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  • Courtney Ellis

The Neighborhood Murder

Our neighborhood is filled with crows. If you live in a neighborhood like the majority of those around the world, yours is too. Nearly everyone has a crow story, few of them positive.

“They’re nasty, garbage birds,” a friend told me.

When a crow picked the lone apple off our tree out front and flew off with it, a Twitter friend commented it’d probably put a spell on me. Crows squabble in our treetops, leave their droppings on our cars, and raid the nests of smaller birds.

With their inkjet feathers and their sparkling black eyes, they conjure images of Medieval doctors in plague masks, nightmarish figures silhouetted against full moons, or the hooded specter of death itself.

It doesn’t help that a group of crows is literally called a murder.

“Spotted, one memento mori,” wrote my birding friend Paul, posting a picture of a single crow atop a university building.


During the height of the pandemic’s stay-at-home delirium days, I sought to befriend the crow that hung out on our back fence, conspicuous due to a single white feather in his tail—a rare genetic mutation.

“Hi, Joe,” I’d say, taking the kids to the yard to run off steam or checking on my husband’s blueberry bushes.

“That’s Joe the crow,” I’d tell them.

“Pandemic’s really getting to you, eh, Mom?” my oldest would ask.

Turns out crows aren’t just ubiquitous, they’re brilliant.

I began to realize how little I knew or understood about this creature that shared our space, holding vigil on the property line between us and neighbors we’d never met. Eventually he molted his white feather—I found it on the front walk—and he became physically indecipherable from the other dozens of crows that call our cul-de-sac home, though there’s still only one crow that sits on our back fence each day.

I read and studied books like Lyanda Haupt’s Crow Planet and Jennifer Ackerman’s lovely The Genius of Birds. At the library with the kids I pulled down children’s books on corvids—the larger bird family that includes ravens, jays, and nutcrackers.

Turns out crows aren’t just ubiquitous, they’re brilliant. Many scientists estimate their intelligence as on par with a human second-grader. They make and use tools, recognize human faces, pass messages to one another, thrive in both rural and urban environments, and have adapted to nearly every region and climate on earth outside the Arctic and Antarctic. Though they aren’t the most common species of bird on earth—that superlative goes to the house sparrow—because of their large numbers, size, loudness, and propensity for living alongside humans, they are arguably the most noticed birds on earth.


In August, my husband Daryl took me to hold an owl for my fortieth birthday. As I levitated with birding bliss (owls are amazing), he chatted up the naturalist.

“What other birds do you train?” he asked.

“Hawks, mostly,” she said. “You can’t train a corvid. It always ends up training you.

The last few years have cracked many of us wide open.

I’d been right next to crows my entire life, yet I didn’t know a thing about them until this year. Some might call that a sure sign of growing old, as birding often becomes a hobby when the aches and pains of mid- or late-age slow us down. But I think there’s another reason. The last few years have cracked many of us wide open. The pain of a pandemic, the uncertainty of a political upheaval, the deep laments of a racial reckoning have bowed us low and—through the grace of God—begun to open our eyes.

“What else haven’t I been seeing?” I asked myself, watching Joe hop across the back fence. There was birdsong in the air, jasmine scent on the breeze, a new neighbor across the street who spoke only Farsi, and refugees in our pews from Afghanistan and Ukraine.

A few months after noticing Joe for the first time, I visited a friend on the other side of the country and she offered me a cup of tea.

“I don’t really like tea,” I said.

“Maybe you just haven’t had good tea,” she said, pressing the cup into my hands. My husband and I now drink this tea every night, undecided on whether it’s a sign of sophistication or yet another sign of our own over-the-hill trajectory.

In my twenties I was certain. In my thirties I was hurried. Now, entering into my forties I am embracing slowness. Uncertainty. Silence. Wonder.

As Haupt, the author of Crow Planet, writes, “Wonder feeds our best intelligence and is perhaps its source.” If this is true—and I suspect it might be—then perhaps the most faithful thing we can do is continue to look up. God is in his heaven, after all. And the crows are in the trees.

Both are speaking.

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