Back in February, the BBC posted a story about a Seattle girl who got gifts from crows. She was brought bolts, beads, buttons, earrings, and bones, among other things. It was also revealed that she feeds these animals. The essence of the story, the reason it went viral, is it so perfectly, in the popular imagination, captured an innocent relationship between a child and the wild. The birds understood her and she understood them. Like all children, she had not become a human (experienced) yet. She still had a primal connection with the animal kingdom.
But even this paradise proved to be short-lived. By August, the neighbors of the girl were suing her family for attracting all manner of wild urban life to their upscale Seattle neighborhood, Portage Bay. Crows, pigeons, squirrels, and even rats, they claimed, had all learned about this girl and her generosity. Seagulls were seen as flying from Elliot Bay to Portage Bay with the certainty that the main problem of life will be solved there. The neighbors claimed that, as a consequence, the shit of these synanthropic animals spoiled their properties. They wanted $200,000 in damages. Now the girl’s family is fighting back, claiming their daughter’s feeding has not attracted rats and gulls.
What to make of this situation? I asked my favorite writer and thinker on crows, Lyanda Lynn Haupt (she wrote Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness), for her view on the escalating tensions in Portage Bay. She responded with a lovely and insightful letter:
I think that many people long for a sense of connection with wild animals. This story served up evidence of such a possibility, and it captured everyone’s imagination. Plus, let’s face it—that little girl is cute as pie. No wonder social media went crazy. Did the crow really bring gifts to the girl? Some crows do gather shiny bits of this and that—gum wrappers, thumb tacks, shells, foil, bright red berries—and cache them in one place. Little collections of treasure. I can see how this action could be interpreted as the bringing of gifts to the little girl with the food, and there is little harm in imagining this to be so. That said, there is no reason to be feeding crows. They are already flourishing in the urban environment, and the neighbors are right—the amount of food it takes to bring in that many crows can make a mess and invite even more problematical urban wildlife. Even in this little video there are squirrels and pigeons. Whether there is evidence of rats or not, they are common visitors to urban bird feeders, even much smaller ones.
The neighbors are freaking out a bit. It is not “The Birds.” No one is going to get sick. And hanging dead crows on your porch (legal or not) to deter the neighbors and their crow visitors is just creepy. But lots of crows and pigeons and food and mess around? I agree, not good. Loud, annoying. And not in line with a deeper understanding of what helps and what harms urban wildlife. To live well alongside urban wildlife and our human neighbors: Keep cat and dog food inside (so as not to attract rodents, raccoons, coyotes, and crows). Close up entrance holes to keep animals from entering to shelter or nest. And if you do feed birds: just small feeders for small birds, cleaned scrupulously, with seeds that fall beneath cleaned up daily. Better would be to plant native trees and shrubs with seeds and berries that local birds love. I think it is a beautiful privilege to live alongside wild creatures close to home. But we need to do it with some grace and wisdom.
I think the story is sticking around so long because of the winning combination: cute girl with pet wild birds and lawsuit!
There is one more thing. I think if the crow feeder was a boy, the neighborhood may not have been so aggressive and filed a lawsuit. What is seen as annoying in a girl is often registered as a gift in a boy.
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