The Crows (a fiction short story)
“One is carrying a soda can!” This was the first time Charlie, my brother’s kid had seen the crows. There were a few thousand of them, all flying together. The kind of mob you’d expect from a more simple minded bird, like a starling or seagull. Weaving and bobbing, flapping hard. The crows were straining their to carry all sorts of things; rocks, sticks, screws. Once, I even saw one gripping a rusty garden trowel in its beak.
“I wonder where they’re going this time.” Charlie put down the binoculars, and we watched the crows fly east, towards the flats.
Most animals mind their own business when it comes to humans. They just want to eat, sleep, and procreate. Though, squirrels, rats, and turkeys like being around humans. Trash left everywhere to eat, manicured lawns for easy insect access, and warm basement hidey-holes for sleeping. But, most animals stay away.
I wouldn’t say the crows are evil. That requires too much intentionality. But they sure do like chaos. Charlie likes the chaos too. He’s been tracking every news story about the growing crow problem. His father called me this morning, insisting that I take him today. He’s been begging nonstop to track the crows. Thats why we were sitting there on the top of Chester Hill with my old set of binoculars. It was getting late, and it would be a long drive home at the mandatated 30 miles an hour. Even slower if the sun started setting.
Charlie must have identified with the crows. All kids must. As a 12 year old he often runs into that rut of helplessness. He is just old enough to realize his lack of agency in the world. He thinks he knows exactly what he wants, but can’t make much of it on his own.
The crows, on the other hand, have figured out how to be noticed. I turned on the news that night and sure enough, the channel was covering a fatal car crash on one of the interstate surface roads. An SUV overturned in the drainage ditch, the fire department had just put out the flames. No survivors. Looking at the black tire skid marks, the car must have been going well over the county’s recommended speed limit of 25 mph past sunset.
The news channel panned back up the road, and 100 yards or so from the crash you could see a tidy pile of odds and ends. Soda cans, rocks, sticks, and screws spread across the road, just past a tight bend. The driver probably didn’t even see the debris. The pile was about ankle height, and spanned most of the lane. No way to avoid it. Something must have punctured the front driver side tire, and the other three lost traction. A race car driver would have saved the car, but Ford Explorer drivers aren’t known for their reflexes.
The camera panned back toward the vehicle, and up a tree where thousands of crows perched. Hard to pick out the black birds with the dark night behind, but you could sure hear them over the voice of the news caster. Laughing and laughing. Like a laugh track on a bad comedy, the content was awful, but I couldn’t help but smile. Behind the newscaster, someone in a flannel shirt stepped into view. He aimed a shotgun at the birds. The channel jumped back to the studio, just as I could hear the first bang. I hope he bagged a couple.
“How’d they learn how to do that?”. Charlie’s face poked into view as he ducked under the muffler of my broken Jeep. I figured I should be driving something with a bit more traction than the hatchback. “Pass me the torch, Charlie, this sway bar bolt needs a bit of help”. No one knows how the first crow learned this behavior, but they can teach other. It’s been a few months since the first accident, and now I see more cases in the news every week. So far, the damage has been contained to the state, but the neighboring highway patrols worry about.
I told Charlie my hunch. A few years back they had to pause the PGA Tournament down state because of their own crow problem. I hate golf, so I was naturally curious. Whenever a ball was hit down the 8th fairway, a crow would swoop down and inspect it. Usually the crow would just push the ball a few inches before the officials shooed it away, but a couple times, the crow was able to grab the ball in its mouth and take off. Dropping the ball in the crowd or in the lake. Golf crowds are a bit docile, so no one cheered or jeered, but you could see the smiles on everyone except the golfer’s faces.
After a few hours of the crow’s antics, it was put to rest. Since camera drones have interrupted several sporting events, each tournament has a drone sniper on call. He made easy work of the crow and the tournament carried on.
I used to love my paper and coffee meditation, but now each morning felt like a grim ground hogs day. Over the next few weeks, the headlines reached a sad repetition: ‘Crow trash crash kills family of 5’, ‘Propane delivery truck overturned - 3 alarm fire’, ‘Why is your package delayed? Blame the Crows’. The State government has no protocol to handle this sort of avian collusion. No detectives work for animal control. So, for the first time in their over-educated lives, ornithologists are in high demand.
Finally, one of the crow experts stumbled upon a pattern. In a poorly funded corner of the state vet school, a few grad students had been tracking the crow populations to understand their migratory behavior. Every time the lab caught a crow, they would affix a small aluminum band to the crow’s left foot. Standard practice for animal tracking. However, a weird pattern emerged when the ornithologists started tabulating the ID numbers of crows captured at the crash scenes. The majority of the bands were installed on the crows by a single student. So the police went to investigate.
Soon, his story leaked to the paper.
Apparently he was just some dweeby kid from the city. No friends, absentee parents. Spent all his life out in the woods with the birds. The Crow Lab was the only place that would ever hire him. And there, he excelled in crow tagging. I guess, the crows would flock to him. He’d hold out a bit of food or a shiny piece of metal and hundreds would land around him. The rest of the lab didn’t understand, but also didn’t mind. The measly NSF grant stretched a lot farther if they only had to hire one crow tagger. No one in the lab really knew him, and he kept to himself. But, after the police questioned him, it became clear where the crows got their taste for chaos.
“It wasn’t malicious”, he said. “Or, I guess, it wasn’t meant to be malicious. I’ve been obsessed with birds since I was a kid. They always felt easier to relate to than humans. I spent all of my time watching them. They were my friends, my family. All of the people I met would tease me, and mock me. Laugh in my face. So, I spent all of my time in the woods with the birds.”
“It started as a joke. I’d sit on my roof and wait for the crows. They like me, they always come. I’d hand a crow a pebble. And every time the crow dropped a pebble down on the sidewalk I’d give them a treat. Two treats if it landed on a car. Three treats if they aimed for a person. I’d laugh and laugh, they’d laugh too.” “The more chaos the crows caused, the more I’d smile. And the crows could tell, they are much smarter than you’d think.”
“I started offering them bigger and bigger pebbles to carry. They can pick up big things in their beaks, I’d even bring them golf balls I’d steal from the course behind my apartment. But as soon as a crow used a golf ball and broke a windshield, I stopped all that, I didn’t want to get in trouble, I was just having fun.”
The crows didn’t stop. The small taste of chaos inspired them and they kept escalating the damage. The few dozen crows from the kid’s roof top must have taught hundreds or even thousands more. There isn’t any legal precedence for a case like this, so they let the kid go. Makes sense to me. If you don’t train your dog well, and it attacks a toddler, thats on you. But if your pet runs off and trains a feral dog to attack a child, things get confusing. ____
Most people I know refuse to drive at night. But that isn’t really feasible for our whole society. Occasional food shortage can be seen in grocery stores, as \ frequent highway closures impact the freight drivers. Maybe the crows are giving us a gift, shining a bright light on the fragility of our infrastructure system. But knowledge never seems to lead to action, not when the state is involved.
The state is still trying to handle the situation. Clearly, the crows behavior is contagious, and will keep spreading unless something changes. The ornithologists weighed in on the local news last night. They claimed that these lower creatures’ behavior is entirely governed by positive feedback loops. Remove the positive feedback and the behavior simply disappears. These crows crave the chaos of car crashes; the fire and smoke, the tire screech and police sirens, even the road kill to feast on. Remove the crashes and the crows will grow bored and stop.
The state has instantiated night time speed limits fo 30 mph, and strong recommendations to carry flares and a sturdy shop broom. Most people follow these regulations, and deaths from the crows has dropped a bit. But, there are enough people who refuse, citing freedom or god or some banter about how their shotgun will do more good than a broom. And so, every day or so, another news story gets tossed on my porch about yet another totaled car and mangled human. And I know it will be a while until the crows take their last laugh.