Common as Crows
My Favorite Smartest Ordinary


I like crows not because of James O'Barr, Brendon Lee, Carlos Castaneda or Irish cock and bull mythology.  It’s not because of the crow’s “nevermore” reputation, their association with a trendy dark underworld, either.  This spooky crow profile was unfairly earned during the plague, when crows plucked the eyes from the dead.  Well, yes, they did.  It was good eating — food on the run.  Eyes of corpses are hassle-free and convenient, not to mention tender.  Crows eating eyes wasn’t evil.  It was just plain good bento.  The crows recognized that.  That’s partly why I like them.  Crows are the smartest birds in the world.  Their intelligence surpasses some primates.  Think of crows as flying chimps… with feathers…  and a beak.

Crows can remember your face.  They conspire with each other — pass information along, use tools to solve problems, try to figure things out. Crows can imitate a human voice, like parrots.  Talking crows — that may explain their hyper-adaptability to their surroundings.  They thrive in human population centers like Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo.  They see the advantage of living with us.  Give crows a chance and they’ll make their nests out of your metal coat hangers.  It’s all on the scientific record.

The first time I met a crow — one on one — was at the home of Chris, my boss at B. Dalton Book Seller in Newport Beach.  Chris left the living room sliding glass windows open one day and Mingus, who was perched outside, hopped inside and took up residence. The bookstore crew was celebrating Chris’s birthday while Mingus was staying with her.  He and I hit it off right away.  We saw the Mesozoic Era in our eyes.

From that point on I talked to crows.  I’m straight up with them, as they are with me.  I let them know when they’re being obnoxious — tell them to shut up when they’re on a cawing jag.  Keep them apprised of the situation.

One day, driving by an Irvine tomato field, I spotted a crow who wasn’t eating tomatoes, but was perched on the arm of a farm worker.  Another worker stood nearby in conversation with the bird.  I stopped my car and joined the trio.  Soon the crow was on my arm staring at me.  And he told me the secret of life.  No, he didn’t.  He seemed to have a plan, but deep down you could tell he just as bewildered as the rest of us.  That’s another reason I like crows.

Once, I heard a crow attack-cawing outside my window.  He was hovering over a lizard.  I’m a fan of lizards, so I went outside and used my foot to coax the reptile to safety into some nearby bushes, but the lizard would have none of it.  Instead he chomped down on my toe.  So there I was, hopping around on one leg, lizard on my toe, crow now squawking angrily at the two of us.  The lizard held my toe tight in his jaws.  Annoyed at the whole affair, I swung my foot and sent him flying.  He never hit the ground.  Crow caught him in midair, had some sharp words for me and settled in with lunch.

A few days after the first Dalai Lama was born, bandits burst into his family’s home. His Holiness’s parents ran out the back door, leaving the manifestation of compassion’s bodhisattva behind.  Ooops. Bad parenting.  When Mom and Dad Lama returned the next morning, they found their home untouched, and a pair of crows caring for their son — the future holy one.  Maybe that’s why crows are considered good luck.  Or maybe they were with the Dalai Lama simply because they’re the most common bird in the world.

Crows are smart and they’re everywhere.  I don’t know if the Dalai Lama would consider common superior intelligence a path to enlightenment, but I do and that’s why I like crows.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast May 5, 2012

© / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


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