The best gifts Gabi has received are one half of a "BEST / FRIENDS" necklace, a pearl colored heart, and a miniature silver ball. What is going on? Gabi, a young girl living in Seattle, and her mother Lisa feed the neighborhood crows each morning, and the birds bring an assortment of shiny, colorful, rare, and interesting objects in gratitude.
When Gabi was only four, she accidentally dropped a morsel of food while getting out of the car. A crow eagerly grabbed it, and a years-long friendship began. As Gabi got older, she started sharing her lunch on the way to the bus stop; finally, in 2013, Gabi and her mother Lisa began giving food to the crows as part of their daily routine.
Dog food, peanuts, and a backyard birdbath make up their gifts to the crows, who line up on nearby telephone lines in eager anticipation. And without fail, the crows deliver gifts of gratitude, placing items on the birdbath each morning. Once, Lisa dropped (and lost) her camera lens cap while photographing a bald eagle in a nearby alley. By the next morning, a crow had deposited it back on the bird bath-- and Lisa's camera footage revealed that the crow carefully rinsed it before flying off.
Why are the crows bringing gifts? Crows give gifts to each other in a non-human setting as well, often in the delightful form of dead baby animals during courtship. In this case, it is hard to argue with the simplest hypothesis: the crows give Gabi gifts because she gives them food. They are thankful, and they want the relationship to continue.
I couldn't help but think of an anecdote from my time researching the cognition of New Caledonian Crows, a very intelligent species of tool-making crow. One bird, named Red-White-Orange for the color of her leg bands, started off as quite a nervous crow; she wouldn't come near me, and I couldn't figure out how to win her trust. Day after day, she cowered on a high limb when I dropped off her bowl of food; day after day, she politely declined to participate in any of our cognitive studies. But one fateful morning, Red White Orange and I became friends forever.
As I was strolling past her enclosure on a sunny Tuesday, I absent-mindedly picked up a little conch shell from the ground, spinning it around in my fingers. I heard an inquisitive kaa-aa-a? and glanced over in surprise; Red-White-Orange craned her neck in the adorable way New Caledonian Crows do, cocking one eye towards me in obvious curiosity. I paused in shock, staring blankly back at her. She fluffed her feathers, then soared over to land on a perch directly next to me. It was undoubtedly the closest we two had ever been.
"Kaa-aa-a?" Asked Red-White-Orange, looking pointedly at the shell in my hand.
"You want the shell?" I squeaked in amazement, slowly opening my palm to reveal it (I was afraid to move too quickly, lest I harm our newfound truce).
"Kaaa-a," affirmed Red-White-Orange, peering at me doubtfully, probably thinking "this human seems a little thick."
Slowly, I extended my arm, and poked the conch shell through the wire of her enclosure. Without hesitation, she greedily swept over, snatched up her shell, and retreated to her favorite perch to investigate.
From that day forward, I started bringing Red-White-Orange shells with every meal; in turn, she lost her nervousness; she started participating in the voluntary cognitive tests (and, by the way, performed with flying colors); and became far-and-away my favorite crow. And all because of the gift of a shell. She never brought me anything, but our friendship was short; I went back to the USA, and Red-White-Orange was released back into the wild, where I like to think she has amassed a new collection of beautiful little shells somewhere in the lush forests of New Caledonia.
Renowned wildlife scientist John Marzluff said "if you want to form a bond with a crow, be consistent in rewarding them."
I'd say that advice extends to most human relationships, too.
Many thanks to Samer Sabri for sending along this article! As he can probably guess, I've already seeded my backyard with shelled peanuts. Fingers crossed for crows!
Lots of people love the birds in their garden, but it's rare for that affection to be reciprocated. One young girl in Seattle is luckier than most. She feeds the crows in her garden - and they bring her gifts in return.