Murder in the Neighborhood

Jan 13, 2024 by Amber McClain Shaw, in Blog Posts

I have a neighbor who rides his bike every day past my house. It’s not your usual daily ride. There is something rather magical about it.

I don’t know my neighbor’s name, because when I see him, he’s either on his bike, moving fast, or in his car, moving fast. He doesn’t have a dog he walks around the loop, like most of the neighbors. He’s never outside working in his front yard when I walk by, that’s for sure, it’s the weediest wildest one on the street. His two Teslas plugged in to the front of his always-closed garage are always clean, but I’ve never seen him out washing them.

His bike is creaky, and he pedals hard, really pumping, his bike groaning with the effort to break free from the bits of rust that seem to form overnight on all things metal exposed to the salty moist air close to the ocean. I can always hear when he’s near, but only partly because of the bike.

He is maybe in his later 60s but I’m not a good judge of age. He has grey hair, and is red-faced with the effort of going so fast on his bike, especially if it’s really cold or really hot out.

The most interesting thing about this neighbor is the murder of crows that accompanies him on his bike rides. In the mornings, the crows sit on his roof or the tree across the street, waiting for him. Often they are quiet, but once in a while, maybe because they are impatient for him to come out, they make a loud racket. When he rides by my house, the crows are in a loose, unorganized group, some flitting around cawing, others flying in a straight gliding line, but they are all moving with him in the same direction, above and behind him, like they are on leashes. 

They are not like the birds that make murmurations, flying in beautiful formations. These crows are more individual and less organized, but clearly following my neighbor on his bike. There are maybe twenty of them, big and black with curved beaks. There are no other species of birds that join in. No seagulls, no cormorants. An exclusive gang of crows.

Plenty of people walk or bike by my house daily, but this neighbor is the only one with a personal escort of crows. I don’t know his route once he leaves my street. He rides for about 30 minutes and comes back, crows still floating and wheeling and cawing behind him.

As I’m wondering about this mysterious flock of birds, I see him down the street. I know it’s him only by the birds surrounding him. He finished his ride not long ago, and now something unusual is happening. He is on a walk with the crows. He is tossing peanuts out, and the crows settle and land in the street like dogs told to sit. They get their peanut reward, and the neighbor goes back to his house. I assume the birds go on with the rest of their day.

Now I know how he gets this murder of crows to fly with him. But not why. 

I imagine that he has managed to make the invisible visible. That the crows are like his dreams, or spirits maybe. They travel with him, sometimes close by, gliding right next to him so close he can reach out and touch them, some hanging back but still on the journey with him. While he is riding so fast, he can’t see them, but he surely knows they are there.

Crows are powerful symbols, appearing in Greek mythology, the Bible and popular culture. They often symbolize death, danger, misfortune, and illness (hence the name murder for a group of them) but also rebirth, self-reflection, intelligence, and loyalty. They are considered to be one of the smartest creatures in the animal kingdom. Crows can recognize individual people, and they know how to make and use tools. They mate for life, have a strong family social structure, and have been observed to hold ceremonies for their dead.

In Japan, crows steal wire coat hangers from clotheslines and use them in their nests. The female crow actually shapes the hanger to her own body to create the perfect fit for her nest. In other areas, crows have learned to eat walnuts. They husk them. Then, weighing the density of the nut, along with the timing of red lights, they drop the nut from just the right height onto the hard surface of a road, so that it breaks but doesn’t shatter. They closely follow the nut down to the ground so they can get the meat immediately, before a competitor can get to it. They can time the walnut drop and retrieval with the traffic signal so the nut, and they themselves, are not smashed by a car. Crows are definitely smarter than my dog and honestly, they might be smarter than humans.

I wonder if my neighbor thinks he has trained the crows to go on bike rides with him. Maybe he likes that the crows know where he lives and keep him accountable for his morning ride. Maybe he likes the companionship. Maybe he believes his murder of crows protect him, with both their intelligence and their association with magic and loyalty. It’s possible. It’s also possible that the crows, in fact, have been training him. Perhaps they encourage his rides and the peanut treats for their own reasons. Those crows are so smart, they might be controlling where and when he rides his bike.

Another neighbor has noticed this phenomenon and mentioned it to me. She thinks it’s creepy and the noise the crows make is annoying. She tries to shoo them away. I want to tell her to stop, the crows will recognize her as unfriendly and caw at her even more. But then who is the creepy one? These crows could be manipulating all kinds of things on our street, and they have the leader of the murder, their king, on his bike. 

I’m going to have to go knock on the King’s door and ask about the murder. I hope he doesn’t misunderstand me.