The Curious Case of the Carcass and the Crow

It’s warm once again in New Jersey. And so I have been outside much more than I have been in the past few months, riding bikes, observing life, looking for unique symbols of roadside minutia in and about my environment.

More often than not lately, being outside involves direct interaction with a few common species of birds found in New Jersey, and it’s allowed me to quietly observe the strangely unique lives in which birds of all sorts spend their days. I’ll begin with something I once thought of as a nemesis in my life, Canadian Geese.

In case you’re wondering about the “nemesis” label, it goes back to a little over a year ago, when I was attacked from over head by a large male Canada Goose, doing his damndest to protect his mate’s nest and his new offspring. I was on my bike, it swooped in from behind, landed on my back, started pecking at me and causing me to flip over. After a short spat with him, he retreated, though I was left with a deep hole in my knee and the knowledge that I had been taken down by a 15 lb. bird.

The past few weeks, when the opportunity arises, I spend an inordinate amount of time at the Rutgers University Football Stadium, riding my bike and as of late, observing the two families of Canadian Geese that have begun to use the adjacent grass lands as a nesting area/chill spot. The first time I encountered them, I was a nervous wreck, staying close to my car in the event that the events of April 16, 2005 happened to repeat themselves. But the families ignored me, instead commuting back and forth and back and forth between two grassy areas that offered food and kept them far away from any dog walkers or passing cars. At dusk, a male leader began squawking, approaching my direction with his wings outstretched. I shuddered for a second but decided to hold my ground, thinking I was up for another turf war. Instead, the goose took flight, out over the Raritan River, with his family behind him in an arrow shape. A few seconds later, another male leader made the same movements, and his family took flight towards the river. Clearly, this was the motions of a family sticking together, moving into an area that was safe during the night. And no way or how was I in any danger at any time during the encounter. I’ve observed the same group movements three more times now; with two male leaders taking to the sky just short of sunset, as their families spread their wings and follow suit. And damn, it makes me think that the Canadian Geese got their shit together when it comes to family values.

But something happened on Monday which made forced me to bear witness to another side of well, being a bird, and the fucked up shit that can happen. Monday morning, there was a dead very young female mallard duck in the parking lot of the farmer’s market down the street, about 1-2 miles away from any significant water source or accompanying family members. It was sad to see this young lifeless bird, strayed from its family and suffering an untimely death as a result. I felt bad but moved on, wondering who was going to have to clean up the carcass to myself.
But later on that day, while riding my bike through the same parking lot, I noticed the dead mallard still in her place, only her feathers were strewn throughout the parking lot, with a large American crow perched atop her body. In between guarded glances, the crow was tearing the mallard’s feathers to shreds, gnawing at her coat and joyously cawing so that the whole world might know about his (I’m assuming he was a male) newfound scavenged victory. I paused for a few minutes and observed his actions.

By nature, crows aren’t seasoned experts at scavenging. Their beaks aren’t designed to break through skin, and they usually focus their scavenging habits on roadkill and easily accessible sources of meat. This duck had no open wounds, but this particular crow wasn’t about to waste the opportunity. He pulled, gnawed, pecked and even shouted at the mallard’s body, hoping to pierce her skin and feast on her insides. He defended his territory atop the body from passing cars, pausing in his mission only to threaten any passerbys with a boisterous caw. I stayed for maybe 10 minutes, observing the crow as he tore the mallard’s body to pieces, then rode past him to test his boundaries. He didn’t move from his position, and so I left shortly thereafter. I don’t know if he ever succeeded in tearing open the mallard’s skin, but I do know that this crow wasn’t about to give up his position in nature, atop a slab of heated pavement in the parking lot of a farmer’s market.

Today, all that remained of the incident was a few feathers.

I’m not here to draw some subjective conclusion on the inherent cannibalization of a crow eating a mallard. Birds eat other birds, it happens. Nor am I here to draw praise to some other birds that protect their young. As admirable as I think it might be, it’s just part of nature. But these two experiences with various strata of bird society has demonstrated two very distinct sides of life, which have carried over into humanity since removed from nature.

Some of us are simply striving to keep some semblance of family together, while some of us are doing whatever it takes to get ahead in life, even if it’s completely outside of our natural ability. Two concepts united by resolve; the only problem is figuring out whether you’re a goose, a duck or a crow…..

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