Crows have a badass reputation. They're the unofficial mascot of illustrious goths like Edgar Allen Poe, Brandon Lee, and Maleficent. They also have serious symbolic street cred as portents of prophecy and death.That crows haven't caught on as pets might be because of their freakish intelligence. They remember faces and hold grudges against people who are mean to them. They mimic human voices and use tools. With avian speed and primate-like intelligence, they're basically the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.
Their precociousness means they can get destructive and depressed when kept in captivity. Even their shit is scary: It contains freaky, antibiotic-resistant genes.Fostering baby crows, it goes without saying, is not for the squeamish. But in the gritty north end of Halifax, Nova Scotia, a couple of punks named Zack Trash and Cameron MacKay are doing just that.
Trash, 27, formerly of the punk band Broken Ankles, has a flair for the dramatic.He and his girlfriend, George Schneider, run Balloonicorns Entertainment, specializing in elaborate balloon animals and stilt-walking in crazy costumes. Their home is a menagerie: three cats, two dogs. One dog is trained to perform with them in a busking routine where he plays dead, then comes back as a zombie. But crows weren't really on their radar until one afternoon in June. While picking up her kids, Schneider spotted some students gathered around hassling a nest of tiny, featherless crows. According to Trash, one of them hopped onto her arm. Even though they were currently embroiled a "nightmare housing situation" in an aging, dilapidated building, Schneider decided to bring home their new pet. The kids named him Jeffrey Winger."Now we had a crow in the house, and we didn't really know what to do," says Trash.Enter Trash's buddy, Cameron MacKay, a microbrewer and folk noir singer-songwriter with a Dude-like aura of chill. In 2012, he took in two abandoned crows, George and Billy.
It had been ages since MacKay last met anyone with a pet corvid: Keeping wild birds is technically illegal in Nova Scotia without a permit. Back when he was a kid, at the Amherst Mall, he saw a talking crow and "doped-up looking lynx" on display in a rinky-dink traveling animal show. MacKay found the spectacle depressing."I liked the idea of being able to speak their language, hang out, be cool, and see what they're saying," he says.He has a huge tattoo on his forearm: a city skyline with crows perched, in Hitchcockian style, on telephone wires and radio antenna. It's a reminder of a dream he had about a gigantic murder of crows descending from the sky, blanketing his apartment with their little black bodies.
MacKay gave Trash a crash course in keeping the babies alive—which turned out to be quite the undertaking. For about 2.5 months, baby crows need to be fed every ten to 20 minutes through the daylight hours.Plus, "baby crows don't really eat like most pets," explains Trash. "You pinch the food between your thumb and forefinger and stuff it down their throat. They pretty much swallow your fingers for a second. It's weird, but they love it."After a few weeks of cramming food down his little beak, Jeffrey started to look "less like a lump of raw hamburger with wings and more like a real bird."To their surprise, another crow started visiting Jeffrey's perch on the deck. She even taught Jeffrey crow tricks like how to soften nuts and peck open seeds.
Trash showed MacKay a video of one of these visits. It turned out to be Mackay's own crow, Billy, who'd flown four blocks south from MacKay's house on Macara Street to Trash's house on May Street. It seemed incredible, but such meet-ups aren't that weird in the corvid world: Unrelated crows occupying the same territory regularly team up to forage, sleep, and simply hang out.Although the crows made friends, the vibes between the humans weren't so warm and fuzzy. Trash and Schneider's landlord issues continued to heat up and they were soon being forced to leave the apartment.Jeffrey seemed good, though. He "would sing little crow songs to us, and we would have long conversations as he tried to mimic our vocal patterns," says Trash. "He even had this little dance he would do to get our attention, walking side to side and flapping his wings while doing a series of rhythmic chirps and purrs."But his feathers were filling out. He was getting better at flying. it was clear he'd soon be ready to be released. "But we didn't really have a solid crow-related exit strategy."Jeffrey, however had his own plans.Two weeks before they had to leave, the landlord showed up and threatened to have Jeffrey removed. They had a loud dispute—then realized Jeffrey was missing. They searched the neighborhood with no luck.Weeks passed without a trace. When it was finally time to move to their new apartment, they thought they'd seen the last of Jeffery.
One day, after they'd settled into their new place several miles away on Chebucto Road, Trash was out having a smoke on the deck. He was coughing—a hacking, distinctive cough he's had for years—when he noticed a figure perched on a nearby telephone wire.The crow started doing a little dance, shuffling from side-to-side and making chirping noises. It was Jeffrey, who'd finally tracked him down.Trash thinks his cough tipped Jeffrey off as to where they moved."He must think it's, like, my call," he explains.He couldn't believe Jeffery found them. "It was easy to pick him out from a group—he has the loudest, most distinctive call in the neighborhood," says Trash. At the last sighting, Jeffrey had joined a murder of six crows that also included Billy.Jeffrey still shows up occasionally to say hi, "doing his little dance from the trees on the power line outside our living room window."
In MacKay's art-strewn apartment in the North End, George is the only of the three crows still in captivity. A birth defect has made his feet useless, like clumps of wire, which means he'd never be able to make it in the wild. So he beats his fuzzy, moth-like wings as MacKay zooms him around the apartment in his hands."He can't fly, so this is the best we can do for him." It's kind of sweet, until George shits on the floor and MacKay's hyper mastiff puppy immediately dives to eat it.George suits the mystical aesthetic at MacKay's place, decorated with a cow skull, Alien sculptures, a Petunia poster, assorted plants, and various crow-related memorabilia. George's twisted feet and sparse feathers give him kind of a Nosferatu vibe. Most of the time, he chills in his perch by a window with a dish of blueberries and pate. Quartered paper towels keep the poop mess in check.
"When I wash him every week, he'll flap and make little grunty noises," says MacKay. "I keep him as healthy and happy as I can."As MacKay's dog chases the cat down the hall in a barking, yowling blur, George seems relatively chill.Over the years, George has learned to talk a bit. "He goes off on little crow tirades," says MacKay. "He has a sense of humor." He's also acquired a couple of human vocal mannerisms, including a demonic "HA. HA. HA. HAAA," a la Jabba the Hutt. MacKay talks back, but it's hard not to feel a little bad for George as he sits on his perch, little black eyes watching the sky.Not that the wild crows have forgotten poor George. From time to time, Billy, Jeffrey, and the rest of their murder stop by for a visit."They'll come around to the front tree and hang out with George and chit-chat. As time goes by, they come here less and less, except in winter when they're looking for more food," says MacKay.Despite the hard work and stress of raising Jeffrey, Trash says it made his world a little less cold and shitty. After sustaining serious injuries in a brutal assault while he was busking, he felt alienated and bitter—and his experience with the crow restored a bit of faith."Having Jeff made me a more patient and understanding person. I feel far, far removed from mainstream culture—but when people saw him, it opened up new doors. It was like, 'Wow, human interaction isn't dead. People still talk to one another.'"MacKay sees corvids as a purer iteration of humanity's best qualities—deserving of serious respect. "Crows are serious animals," says MacKay."My philosophy is that crows and humans are basically the same—although humans are much more prone to being idiots than crows."Follow Julia Wright on Twitter.