mom, living in a West Village brownstone, wrote a tract about ways that neighborhoods of small parks and low brownstone row-houses craft livable cities. She explained that mixtures of middle-density housing and small parks could weave vital and safe communities together for the public good. She wrote about how the simple act of having one’s eyes on the street (or ears, too, if one happens to be tucked up on the third floor) made safe. tolerant communities where people could walk and play and eat and grow old. She argued that — contrary to certain then-fashionable urban-planning doctrines — these porous, low-slung brownstone districts fostered healthier streets and public life than high-rises that ignored the streets entirely. Only seeming “domestic,” her book was actually call to physical engagement, and a landmark for architects, planners, sociologists, and anyone interested in the civic sphere.

The woman was Jane Jacobs. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was a landmark for architects, planners, sociologists, and anyone interested in the civic sphere. Fifty-odd years later, on the other side of the continent, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, trained as a birder and biologist, now also something of a stay-at-home mom, has launched a different domestic experiment — one that, no less than Jacobs’, asks her to keep her “eyes on the street.” For several years, Haupt, an ardent birdwatcher and naturalist in West Seattle, carefully studied her nearest avian neighbor: the crow.

Crows are not the most beautiful beast in our animal kingdom. To some people’s minds, they do not even seem wild at all. Large crow populations signal disrupted landscape, wilderness in crisis. Therefore, they are also the animal that lives with and near humans.

Haupt is quick to acknowledge that the lowly crow seems too close to see, too homely to consider, and too ugly to think about. In most people’s urban lives, crows fit into a netherworld of “pests” that include subway rats, cockroaches, gulls — foragers whose presence signals waste. But this is what fascinated Haupt about crows — the ways that they live near and with human communties, and human byproducts. For several years, Haupt carried binoculars and notepaper to places as mundane as her local Target, where crows roost and feed around the parking lot. It is geeky, for sure. But her efforts open a fascinating proximate universe with such firm and bemused enthusiasm that it is impossible not to be stunned by how much one never knew about our black and screeching neighbors. I found myself blurting out newly acquired facts about corvids — the 120 species bird family to which crows, jays and jackdaws belong — to my in-laws, husband, and anyone else who would listen. Crows have a highly developed language that includes 23 recognizable vocalizations and countless others. Corvids recognize faces; develop tools; follow crosswalk signals; and respond to humans who have both hurt and helped them. Like some urban humans, urban crows often fly out to rural areas for short breaks from urban life. University of Washington researchers are giving corvids a battery of intelligence tests usually reserved for primates. It is hard not to read all this and feel, as Haupt does, humbled by how little we really know about the wildlife along our streets. We have such vague ideas about who our neighbors are that it is impossible to know what they might want or need of us. But instead, Haupt argues, we need to acknowledge that we share something like a public sphere with them.

Instead, our ignorance allows us to bumblingly ignore most animals in our midst; not just crows but wild birds or butterflies or the fish that might live in our streams, or the moose that wander into towns or the wolves that live a few miles beyond the Mall of America. Like rats and cockroaches, crows seem hardy enough and will surely survive our ignorance. But will we survive our own ignorance? This is the bigger question Haupt wants to ask. And crows are are a totem of all that we, poor humans, do not yet know about the others we are living near. Haupt sees in the crow our dark doppelganger, our sister species. With four crows for every human on the planet, with crow populations growing at human rates and eerily mirroring human settlement patterns, crows are quite literally our shadow world. They live with us, they eat as we eat, they follow us into terrain we disturb. Therefore, finding out about crows, and respecting their formidable, intelligent otherness, may be one central way to heal our breach with everything else.

Haupt’s very dailiness is revolutionary. Like Jacobs, Haupt wants to work from her own urban life outwards. She wants us to feel that nature is with us now, always accessible to our careful observations. While Jacobs wanted to help find urban arrangements where we live most humanely and share a vital public sphere with others, Haupt wants our public to include the lives of our proximate others: Animals. She uses her Thoreauvian walks and avian musings to try out practical and spiritual answers to some of our most pressing questions about our time on planet earth: How do we live with the wild? How do we live with the wild within our midst?

Haupt reminds us that the crow, that wily scavenger, is also a lasting symbol for human death — an icon and a representative of human demise in nearly every culture or literature across the globe. We’re talking about the death of the body, of course, the one that will be followed by vultures, or, indeed, perhaps by crows. But Haupt argues that we might also consider that crows are harbingers of more than our deaths as individuals. Their great gatherings at our waste-pits and in our cities are signal the death of a wilder nature. They are dark omens of the demise that rapacious civilization is even now hurtling us towards. Tibetan Buddhists have long seen crows as “mediators between the worlds of the dying and the dead.” If crows follow humans into our disturbed landscapes, are they not also coming here as beacons of wider planetary decline? Are they signaling to us our own dying off as a planet? Haupt offers this as one reading among many. She admires the wily crow without fully loving what it represents.

Like Jacobs, Haupt wants her attentiveness to the world at hand, the world of her street and neighborhood, to repay her — and, sooner rather than later, all of us — with heightened understanding of how we can live more graciously, not merely in cities, but in what she calls the “zoopolis” — the urban animal realm in which humans are merely one part.

Reading, I did not feel filled with desire to befriend my local subway rats, but I remembered that there are now eight million of them in the city where I live — nearly one for every person in New York. I also did think of the delicate ecologies of bees and frogs in my urban garden; and of the mourning doves that coo outside the third floor brownstone where my husband and I live. They are mated, too, those birds, and they seem to enjoy our fire escape and to look in us, another coupled pair. Sometimes, I feel, we recognize a bit of one another.