I can hear it before I even open my eyes for the morning. It’s like walking by a stadium; thousands of rowdy voices clamoring together. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I sit up on my knees in bed and peer through the dusty screen out across our cold, grey backyard. In the distance, I can see a stand of trees poking up behind our neighbors’ houses. A dark, ragged shape appears, like a rip in the milky sky: a single crow flying overhead. He overslept — now he’s late for the meeting.
The trees beyond are dotted with black splotches. They play a game of “musical branches” as one takes flight and chooses a new perch, swaying on its new spot as it gets comfortable. Two more spread their wings and flap to the next tree over. And ever constant: the sheer noise. The background roar holds a steady undertone, punctuated by harsh, high-pitched squawks and low, throaty croaks. I tilt my head to pick up my favorite detail amid the fray: a series of rattling clicks, like a wooden Jacob’s Ladder toy.
I take my coffee out onto the back steps and stand there listening to the cacophony, watching the impending sun add its watercolor washes to the sky under the crow trees at Matthews Beach. Grey to periwinkle, through shades of lavender and crocus, rose gold tingeing the edges, then peach, and finally the pale yellow of Victorian lace. Before I know it, the bizarre convention is over and the crows leave in waves, off to the next place.
Of course, not everyone takes such a romantic view on crows. They’ve typically been the harbingers of dread, unease, and death. Maybe this is due to their dark color, or their harsh voices, or their inclination to eat dead things. Alfred Hitchcock famously used the crow’s general creepiness as the first sign of horror to come in his film “The Birds,” and most people recall this movie when they see a large party of the shiny black corvids hanging around. Then they usually get the heck out of there. But what happens when you stick around? I decided to find out.
When the crows had a rare afternoon meeting at the park, I jogged the few blocks down the street to check it out. In addition to loading down the branches of nearly every tree at the south end of the park, there were crows on all the picnic benches and dotted all over the field between the parking lot and Thornton Creek. They couldn’t have been more evenly spaced if they’d been programmed with CGI. They were in the ditches along the road back out to Sand Point Way, scuffling through damp leaf litter, and hanging out on the guardrails. Every single one of them had something to say.
Small parties of the birds took off together, flapping awkwardly after a hopping start, to settle in a vacant patch of the field. I don’t know how they decided when and where to go, but at some point they all started leaving, a steady stream of departures from MBX. I suppressed the strong urge to call out “Fly, my pretties!” Mostly.
Crows have made a big impression on humans over the centuries. There are myriad old wives tales and superstitions based on crows, and our language is peppered with crow idioms. But in Seattle, crows are just a fact of life. If there ever was a bird more adapted to urban life, I’d be surprised. While the vast meeting that takes place at Matthews Beach every morning or so is a riveting scene, it can be found in other local areas, such as the Bothell campus of University of Washington, where as many as 10,000 of the birds roost at night.
Crows can be found in smaller numbers all over the city, too. They perch by the dozens in trees pretty much anywhere, they soar over city lakes, and poke around in the wet leaves and mud of bioswales, looking for tasty critters. Crows will eat just about anything – I’ve even seen them go to town on a pack of baby wipes (and this was pre-Covid!) Their natural diet is said to consist of insects, snakes and frogs, mice and other small rodents, vegetable crops (hence the need for scarecrows) all kinds of roadkill, and the eggs and hatchlings of other types of birds. They feast on up to 11 ounces of food per day, though in my experience here in Seattle, a majority of their daily sustenance comes in the form of organic 365 brand cheerios and Annie’s cheddar bunnies, snatched from unattended strollers at Green Lake.
University of Washington — both the main campus and the Bothell campus — has a special relationship with crows. The website of the Bothell campus of University of Washington has a section entirely devoted to ‘crows on campus’ on the visitor page. John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist and professor at UW, specializes in studying the relationship between birds and people in urban environments, and has written several books about crows. His official university email even includes mention of corvids (they being members of the Corvidae family including crows, ravens, magpies, etc).
You may have heard of his study, conducted at UW a decade ago, on crows’ ability for visual recognition. Researchers wore costume masks while trapping and banding the crows, others donned different masks and just observed. Then the same masks were worn around campus. What they discovered was: the crows remembered the faces that had trapped them, and scolded those faces while ignoring the “neutral” faces that had left them alone. If the researchers who did the trapping went about unmasked, the crows left them alone. If people who were completely uninvolved in the banding process wore the “bad” masks associated with the study, they were scolded. Even more amazing was the discovery that crows were able to communicate to other crows that these certain faces were bad. They discovered this by noting that the number of birds scolding the masks was much higher than those initially trapped and banded. The moral of this story is: be nice to crows. Or at least wear a Dick Cheney mask if you’re going to be mean to them.
Crows have wormed their way into our hearts and minds, too, around here. About a year ago, my partner started making friends with a crow couple that would hang out in the alley with him while he smoked. Pretty soon he started taking crackers out to them (they’re partial to Carr’s rosemary). Now they eat out of his hand, have a designated supply of food in our kitchen, a water dish in the carport, and names: Burke and Hare, after the legendary duo of “resurrection men,” body snatchers that grew to fame in early 19th century England.
Every time we go out back, they arrive within seconds to claim their crackers. If we don’t have any, they get quite snippy with us. Last spring they would come with their two fledglings. The juveniles wouldn’t come within a few yards of us, so their parents got most of the handouts. Talk about a harsh learning curve. Now they just have one yearling that accompanies them — not sure what happened to the other — whom we call “Knox,” a surgeon who was Burke and Hare’s main cadaver customer.
From their perch way up in the stand of massive Douglas Fir trees out on the street, they can probably see Matthews Beach a couple miles down. Sometimes a mini horde of crows hangs out in that stand, too, though we only seem to get three for crackers.
But crows are not the only bird associated with Matthews Beach. Author and Seattle historian David Buerge once mentioned a Duwamish legend that told of mythical thunderbirds nesting in that area on the western shores of Lake Washington. Thunderbirds cut an impressive figure throughout Native American cultures, and nearly everywhere else in the world. Apparently, everyone loves the idea of giant protector birds.
A symbol of strength and power, their large wings mirror the twin feelings of reverence and fear that the legends have evoked. Thought to be “tempest spirits,” these mythical creatures have tail feathers the size of toboggans and wingspans so great that a single flap would send a thunderclap across the region. They were believed to be bringers of storms, with lakes upon their backs waiting to rain down a deluge of epic proportions upon those behaving immorally. Their eyes were said to be chips of flint, sharp and steely, casting down bolts of lightning. They could be a blessing and curse, whichever one you deserved. Bringing much-needed rain to crops and rivers, but also high winds and lightning which sparked devastating fires, the bird-like gods were something the local Native American tribes did their best not to anger.
The legend of the thunderbirds is closely tied to whales, especially in the Pacific Northwest. In some tales, the whale is a source of food for the thunderbird, whose great talons are capable of snatching a whale right out of the ocean and bringing it back home to eat.
Another story that crops up describes a great battle between the two behemoths. Whale kills all the sea creatures in the ocean, leaving native fishermen empty-handed and their villages dying of hunger. When Thunderbird sees this, she is furious at the plight of the starving humans and she fights Whale. All their ruckus causes a great booming and shaking across the land, and brings a giant tidal wave crashing in to shore as Whale drags Thunderbird to the bottom of the sea in a rousing finale. Sound like a familiar phenomenon?
This story was repeated over the last few centuries, in some derivation or other, by tribes up and down the west coast, from present-day California to Vancouver, B.C. It’s believed that earthquakes — especially the big Cascadia quake in 1700 CE — and tsunamis were the catalysts for such tales, as their effects would have been felt from everywhere the stories originated. The Cascadia Subduction Zone runs from northern California up through Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Many tribes of the Pacific Northwest reported earthquakes and flooding around the time of the last known “Cascadia” quake in 1700, and tree-ring dating from the Olympia, WA area has confirmed the timing of flooding from the subsequent tsunami.
As for thunderbirds at Matthews Beach, there could be many reasons for this tale to crop up. One is, again, landslides. There were (and still are) many instances of landslides on the shores of Lake Washington. It’s a hilly landscape, and it rains a fair amount in the wintertime. Other “ghost forests” similar to the ones found in Olympia were discovered in Lake Washington, thought to be the result of a catastrophic landslide from another seismic event in 900 CE. This was thought to have been connected to the Seattle fault, rather than the Cascadia fault. None of the fault, however, lies with the thunderbird or the whale.
Another possible reason for the stories about t-birds at Matthews Beach is that a group of California Condors were said to nest in the trees. There is no telling where this story came from, exactly, and there is no substantiated evidence of condors ever residing anywhere near Lake Washington, but it’s a fun thought to entertain. With a wingspan of ten feet and a girth of thirty pounds, the new world vulture outflanks all other local birds and would certainly cut a legendary figure worthy of such storytelling to nearby tribes.
Nowadays, however, the only condors to be found are in the southwest United States and Baja California, Mexico. When I was first searching for proof of the bird’s existence in the area, Google auto-corrected my query to “condos in Lake Washington,” a disappointingly apt suggestion, given the current state of things. The condors’ legendary residence in the trees above Matthews Creek is as likely as the thunderbirds’. So I guess I’ll just have to content myself with the daily bevy of crows with my morning coffee, and appreciate their more benign method of moral scolding rather than lightning and earthquakes.