I don’t usually talk to wild animals. My excuse today was that they started it.
Despite the chill January temperature, I felt pleasantly warm at the top of the first mountain. It was mostly from the exertion combined with the layers of cold weather gear, but also from satisfaction at my first Winter hike in the Rocky Mountains. This type of outdoor activity was why I’d relocated from the East Coast to Colorado. With my Boston accent and inability to pronounce the letter “R”, I’d never be mistaken for a Colorado native. However, I wanted to get quickly immersed in the area. On my first free weekend in Denver, I’d driven up into the Front Range.
On this cloudless day, the peak’s open outcropping gave an expansive view toward the city and the plains beyond.I surveyed the next phase of the route as it zig-zagged down to a saddle, looped along a narrow ridge, then ascended up to another treeless summit. Peeling off my parka, I proceeded down the trail. With a vigorous pace, it took close to 40 minutes to make the traverse.
Winded, I stopped to have lunch on the bouldered ledge of the second mountain top. Looking back at the distance covered, I was gratified at how quickly I’d hiked it at this altitude.
While congratulating myself on the swift crossing, a bird lift off from the first peak. After a few pumps of its wings, the black streak soared and coasted in my direction. In less than a minute, it crossed the distance it had taken me most of an hour to hike. With a braking motion of wings, a large black crow alighted not twenty feet away.Even though it seemed to mock my hiking effort, I was impressed by the ease of the its transit.
The bird was a patch of midnight in the midday sun.It stood close to eighteen inches from head to foot. The crow had a stout body; a strong beak; and deep, liquid black eyes. On his perch a little uphill from where I sat, the bird’s head was level with my own. The rook bounced a few feet closer. Tilting his head and staring with a sinister twinkle, the bird screeched a loud, “Caw, caw.”
Startled, I flinched. I don’t speak crow, but felt the ebony intruder was taunting me. I sensed the harsh cry meant, “You thought you were soooo superior with your long, slow walk. I am better than you, primate.” (Crows can say a lot in a few words).
I was abashed at this cheeky demeaning of my accomplishment. After all, this haughty fowl was not even a noble raptor: a hawk, a falcon or an eagle. This was a just a crow.Not much more than a country pigeon.
I was insulted, not only for myself, but for all bipeds. I felt honor bound to defend my species and searched for a sharp retort that would demonstrate to this arrogant creature our inherent superiority. This took longer than it should have.
The bird seemed to sense my mental slowness and pressed his advantage. He hopped closer, the better to issue another challenging, “Caw, caw” closer to my face.
I tried to wave him off with a quick sweep of my arm. The crow stood his ground and bobbed his head aggressively. I attributed my delay in answering to the thin air in Colorado’s mountains, and, the bird disconcertingly invading my space. I was also a little off balance from the thought of talking to a bird. Of course, I knew birds could talk from reading Poe’s, “Nevermore” poem. But, I hadn’t personally had a direct conversation with such a beast before. I was determined not to let homo erectus down.
While I pondered weak and weary, the raven fluffed his iridescent blue-black feathers and eyed me with a condescending look. I decided to administer the coup de grace by asking the bird a question about algebra or geometry. Then, realizing that I’d forgotten all my high school math, I couldn’t claim superiority on that front. This was embarrassing.
The delay had already been awkwardly long. Regardless, I was not going to surrender the honor of my genus without a fight. With a touch of smugness, I looked the bird in the eye and said, “You think you’re so exceptional, crow, how much is 2 times 2?”
Unfazed, the ominous bird gave me a silent, intent gaze. It’s hard to tell with a beak, but I thought I detected a smug grin. I was about to declare Darwinian victory, when the bird said, “Caw, caw. Caw, caw.”
“Damn!” The cursed bird knew multiplication. Now I was really desperate. I dropped mathematics for something more abstract and blurted out the first thing that popped into my mind, “Oh yeah, smarty feathers, what’s a short name for an automobile?”
Without hesitation, the crow said “Caw.” Not only was the bird correct, but he spoke in my native New England dialect. Stunned, I stopped the question and answer session to spare myself further embarrassment and while I could still claim at least equal intelligence with a bird brain.
Sensing victory, the feathered show-off stepped disconcertingly close and demanded a reward for his correct answers. The avian aggressor flapped his wings for emphasis. This close, the three foot wingspan created a breeze and made the stygian beast appear intimidatingly large. He greedily eyed the Doritos I was snacking on and with a, “Caw” demanded they be shared with him. I was normally a generous sort. However, I am also an armchair environmentalist as demonstrated by my bony physique and pallid complexion. Therefore, I knew it was unhealthy to feed human food to a wild beast. Still, this beggar crow cawed again insisting he really wanted some of the salty chips.
Even in the face of this belligerence, I was determined to stick to my principles. Then I reflected, I eat Doritos even though I know they’re not good for me. Perhaps, this bird has done a similar cost-benefit analysis and made a comparable decision. Who am I to second guess his freedom of choice? Especially, out West in the home of the rugged individualist. After all, the bird has just proven he’s my intellectual equal, if not superior.’
I was about to relent and toss a chip to the mendicant, when we were joined by a chipmunk. The new guest was hesitant at first. Then, he crept closer until he was also five feet in front of me and three feet to the left of the bird. Clearly, he was also attracted by the possibility of a Doritos handout.
Admittedly, I’m not an expert on the avian food chain. Yet, I assumed a chipmunk should be right at the top of the menu for a bird of this size. I was surprised that this wild predator was continuing to press me for Doritos when this furry treat was so easily in his grasp. Not to be cruel, but this chipmunk would make the crow a delectable lunch. I reasoned the bird had not noticed the arrival of our new colleague because he was fixated on the junk food.
To bond with the bird, I decided to help him. Not wanting to scare off the chipmunk, I was subtle. First, I motioned to the bird with my eyes to draw his attention to the tasty appetizer not three feet away. This had no effect. So, I gave a little head nod maneuver toward the prey. Although the avian was staring directly at me, there was still no reaction from Mr. Crow. His unreadable, dark and infinite eyes remained unswervingly glued on me.
It was clear both animals were in a Doritos-addled trance. I speculated it might be related to Colorado legalizing marijuana and these slackers having a bad case of the munchies. Still, I refused to condone this unnatural behavior and persisted in urging the bird to devour the deadbeat chipmunk. I gave several exaggerated head shakes toward the chipmunk. The bird would have had to be blind to miss them. Finally, the crow turned his head and the two animals looked at each other. Instead of attacking his natural quarry, the crow and chipmunk exchanged a friendly glance that appeared to convey the thought, ‘This poor human has a neck twitch.”
Incensed, I thought, ‘I have some dignity’. I refused to sit there and be insulted by snarky animals. I spoke to the bird, not out of principle, but of pique, “If you aren’t going to eat your main course, I’m certainly not going to give you a Doritos dessert.”
The bird did not take this rebuff well. He stepped forward and snapped a loud, “CAW!” With the grim bird almost in my lap, I couldn’t help but notice how sharp and threatening the beak appeared. All I had were fingernails that I’d foolishly trimmed the previous evening, not imagining I might need them as weaponry. Although I clearly had a weight advantage, the bird was more bellicose and had a crazed look. I thought it was not an accident that a group of crows is called a ‘murder’. Looking around nervously, I was belatedly aware we were in the crow’s home territory giving the beast an additional advantage in any tussle over the Doritos. If this conversation was in a Starbucks, I would have felt more confident.
Not to be outdone, the chipmunk approached closer. I took this as my cue to leave. When the lamb lies down with the lion, it doesn’t mean we’ve achieved Paradise Restored. It means they are in cahoots. I got the niggling feeling they were sizing me up and just a few moments from deciding they could take me.
With fear-driven adrenalin kicking in, I remembered the wilderness advice on bear and mountain lion encounters: ‘When confronted, make yourself look large’. I had a moment’s regret at having recently lost 15 pounds. I stood and spread my arms over my head. Also, you should never show fear to a predator. Therefore, I acted casual and pretended this was a perfectly routine stretch. Complementing the display by wiggling extended fingers, I stood on my toes to gain added height.
For good measure, I threw in a loud, “Boy, this feels agile. And STRONG. I’d hate to tangle with this brute.” It helped. The crow flapped away a few yards. Mournful, the chipmunk gave a last, longing look at my Doritos-stained lips, then followed the lead of his compatriot and bounced away.
Success. Or, at least, a stalemate. However, I didn’t want to press my luck. Gathering my belongings, I stuffed them in the pack. I backed away while keeping an eye on these wily adversaries. Walking backwards on the trail with hands high overhead, I realized I must look like someone being mugged by an invisible bandit. At that moment, I remembered that hikers are supposed to make noise or sing to keep animals away. Given the time of year, the only songs that came to mind were Christmas carols. Do you know how ridiculous it is to loudly sing, Jingle Bells, by yourself, in the woods, in January? It’s as weird as it sounds. If other hikers had recorded these actions, there would be a good case to commit me. But, at the moment, I didn’t care. Potential embarrassment was the price of survival.
When I reached the car, my fear dissipated. There was even some pride in outsmarting a Doritos junkie crow and his furry sidekick. Another small step for a man and a giant leap for mankind.
Under ‘Lessons Learned,’ I filed away a new rule: If I enter the wilderness with salty snack foods, I should come prepared to defend them with my life.