I

ACCORDING to old superstition, the splitting of a crow’s tongue will enable it to talk. But why anyone would wish to add another advantage to the many already enjoyed by the crow in his dealings with man is still a question. Perhaps it was assumed that nothing could make the crow more harassing to his unfeathered friends than with his natural endowments he already is. Yet anyone who has raised a crow, as I have, knows what formidable new talents domestication alone can release. What speech would do! But that bit of folklore must have been intended more as a warning than as a recommendation. If the crow is not a popular animal, the reason lies not in his deficiency but rather in his plethora of accomplishments.

Since that is probably what the other animals would say of man, it follows that the ethos of a pet crow is something that bears thinking about, if man himself does. At least, I am convinced, it is something that bears writing about, writing being the only form of revenge I have discovered with which a crow cannot cope.

I acquired a crow by an accident such as might befall anyone who lives in the country. His parents had been shot by a local gunner for the sake of the bounty which is paid only in that season when the death of the adults will mean the starvation of their offspring. In this case a humane alternative was found in dividing up the young among their well-wishers. I was known to favor the preservation of our forests, of our vanishing wild life. Then surely I would take the little crow? I did.

The bird was reassuringly helpless. Curiously, however, his helplessness seemed not juvenile but senile. This was a reversal of the terse rule of embryologists, that ‘ontogeny recapitulates phytogeny.’ Instead of recalling the youth of the crow species, he appeared to forecast its final decline. He was dumpy, pot-bellied, and spindle-shanked. His voice was querulous, his eyes as colorless as black-centred pearl buttons. His gait, when it kept him on his feet at all, was that of the very aged, or of the very drunk who sway to offset the undulations of the floor. But his curiosity was youthful, and his appetite would have pleased the embryologists, for it recaptured the glory of his dinosaurian ancestors.

He was no squeamish feeder. No infant, in fact, could have proved more adaptable — a good augury for the future of his species in a world where the maladjusted get eaten. I think he never suspected that a transfer from forest to house was not a part of the curriculum of every corvine youth. A chicken so situated, with countless domesticated generations behind it, would have flown into a panic; for the Crow nothing would do but that he must sharpen his wits by testing the consistency of every bright object and the perching potentialities of all articles of furniture within reach. In the single day of his stay indoors the house became his oyster and he severed every bond with the wild existence of his tribe. Those who believe in a racial memory will be saddened to learn that he never thereafter, so far as one could tell, even recognized his own kind.

Nevertheless, he was a crow, now and forever. With growing strength and agility he mastered every turn of the household routine. Even before he could fly properly he was supervising all outdoor operations. The car could not be polished until he had eaten a mouthful of the wax and wrestled with the rags. If work was being done in the garden, he would be there, squirming perilously under our legs and leaping upon our backs. Generally he participated. Once while setting out some seedlings I discovered him quietly following me down the row, uprooting each one and tearing it to bits. So acute were his powers of observation and mimicry that he had remarked my inattention to the surrounding weedlets; he disturbed none of them.

He was equally quick in making aural associations. While cows, horses, and cats sometimes never learn, or learn only after a long while, to come to a food call, the Crow grasped the idea on the second trial, and afterward would respond to the rustle of the brown paper in which his beef was kept. I began to discern reasons for the crow’s success as a species.

II

It has been said that birds constitute the answer made by their progenitors, the once lordly reptiles, to competition from the parvenu mammals. If so, the answer has been a sound one. Birds have done well. Even the rise of that paragon of mammals, the super-killer, man, has probably been of as much benefit as harm to birds; his relentless war against the lower mammals has annihilated millions of potential bird-eaters.

Of course it could be said that those birds which have prospered under man’s dominion have done so through his toleration or active protection, but to that dictum there would be one exception, flagrant, bronze-throated, demoniac; the crow. Other creatures as well have thrived on man’s hate, — mosquitoes, parasitic worms, rats, mice, — but they are slinkers in dim corners, knifers-in-the-dark. The crow comes out in the open and bawls his designs. He is a distinct slap in man’s face on the part of the whimsical powers that be. His mere presence gives the lie, flatly and finally, to those ancient Ægean mariners who announced that the Great God Pan was dead. He mocks scarecrow devices and unarmed men. He caws from housetops at dawn, tormenting the weary suburbanite. He robs the song birds’ nests of their eggs and young. He uproots and eats good corn. Poison it, and he pulls it up and lets it lie. He carries on at his worst under the very muzzles of our hostile guns, the range of which, I am told, he gauges nicely.

The civilization which has eased him of the pressure of natural enemies and provided richer hunting grounds the crow accepts as an easily mastered and happy trick — which puts him one up on us. That in itself we could overlook. The unforgivable insult is the attitude with which he pulls it off. Whether crows are gathering in a spruce grove on a winter evening, crouching low against the bitter cold of night with its danger from prowling owls; whether coursing over the northern beaches, shot down-wind or tossed aloft by the freezing gale; whether doing battle in a summer sky with a proud hawk embarrassed by such ignominy; or whether barking down the fox hounds in ringing autumn woods — the world at all times bears for them the same aspect. It is that of a shiny bawble. It is that of a toy to be investigated and cawed over, to be shrieked at with meteoric indignation when it pinches a toe and then exulted over with raucous screams across the green forest top. At best it is a wild delight; at worst, a gewgaw whose impertinence is soon forgotten in its endless novelty. The crow inhabits our own planet. But among us, who look upon the world as an awesome creation and debate through the centuries its terrifying complexities, the crow’s caw rings out like a whoop in church. The crow is the arch defier of the System, by whatever name the System may go: Osiris or Industrial Progress; Quetzalcoatl or Dialectical Materialism. As a spectacle he is superb.

How does he get away with it? Formerly his applauder, I had been willing and eager to concede the crow every quality that would fit the rôle of rebel against the powers of darkness: a knife-edged intelligence, a sense of humor, an invincible soul. There was no need to analyze him scientifically. In these days when psychologists have so thoroughly discouraged us by dissecting our heroes and ideals into their component nothings, one has lost one’s taste for casual analyses. Along with the gift horses whose mouths should proverbially not be looked into, many other horses should be included.

Alas! These things cannot always be controlled. It is actually the gift horses whose mouths do get looked into, and my crow was a gift horse, with a mouth agape most of the time. (In this he differed from my parrot, who opens his mouth only to draw blood from my finger, whose eye is full of old evil, whose sole apparent purpose in life is destruction. He was brought from the malaria coast of Guatemala at an exorbitant cost in worry and trouble, and though we have little in common besides a susceptibility to psittacosis, I could never give him up.)

In the beginning I would hardly have parted with the Crow. He seemed on the way to becoming an ideal pet. Unlike a dog, he made no demands, asking as little of one’s sympathies as of one’s time or money. He was there — upon the lawn or wherever — when wanted, and his ways were engaging. He would perch upon a shoulder, contributing to the general conversation a complaining monologue, startlingly human in modulation and almost, if not quite, in words, like speech heard from a distance. Or, tiring of that, he would relapse into a doze, breathing lightly into one’s ear. Again, the shocking image of an octogenarian courtier with monstrous nose and pale, nearsighted eyes, his long, knock-kneed legs encased in black silk hose and his thighs in black satin knee breeches, he would falter forth into a group of people and gravely, and as it were absent-mindedly, untie their shoelaces or tuck beneath their shoes or into their trouser cuffs a coin dropped for his use.

He was profoundly unpuppylike. A puppy lets it be known that he shares all the amusement his pranks provoke; no one is putting anything over on him. The Crow performed his most ridiculous antics with dignity, however closely his dignity might resemble the too-carefully-preserved variety of the inebriate, which it did. The humorous implications of these antics he failed to grasp. This made him even more comic or strangely disquieting, depending upon the point, of view.

The Crow’s growth was a process of juvenation. The frowzy old fowl who met me at the door each morning with scarlet, toothless gums spread wide became a slim and shapely youth, a dandy, long of wing and tail, with sable plumage smooth and glossy, who flow daily to my window to rap me out of bed with the dawn. So rapid was the revolution that it was over before we were aware of what it implied, though what it implied was simple enough: our home had been taken in charge by an indomitable animal who had dedicated himself to dismantling us to see how we worked. To accomplish that end it was soon clear that he was prepared to make any sacrifice on our part.

III

The Crow! This became the pivot about which our daily life revolved, the point of interest that gave it artistic unity. He had adapted himself to our routine; we could now adapt ourselves to his. The smallest action now demanded forethought of the Crow. A sewing basket left unguarded out of doors would be raped on the instant, scissors and thimbles borne into hiding, socks hung fifty feet up in a spruce tree which soon came to resemble a giant cotton plant in bloom. Invitations to tea could be extended only to friends hardy enough to bear up under the Crow. It was useless to prepare them for him. What could we say? ‘We have a crow who’s likely to drop on your head at any moment, but don’t mind him’? No, we could think of no rebuttal to ‘What do you mean, “don’t mind him"?’ And their heads were inevitably pounced upon, their lips despoiled of cigarettes, their breast pockets of handkerchiefs.

I was surprised to learn that most people find contact with a feathered creature as uninviting as intimacy with a snake. It was alarming to observe that a race which has exterminated most of the larger carnivores could have members who were terrified of a crow. Yet I would come upon a group rigid with apprehension, the Crow executing a Dance of Kaa in their midst.

Admittedly there was some justification. Among his habits was one of perching on the back of a steamer chair and dealing its occupant’s head hammer-like blows with his sharp beak, as if to uncover the mechanism of the human brain. Short of departing altogether or dealing him a blow strong enough to maim him, there was nothing for the victim of these frequent occasions to do. The bird knew no fear and resented nothing unless it affected his dignity. A cuff which merely unperched him he would receive as a scientist on the verge of isolating the last element might take the interruption of a thoughtless, prattling infant, and he would return to his task, protesting loudly.

The Crow’s insensitiveness to disapproval was, it developed, but one aspect of a profound lack in his nature, of a blank side which underlay his tragedy — for he was tragic, both for us and in himself — and which forced me reluctantly to revise downward my high estimate of his species. He had no depth. He could neither feel deeply himself nor perceive any feeling in others, outside the emotional gamut of a robot. That prodigious failing was blatant in his milk-colored eyes, which were simply incapable of registering anything other than changeless, dilated attention. His black pupils, it is true, were alert and efficient, but so are the lenses of a camera, and as ‘mirrors of the soul’ the former could reflect but little more than the latter.

What did lie behind that unalterable stare, however, was a bundle of sleepless wits. In divining purely mechanical cause and effect the bird had genius. A moment or two was all that he required to master the secret of a safetymatch box, to open it, remove the matches, and close it again — this on the initial trial. His first glance at a lighted cigarette disclosed to him its dangerous property. I have seen him pick up or steal many of them, but never one by the wrong end.

When, in the course of evolution, higher animals with an artistic impulse and response and an intuition began to be developed, the crow’s ancestors were presumably among their number. But if so, the crow himself has let those gifts atrophy. While my bird had the scientific mind typical of the lower animals, he differed enormously from them in his superior mental calibre and his fanatical curiosity, which drove him to try anything. He regarded people as merely complicated, and hence more entrancing, matchboxes and he devised marvelous methods of working them. One of these finally turned our country home into a hell. Observing someone walking down a path, he would station himself on a hidden overhanging branch until the passer-by had proceeded a few paces beyond him. Then he would launch out and down, and, with a mighty swish of his wings and the momentum of a cannon ball, would clear the subject’s head by a bare two inches. The magnificent result of the experiment — and no amount of experience ever mitigated the victim’s near collapse from the sudden terror — would bring forth an ecstatic burst of cawing. It worked! It worked!

IV

For us there was no salvation. Sometimes it was half-heartedly suggested that I ‘let him go.’ But what that meant I never could guess, since he was at perfect liberty to depart whenever he pleased. Punishment was useless, for success in punishment depends upon the culprit’s awareness of its significance. Everyone has marveled at the psychic equipment which enables a dog to grasp his master’s emotional state; one might as well, however, have hoped for rapport with an alarm clock as with the two-dimensional intelligence of the Crow. Caging him was out of the question; our nerves would sooner or later have snapped under the consequent uproar. Had his transgressions been followed by any other sort of punishment, he would have regarded the unpleasantness as the direct result of being caught by me. He would have begun to dislike me and continued to misbehave. In order to connect crime and punishment, an animal must apprehend psychological relationships, and to these the Crow was blind.

As a doleful consequence, mankind was generally a painful enigma to him, for human actions are seldom linked to their causes in ostensible and mechanical sequence. He could never comprehend why his contacts with men should result sometimes in gales of laughter and at others in fisticuffs, or why delectable beef should be surrendered gratuitously while for a worthless silver pencil he must fight beak-and-claw, shrieking with indignation. But instead of ignoring what he could not fathom, as all other animals of my acquaintance have done, he chose to howl it down. What could not be explained had no right to exist; so reasoned this arch-scientist. No doubt we should have pitied him in his everlasting bewilderment had we not been up to our necks in pitying ourselves. When a sizable black fowl sweeps down from a housetop to land, wings spread, in the nucleus of a garden party, to the accompaniment of a vast eruption of tea, china, and silverware, the spectator is apt to lose that sense of serene detachment from which alone can true understanding arise — especially that spectator who is coming to share the bird’s unpopularity on a fifty-fifty basis.

There were, of course, compensations: one could not consistently disapprove of a creature who made matutinal trips to one’s window sill for the sole purpose of watching one shave. And I still recall, as the moment when all was forgiven, the occasion when I pointed out to an uninitiated friend a crow, whose wildness there was no reason to doubt, flying high over the treetops, and who, at my whistle, wheeled in mid-air and with artful swoops and twistings came in a breathtaking glide to my wrist.

But, if the reader still thinks the keeping of a crow a small matter, let him consider the problem of sanitation. Let him, I say, stop a moment and dwell upon it, bearing in mind the rapid metabolism of birds and the fact that the Crow’s favorite perches were chairs, heads, and shoulders. That Crow poisoned for me the entire body of pet literature, and that includes Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island as well as Rikki-tikki-tavi. I hereby accuse their wretched authors of a conscious intent to insult the intelligence of their pet-keeping readers to the point of rage. Robinson Crusoe and Long John Silver kept parrots on their shoulders. All right. Had their birds no digestions? Did they starve them? Or what? You may search the whole of English literature and find no answer. Doctor’s theses have been written on the use of the comma in Shakespeare, but from Æsop to Beebe no writer has accepted the challenge of bird sanitation.

The Crow’s most amiable trait, therefore, was his disposition to spend a fair part of the day by himself, high on a spruce bough. We rested easy in the assurance that he would respect this Truce of God, for by now — it was late summer — he had been analyzed and I knew that he would never be drawn to our society by any warmth of feeling for us. When, with the waning of the season, his shallow emotional reservoir overflowed with a passion for our companionship, it was unbelievable — until the thought struck me that he was simply responding automatically to the flocking instinct, aroused by the approach of autumn.

Whatever the cause, — to which the other members of the family seemed indifferent, — there was no ignoring what had happened. He ceased ever to absent himself from us. He hung over our heads like a Sword of Damocles, with the added capacity of falling into our laps, pulling our hair, snatching at matches, teacups, pens, and watch chains, tearing up flowers, turning the pages of a magazine with care only to rip it to shreds a moment later in an abandonment of boredom, baying his excitement from morning till night, and even accompanying us on our walks, flying ahead and then back close over our heads to spur us forward on what he considered, I suppose, the southward trek. At his mildest, he minced about at our feet, articulating his still knockkneed legs with stiff precision, as if his knee breeches were a size too small, twitching his wings, and turning his sloping forehead upward to peer at us with a glassy, slightly cross-eyed stare over his black-horn beak.

He did n’t know it, but the crisis had come. One of us must crack.

It was the Crow. One day, as suddenly and as inartistically as it is told, he disappeared. He had not taken to the wilds, for he still could not feed himself. He had simply vanished, leaving only one possible clue: a shot heard down the road soon after he had last been seen.

It is easy to picture such a demise: the gunner creeping up, unaware of his quarry’s tameness, the Crow fascinated by the light on the gun barrel, knowing no fear, the shot too quickly effective to leave time for bewilderment or wrath. The poorest mongrel dog would have fled, his nerves set on edge by the unexpressed hostility of the enemy; the Crow to the last had no mind for the psychic. He had no soul.