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The black-and-grey bird looked at me with intelligent eyes, determined that I’m harmless, and, with intense movements, continued emptying the contents of the garbage bin onto the sidewalk. In a matter of seconds the grey asphalt of Marek József street began to resemble an idill from the third world. I have suspected that the new, strange trash recently seen on the streets of Budapest comes from crows — now I had proof. Crows fear humans less and less — how did this situation suddenly arise? Large, aggressive, brainy birds wreaking havoc in our cities. Was it caused by nature or us? And what is the solution?
Before discussing corvids let’s digress into the adaptation of species. We tend to believe that nature changes in millions of years, yet it is sometimes capable of surprisingly quick tricks. The human concrete jungle opens up new chances for opportunistic species. Plus, we are intruding on the living space of our fellow creatures in such an aggressive manner that their sole chance often remains fleeing to our bosom.
Some time in the forties or fifties of the last century blackbirds, these shy forest birds suddenly decided to make Budapest their home. Wood pigeons were already walking the lawns of Brussels in the eighties, herons were fishing in the canals of Amsterdam. At that time these birds were completely unseen in our city. The largest pigeon of Europe has since become as common as sparrows and grey herons regularly flap their wings above the city blocks. Black tits nest downtown where ferrets and martens hide under the parking cars at night.
The first member of the crow family to nest in cities was the magpie. In my childhood, when hares were still abundant in the meadows, this elegant, tuxedoed bird could only be seen on the trees in open fields. Roadkill, a new source of food produced by ever increasing road traffic, caused the population to soar. Magpies embarked on a quest to conquer cities, and now they are a common sight in the innermost districts of Budapest.
In the meantime a veritable extermination campaign was conducted against the rook, this harmless corvid that traditionally nests in large colonies and has a sad voice. A lot of people in Europe only meet rooks in the winter when great flocks of migratory birds arrive from the Russian plains. Traditional food sources of this bird have been drying up due to the huge monocultural fields of modern agriculture, so it began to feed on recently sewn corn. This was like signing a death sentence. Centralized extermination caused its population to decrease by 90%. Although in 2001 it was finally placed under protection, its colonies are still being destroyed illegally and, in cities, also legally. Every corvid being very bright, rooks realized that cities are a safe haven from poisoning and shooting so the survivors began to establish small colonies in urban environments. The constant cawing and droppings, however, are usually not celebrated by their human cohabitants.
So it was us that drove rooks from their original nesting places into cities. The poisoning campaign, by the way, was cruel reminiscent of the methods of the third world. It also decimated the populations of jackdaw, long-eared owl, kestrel and the rare red-footed falcon. (Jackdaws are a smaller corvid that nest together with rooks. They have a cute appearance with a round head and a pleasant call. They, too, have since discovered city chimneys as a good place for a home. The predatory birds mentioned nest in abandoned rook nests after their original inhabitants have fledged.) But this is nothing yet.
The living space left empty after the rook apocalypse has been taken up by the hooded crow. They kept multiplying and when every space in the fields was taken by their specie-mates they ventured into the city. This crow is more aggressive than its black cousin and is endowed with a stronger beak. It is becoming more daring by the year, and, with intelligence radiating from its eyes, hops away reluctantly while you pass to immediately return to the thrown away bun. Or it simply grabs the loot and perches on a tree. It can also creak open walnuts by letting them drop on the asphalt from a height.
In Budapest one of the headquarters of the grey bandits became Margaret Island where, more than fifteen years ago, I observed a flock of several thousand. Such a congregation was unseen before, hooded crows tend to move in pairs or family units. On the island baby birds and scattered litter were not enough so they learned to empty garbage bins. As a countermeasure, new bins were introduced that prevent (or at least make it hard) the access to garbage. But the genie was already out of the bottle, or Margaret Island. If this process continues the way it has — and I’m sure it will — the next step will be crow-safe bins everywhere.
It seems we have to live with crows from now on, which also has good consequences. We will have to adapt to another social, intelligent creature, like the packs of stray dogs prowling the streets of Bucharest. We can make interesting ethological observations from our very windows. Also Indian headdresses for kids from fallen crow feathers. And we can speculate what the next mischief these rascals come up with will be. Or we can simply delight in their shiny feathers and tricks. This crow has made the roof his sledge track.
Perhaps the crows can teach us to begin considering the longer range consequences of our actions. What sequence of events will be unleashed if we change one element in a complex system? It does not even have to be a biological system. If you put cameras on streets, thieves will move to other streets which will also have to be equipped with cameras. If you let railways, which are way more economical, to rust and fall into disuse, building highways instead, people will switch to cars and you will have to construct more highways. In Istanbul a third multiple-lane highway has been completed between Europe and Asia because of constant traffic jams. There is no more free place as the last one is almost on the Black Sea, the other side of the isthmus of the city.
Apparent short-sightedness, of course, is often very much intentional, with someone gaining a lot of money. In Italy the highway lobby melts directly into the Maffia. The uningenious solutions of society can make bankrolls grow spectacularly. People might already be excitedly rubbing their hands: “Hey, Joe, next year we’ll manufacture crow-proof garbage bins! All the kids will have a new Audi!’
Our current institutions are rarely capable of treating not just the symptoms, but also the underlying causes. “Rook eat corn? Kill rook!” The fact that this creates two problems much more difficult to solve than the original one is not the concern of the competent authority which often cannot even understand the consequences. “Ah, those greens are always complaining about something!” In ten years the officials are complaining about crows nesting in front of the office.
This kind of thinking permeates our society. Yet it is possible to reduce our problems to a fraction of the present with long-term systemic thinking — and a readiness to do different things. What will healthcare look like when its main focus will be providing the conditions for a healthy lifestyle and promulgating it to people? What will it be like when “fighting crime” will be replaced by providing intelligent life goals and means of self-support for people? What will the school be like that uses all the kinetic energy, curiosity and creativity present in children to make them do wonderful things?
We have, once again, arrived at the conclusion that the entirety of our institutions need restructuring as desperately as the sands of the Sahara need rain. But what can we, tiny specks of dust do? Actually, quite a lot.
The most obvious field is our own lives that, fortunately, is still mostly dependent on ourselves. No one forces us to crawl in the city in cars, to watch hours of manipulated news every day, to stuff our mouths full of a bunch of additives called food. Once, instead of irrigating the monoculture fields of consumer society, we start watering the little flowers of the new dawn, the landscape begins to change. Just by eliminating poisons from our bodies, houses, gardens we will be stepping on a promising path.
The even more interesting question is how we can connect and make new networks. What would a system look like in which a group of people (family, friends, co-workers etc.) undertake to look out for each other’s physical and psychological health? Aiding each other in establishing appropriate habits, eating, doing sports, keeping a good mental and emotional state and doing everything else that needs to be done? Even when we are well, visiting a real holistic healer regularly to check and balance our systems? This is just one idea, but we will need to think this direction.
We wandered far from crows, yet the truth is that if we don’t produce garbage, crows don’t have anything to scatter on the street. By the way, there are ingenious solutions to solving even that. A German — who else — has taught magpies to pick up thrown away bottle cups for food.
So there is hope and plenty of opportunities for change. There is a lot of grey matter not only on the streets but also in our heads. What exciting new thing will you use yours for?