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Something to Crow About

AtomicWeightLoveBigFull disclosure: I've always really disliked crows.  So when I got to the part of Elizabeth Church's debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love*, where the main character, Meridian, decides to focus her sharp, scientific mind on those noisy, trash-picking creatures, I thought, seriously!?  Crows?  Why not a bird that's more majestic or unusual?  After all, Meridian goes against the grain in various ways throughout her fictional life, so why have her choose such an ordinary bird to study?   Well, I'll be damned if the more invested I became in the trajectory of Meridian's life, the more I was fascinated by the ways in which the crows she observed reflected human behavior.  In this exclusive piece for The Amazon Book Review, Church elaborates on this odd harmony.

*The Atomic Weight of Love is our May Best Books of the Month Debut Spotlight title


The Social Life of Crows: Spot the Human Parallels

Meridian, the protagonist of my novel The Atomic Weight of Love, studies crows. Although her poetic soul sometimes leads her away from pure science and into anthropomorphism, her crow observations, her blending of science and humanity, also lead her to a better understanding of people and relationships. And some of the bird's behaviors are eerily human….

Settling Down: Early in life, crows "decide" to do one of two things. They either linger in their home territory and help out at home, or they become "floaters," moving from place to place sometimes for years before forming a permanent relationship. Females are more likely to leave home than are male birds.

Tying One On: Crows have repeatedly been observed hanging out around mounds of ants, a behavior known as "anting." The crows crush the ants in their beaks and then transfer the resulting oils (formic acid) to the underside of their wings as a form of insecticide. Some researchers believe that for crows, formic acid is also intoxicating – the crows may be relieving boredom through the process of anting.

Just for the Fun of It: Crows play – a behavior once thought to be the sole province of humans. They have even been observed standing on either side of a tennis net, throwing tennis balls against the net. Crows' imitative ball play may be proof of cultural transmission across species – from human to bird. Or maybe they're simply trying to figure out exactly what so enthralls human tennis players.


Anticipating Danger and Consequences: Mobbing behavior, in which crows dive-bomb humans and other predators, is risky for crows but likely results in many benefits. But why would crows mob an owl during daylight hours? After all, owls hunt at night and so pose no present danger. It appears that crows are smart enough to anticipate that once the sun sets, the owl will begin hunting sleeping crows while they roost – and so the crows move the predator from the vicinity long before the owl begins his nocturnal hunt.

Hobnobbing: How big can communal crow roosts grow to be? Hundreds? Thousands? In Oklahoma, more than two million American Crows have been observed roosting together. Communal roosting creates warmth, protection from predators, and provides a chance for crows to exchange information about good food sources. Crows as conventioneers?

Charity Begins at Home: Healthy crows often care for sick or disabled crows – a behavior that would seem contrary to Darwinian principles. In Canada, for example, researchers documented an instance in which a disabled and partially blind crow was kept alive by group members.

For more fascinating facts, please read In the Company of Crows and Ravens, by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell (Yale University Press, 2005). It includes beautiful illustrations by Tony Angell, and John Marzluff is a Professor of wildlife-habitat relationships and avian social ecology and demography at the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.

--Elizabeth J. Church


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