Coffee, Crows, and Beer

If men had wings and bore black feathers,
few of them would be clever enough to be crows.

—Henry Ward Beecher

I’d heard of the intelligence of crows, but I never believed it until I rented with several friends a remote vacation home in the mountains outside of Boulder Colorado. I was the first to arrive, and due to coincidence, had the house to myself for a full 24 hours.

I was enjoying my morning coffee on the deck when the first crow landed on the south wall of the backyard fence. Sheltered in the shadow of the house, it preened itself until, in quick succession, five others followed, all alighting along the same wall. For a moment, the crows shuffled and slid, high stepping left and right, together mimicking a chaotic chorus line until they sidled up to one another, shoulder to shoulder, their bodies rigid and still – vaudevillians no longer, but an avian parody of soldiers in rank and file. This tableau lasted only seconds before one of the birds glided to the birdbath in the yard and began tossing to the grass things it had snapped into its beak from the water. The birds on the fence swayed with impatience until the lead bird called to them, and they swooped to the ground. There, a frenzy ensued, the birds poking, pecking, pushing, and pinching the tossed items, which seemed to multiply under their attacks. Then, they leapt into the air as one and were gone.

The birds must have seen me on the deck, sipping my coffee in the cool of the morning, but they paid me no mind, never once cocking their heads in my direction, so intent were they on whatever it was they were doing. Curious, I abandoned my coffee for a closer look.

Scattered about the birdbath were the torn shells of peanuts, not hard, dry, brittle husks but waterlogged, tissue-soft skins that promptly separated between my fingers. The lead crow had snatched the soggiest peanuts for the others who easily tore away the soaked exteriors. These clever birds knew how to rob the hard shells of their seeds. They had discovered an ingenious method of expanding their diet. But was it by chance or deliberately by experiment, and who’d been lobbing the peanuts over the fence into the birdbath?

The answer came when I was on the deck again, this time with a beer, enjoying the shank of the evening. A single crow soared over the yard and dropped a peanut into the birdbath. It returned again and again until floating shells clogged the water. It appeared that the birds delivered the peanuts themselves with the purpose of soaking them to soften the shells. Impressive. But how and where they acquired peanuts in such a far-flung region remained a mystery.

The next morning, when I awoke, the crows had huddled in the yard, gorging on the soaked peanuts. I watched for a while and then left to make coffee and get dressed. But before I did, one of the crows did something unsettling. It left the others, strutted towards the deck, stopped, raised its head to eye me, and then cawed several times, stamping its feet. Before flying away, it turned its back on me in an unmistakable display of disdain.

Maybe observing evidence of their keen intelligence caused me to endow them with attributes they didn’t possess, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the crows had harshly judged me. Though unaware of any offense I may have committed, I felt real guilt.

That evening when the single crow returned, it avoided the birdbath, flew over the deck, and dropped the first peanut on me. Annoyed, I brushed the peanut off my lap and was immediately bombarded by another. But before the third peanut fell, it dawned on me exactly how the crows got the peanuts and what a fool I’d been for not seeing it sooner. Humbled by the scolding and the crows’ not-so-subtle hints, I drove to the nearest town and returned with enough bags of peanuts to last the crows a week.

The crows stayed with us for our entire visit. They had the peanuts; we had the beer.

Before we left, I taped to the refrigerator door for future quests instructions for the purchase and proper distribution of peanuts.

Russ Fee is the author of the award-winning Sheriff Matt Callahan mystery series. The second book in the series, A Dangerous Identity, won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award. His short fiction has appeared in such journals as Bright Flash Fiction and Hemingway Shorts, the Hemingway Foundation’s short story contest magazine. Russ is a graduate of the College of William and Mary with a BA degree in English. He began writing in earnest after careers in law and teaching. He and his wife, Joan, are dual citizens of the United States and Ireland. They now live in the Upper Midwest, which they love. outerislandpress.com

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