The Crow’s Nest
In March 2009 there was a crow building a nest in a tree right outside my window - a gingko tree, the symbol of Tokyoand an icon of the sumo wrestler’s coiffure. I watched it every day. I don’t know if it is male crows, or female crows, or both that engage in nest building, but I imagined that the one I was looking at every day was a male. “Nesting” is supposed to be a female characteristic, but the calculating, object-manipulating way I observed this crow going about its construction business makes me imagine it was a male. These are human stereotypes, of course, and I am fully aware that I am anthropomorphizing the bird. But never mind. I think human beings inevitably anthropomorphize all creatures as a strategy for making sense of the world around us, so excuses can be made. (No excuses can be made for forgetting or hiding that we anthropomorphize in the first place, which most people seem prone to do.) This one in the tree outside is fascinating because, at least in the early part of its project, it used only wire clothes hangers taken from people’s balcony or garden laundry poles. You might say it is very clever that the bird discovered a material that it favored and then consistently sought it, retrieved it and used it. Later, talking with Japanese acquaintances about it, I was surprised to learn that colored wire hangers are a well known common tool of these birds.
As far as nests go it did not look like a very sophisticated project - not the engineering prowess of a beaver dam or lodge, or the subtly of a robin’s nest, or the magnificence of an ant or termite colony, or a rabbit warren. So I started thinking that maybe crows build just rudimentary nests, or something. I know that crows are intelligent birds. Their cleverness is a nuisance! But they are scavenger creatures, not so much devoted to diligently finding food like other birds as robbing rubbish heaps by the curbside (and stealing clothes hangers from people’s yards) - a constant problem in Tokyo which is home to a particularly nasty, large species of jungle crow. Dangerous, too, because they occasionally attack people - people like me - especially during nesting or hatching seasons when they are claiming and defending territory. So I also imagine that they are prone to similar lack of diligence and dedication when it comes to nest construction, making more of a makeshift shelter, one that is easy to abandon, than a permanent home for the season. It is easy enough to research on the Internet what crows are like, but instead I prefer to find out the old fashioned way just how sophisticated crow nesting is by watching it. And, watching the bird was more entertaining than watching the Internet.
When I saw it I thought perhaps the wire hangers will just be a frame and that its structure would be filled out with more traditional materials - twigs, molted feathers, etc. I watched him/it patiently and persistently manipulate wire hangers in its beak, testing them, hanging them first in one place and then another, meticulously manipulating them into different positions, often dropping them onto the ground below where a small collection accumulated. But when I looked again the next day I saw even more hangers in the tree, in a slightly different position where I watched the bird’s efforts the day before. And slowly a shape formed. At first the new spring time blossoming leaves left the branches and everything that goes on in them exposed and clearly visible. Since the wire hangers are in many hues - from a dollar store, probably, just like the ones I have bought myself - it looked a little festive and even ridiculous, like the crow was decorating a Christmas tree, or preparing a baby’s nursery - which, in fact, it was. Watching the bird was an education for me, and reporting about it reveals more about myself than about the bird itself, I guess. Or, maybe not.