Taking time to consider other lives around us

Posted by Tom Camfield

The fact that the above rhyme has stuck in my mind until what is now my 90th year is proof to me of the weight of what’s put into young minds at the most receptive stage of their development. I still worry about the well-being of birds, especially in the wintertime. The photo here was taken about 50 years ago, and many, many birds have since lived with Jean and me on and around these same two lots in uptown Port Townsend. (The small inset is a current moment from our on-going deer sanctuary, twins born this spring.)

Yes, I do eat chicken and turkey occasionally. But when we raised our own chickens in my early childhood, I was forever throwing garden greens and worms to them in their large but well picked-over yard. I contribute a bit nowadays by refusing to eat any but free-range eggs. I want chickens to be happy, not tortured in confined cages during whatever years are allotted them. I had a pet duck rather than a dog part of my childhood. A white overweight, quackless Indian Runner drake named Goofy, he met me at the front gate every day after I had walked home from Lincoln School to our mini-ranch on San Juan Avenue.

I’m a bit of a “bird whisperer,” I guess. I have a major rapport with wild birds . . . crows largely, living free and following the lifestyle genes ingrained in them at birth—along with the examples taught them by their parents. Over all, birds provide a great measure of peace to me in a world maddened by desperation.  My bird companion pictured in the photo above was a young crow. I apparently was listening hard and undoubtedly understood that he/she was hungry and looking for his/her parents. He/she looks large here, but young crows grow swiftly to adult size.  

I’ve been associated with the Calhoun Street crow nation for some 56 years. The older crows limit their vocalizing pretty much to one another—chow calls and cat alerts—also raccoon spotting or, previously, a stray coyote. I came to recognize the difference and always responded immediately to assist in rousting the coons and coyotes.  The crows eventually adapt to eating in front of my friendly old cat Mikey.

Raccoons will climb trees and raid nests for eggs. I’ve seen it even here uptown in modern Port Townsend, where taller trees have survived. I’ve also watched crows assault bald eagles high in the sky. They don’t bother seagulls; they can tell friends from enemies.  Some people seem to hear the noise of alarmed crows as more like the sound of Growler aircraft from Whidbey Naval Air Base . . . just something to complain about. But in both cases there’s a purpose to it, even a bit of a metaphor perhaps—from the protection standpoint

Crows are clever as the dickens, have great memories, learn quickly from their parents—and also have some apparent ages-old inbred instincts. I’ve read, for instance, of their seemingly abnormal hostility toward people with red hair. That was dramatically demonstrated by my flock. Everyone of them would take part in the shouting and swooping at the young red-haired man who used to walk down the alley near our back door—no matter how often or what time of day. He never figured out why and eventually quit walking in this neighborhood.

When I was younger I used to train one or two crows to take Ritz crackers out of my hand. These days the senior couple who’ve been around for some years just hop onto the back porch and clean up the left-over cat food—which is fine as it’s then not there to attract nocturnal raccoons.  At the edge of the adjoining alley is the flat top of a large rock that serves as a feeding table occasionally laden with leftover pasta and the like. I toss the quiet older crows leftover bread, crackers, etc. when they just come and sit quietly on the phone line near the back door.

Pigeons are a nuisance, but I used to feed them anyway. I had a particular pet one named Cedric who would perch on my head or let me hold him in my hand. A flock used to hang around in the vicinity of my sparrow feeders every day for quite a few years—but someone seems to have massacred the pigeon population. Same with the starlings who used to clean out my old cherry tree. I haven’t seen a starling for some years now—and I suspect they’ve been poisoned into extinction, along with most of the pigeons.

I wonder also about the “mud hens” (coots) that in earlier years used to converge near the first green (near the pond) at the local golf course and whose poop made putting on that green somewhat impossible for golfers.

The western meadowlarks, red-wing blackbirds, stellar jays, Chinese pheasants, quail, flickers, hawks, barn swallows all used to be prominent during my earlier years. But I no longer see them now. Only one who has been there can appreciate the significance—the contributions to one’s well-being they can provide. I think the soothing effect of nature illustrates in part why some of us live longer than others. 

There are people who’d exterminate crows, who just don’t like hearing them or having them around for whatever reason. But these birds will persevere and probably take over the earth when humankind destroys itself. They have a social system that works.

One of my all-time favorite crows was a vagrant named Charlie, who liked to ride around atop cars. He hitched a ride with me one day, and I slowed down and brought him home. I’ve been searching for years for the photo of him sitting on my shoulder. He hung around our house, eating well, for a time—then apparently one day hopped a ride with someone else and traveled off into the sunset.

Next favorite was Fosdick, who liked to follow me around scarfing up worms when I spaded the vegetable garden. As I came out the back door of the house, he often swooped down and batted my head with a wing—which I always interpreted as announcing he wouldn’t mind a bite to eat. So I’d head back in for the ever-favorite Ritz crackers. I sometimes carried them with me anyway, to lay out for him atop the 8-foot garden fence. He also would take crackers from my hand near the back porch. I still keep a supply of such crackers. They sail well when tossed a decent distance to standoffish younger birds.

While some sources say the American crow’s life expectancy is 7 to 8 years, I also read on the Internet that “Some crows may live to the age of 20, and the oldest known American crow in the wild was almost 30 years old.” I sort of go with the 20-year bit, as the old couple who head my neighborhood clan has been around 10 or 12 years it seems. This loving pair have preened themselves on the phone wire near our back door for what seems like forever. 

They also have the wisdom of age and don’t squawk to their raucous grandchildren every time I leave some food out—thus don’t attract pushy, greedy, big-beaked, bullying seagulls who gobble everything up. I like to think I contribute to their longevity by providing food when foraging is tough in the winter.  And also during nesting season. For a time in early spring only one shows up, and I like to think it’s the male, carrying that beakful of food back to the female sitting on eggs in the nest. It’s also a bit entertaining to watch such a crow carefully stack up as many as 4 Ritz crackers before flying off with them in its beak. 

Fosdick always seemed to be more of a loner those numerous years ago, and I still carry the probable guilt of his death. To some, he was just a bird—“see one, seen ‘em all.” Not so with me. He was a fellow child of Nature who brought a measure of peace to my being. He followed me most anywhere, including into the carport. He must have seen me one day baiting that rat trap atop a potting bench beyond the reach of cats.  

I found him near the sprung trap, apparently having been fatally concussed while going for the cheese I’d left there. I’ve never since ever set any sort of trap outdoors, unless it was covered by a box with a rat hole cut in one end. Fosdick is buried in the garden  area he liked to patrol with me.

(I accommodate squirrels, am ambivalent where mice are concerned—but can’t abide rats.)

You will often see crows following my car. They know I keep a 16-pound bag of dry cat food next to the driver’s seat. A few of the more daring will fly along next to the side window near my face—or swoop just above the front of the windshield. There are a number of regulars, who have staked out homesteads on various portions of adjoining blocks. (And no, I do not feed them in traffic.)

Then there’s Heathcliff. As a rule, I’m not overly fond of gulls and their free-pooping digestive transit, but Heathcliff sort of grew on me. He and Gertrude, whom I named after the seagulls so often referred to by early-day comedian Red Skelton. For whatever reason, Heathcliff’s been coming alone the last couple of years. (I tell everyone that Gertrude ran off to Vancouver Island with a rock band.) Yes, I recognize him. He’s clean, shiny white and his habits give him away. He often sits silently on the roof of the outbuilding by himself. He, too, sort of ignores the cats and eats their leftover food on the back porch (when he can beat the crows to it). 

The other morning, our landscaper Anna came into the house to tell me, “There’s a bird on the back porch looking for you.” It was, of course, Heathcliff—and I took him some food. He puts up with my idle conversation as he eats.

In the past decade or so, deer have joined my personal family. Have they ever! But I understand why both they and my sort are experiencing destruction of the same old-time nature through human over-population, pollution, egocentric greed and disregard for companion species. 

If only there were a Walden’s Pond (look it up) for each of us somewhere out there amongst the felling of old-growth trees and trashing of woodland streams. 

One used to awaken to birds tweeting. No more! A “tweeting” to which we’re often subjected these days is an electronic thing utilized in part by egomaniacal sorts, such as the president (lower-case “p” intended) of the United States. He seems to seek only subservience from us and other lesser beings.

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