Thursday, March 04, 2010

Review: Crow Planet

When I lived in Washington, I always took the train if I wanted to visit New Jersey. Because Amtrak makes very few stops in central New Jersey, I usually changed trains in Trenton, switching to New Jersey Transit, the state's commuter line. I forget exactly when I became aware of it, but at some point I realized that the station is home to a very large crow roost: during the day the trees along the tracks will be mostly empty, but at night they will be filled with crows. When I say "large," I mean a roost for over a thousand crows, lining the train station on either side. The last time that I passed through Trenton at night, the crows were there as usual.

Crows are nearly ubiquitous. I tend not to notice them much in my current neighborhood; I never see more than a handful at a time, and only occasionally around my house. In most other neighborhoods where I have lived, crows were much more in evidence. At one apartment, crows would sit on another wing of the building almost every day and caw at each other for reasons that I was unable to discern at the time. On some of my walks at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, I encountered such a noisy group of crows that it was difficult to hear any other birds.

Over the years, I have watched and listened to crows quite a lot, but not nearly as much as Lyanda Lynn Haupt has watched them. She spent several years observing American Crows around Seattle and writing about them. The result is a delightful new book, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.

Crow Planet is part natural history and part memoir. Haupt's observations form the core of the narrative. A family of American Crows nested near Haupt's home, and she watched and recorded their behavior regularly as they built their nest, raised young, foraged, and warded off predators. One of their fledglings broke its leg after leaving the nest, and somehow it survived to adulthood with the assistance of its parents. In addition to that family group, she watched crows at every opportunity around Seattle to discover how they interact with the urban landscape.

Haupt reports the behaviors she observed without overly anthropomorphizing them, even as she tries to interpret what the behaviors mean. To an inexperienced observer, crow vocalizations may all sound alike – a simple caw caw caw. After watching and listening to crows for some time, Haupt was able to recognize several different call types, such as assembly calls, contact calls, scolding calls, and nocturnal roosting calls. She interweaves her own observations with scientific research on crows so that the book stays firmly grounded. In the case of crow vocalizations, scientists have identified 23 types of calls, each with a subtle but distinct usage.

The observed behaviors of crows become a starting point for exploring how a naturalist and environmentalist can be at home in an urban space. This is a particularly personal question for Haupt since she ended up moving to Seattle more by necessity than by choice. Crow Planet is party about how she came to terms with living in an urban neighborhood instead of the farm she had imagined. Cities offer certain advantages for an environmentalist: walkable neighborhoods and public transit make driving largely unnecessary, and a conscientious consumer has more choice of organic food or fair trade products. However, living in a city curtails one's experience of the natural world. Relatively few animal species can survive in the densest urban spaces; even in less dense neighborhoods, biodiversity is relatively low. This means that an urban naturalist needs to look more carefully at what species are present in whatever fragments of habitat remain. Crow Planet provides one model for doing that.