I gave Droopy his name when he first appeared outside my office window at the National Institute for Play headquarters nearly ten years ago. He’s old for a wild crow. An injured wing made him easy to pick out as a youngster but has not seemed to hinder him since. He’s raised a brood each year with a crow version of aggressive mentoring and attentive tough love. Crows brood cooperatively and for long periods, and so crow young get plenty of education and instruction from a diverse faculty. Droopy doesn’t come around much when he’s parenting, but between late April and February, he’s my continual companion. He responds to my human call—“Hey Droop, here’s some seed. All right Droopy. Here you go”—sometimes bringing half-a-dozen companions. There is one in particular that I suspect is his long-term mate.
Droopy belongs to a family of birds called corvids that include ravens, rooks, jackdaws, nutcrackers, and magpies. The crafty Blue Jay is a corvid. Scientifically speaking, the remarkable thing about this crow family is their high brain-to-body weight ratio; it’s about equal to whales, and so only slightly lower than humans. Though unfairly maligned, the bird brain is wired something like our cortex, enabling complex thinking, and endowing them with special curiosity. A raven once followed me from the top of the Grand Canyon all the way down to Phantom Ranch at the bottom, hanging thoughtfully in the updraft for three hours. The big brain makes them excellent problem solvers, too. Japanese crows have managed to decipher stoplights; they will find a hard-shelled but tasty walnut, place it in the lane when the light turns red, wait for the signal to turn green, and retrieve the cracked and delicious meat in the safe interval when the light turns again. This is tool use of a very high order. I don’t feed Droopy every day so as not to make him dependent and habituated to my handout, but he’s figured me out anyway. Occasionally when he’s very hungry he will appear on the roof outside my bedroom peer into my window, and at five in the morning caw his very particular, piercing caw.
The intelligence that enables innovation also makes crows talented players. They have three dimensions to play in, too, and can be observed flying in pairs, feet holding feet, one upside down, one right side up, gleefully enjoying their element. I say gleefully, but one can’t truly know what’s on the mind of a crow; after all, we can fly unaided only in our dreams. But as I try to look at the world through a crow’s eyes, the inference holds with my observations of Droopy at play.
Leaf blowers intrigue him, and he’ll follow the flying leaves, fooling with them. When he’s well fed and at loose ends, Droopy will retrieve one of the buckeyes that are common up here in the Carmel Valley, carry it to the telephone wire above my studio, and drop it repeatedly, amusing himself in his own game of fetch. He’ll play a similar game with an eye-catching aluminum pop top he’s found somewhere. We humans understand the pleasure of manipulating objects, turning them this way and that, poking into them and using them to poke around, tossing them here and there, locating them and retrieving them. Since the pop top isn’t Droopy’s food, his manipulations with the shiny object put me more in mind of a toy. Droopy plays in other ways, too. Besides his droopy wing, I recognize him by his quirky head movements and his playful footwork. When he’s playing a hopping game on the redwood stairs and down onto the fence railing he adds a kind of soft-shoe shuffle, apparently enjoying an earthbound moment, skipping sideways.
I’m part of Droopy’s natural world more than he’s part of mine; I’ll never make a pet of him or even try to. If I lay out seed a little oriole will find it first, then a noisy jay chases away the oriole, and then Droopy arrives to run off the jay. Finally the commotion attracts an omnivorous wild turkey that lumbers in, displaces Droopy, and lords it over the leftovers. I don’t disturb the natural order with my hobby of supplying the birdseed. But Droopy’s talent underscores the cortical sophistication that we humans hold in common with him, the exceptional brains (of bird and man) that encourage play.