It’s early morning in June on a day that promised to be scorching hot. The dogs are excited and race across the field behind the house which is full of purple flowering Lucerne, known as erba medica. They screech to a halt and start barking at something in the grass. I run over to investigate and see them circling a wounded crow which is valiantly but unsuccessfully trying to hop away. I scream at them to get off and to my surprise they back off and stand watching me as I try to approach the poor bedraggled bird. It is clearly badly injured, dragging a wing and seems to be lame too. I put the dogs back on their leads and take them back to the house then grab a little dish and a bottle of water and go back into the field. I manage to lift the crow and put it into the shade, leave the water for it and go away. I will let it take its chances as I’m not really equipped to deal with an injured crow.
At lunchtime I am back in the field on a crow hunt, red-faced and sweating. God knows what the neighbours think as there are a couple of houses overlooking the field and I am always out there on some mission or other. The crow isn’t where I had left it (fortunately, as I have forgotten that shade moves about and the water has long since evaporated). I spot the unfortunate creature under a bush trying to make itself invisible and I terrify it some more by going over – a menacing giant, I imagine, from a crow’s point of view. It hops, pretty bloody fast actually, into an impenetrable thicket, impenetrable to me anyway, so I give up and go back inside. I explain to Alan what I have been doing as I have twigs in my hair and am the colour of a plum tomato. He nods and says nothing as usual, being well-acquainted with my animal rescuing exploits.
RETURN OF THE CROW
That evening Alan calls me outside. ‘I think your crow has come to see you,’ he says. There she is (I am sure ‘it’ is a ‘she’) making her way slowly up our long drive, pursued by a cat. What can I do? Clearly she has come to me for help. I explain this to Alan, who raises his eyebrows at my pathetic attempts to be liked and wanted, at least by a crow. I race down the drive, chase the cat away and scoop up the crow, who is now cowering in a drain by the side of the road. My heart bleeds for us both.
As luck would have it, we have a giant-size dog crate set up in the storeroom on the ground floor of the house. It is giant-size by mistake as I ordered it from the UK a few years ago and didn’t quite know what size to get for our Labrador puppy ZsaZsa. Put it this way – a small elephant would be able to live there quite comfortably. Anyway, I try to make this crate crow-friendly with a branch some twigs, rocks and newspaper. I put the crow in there with some water and some grass and a worm (what the hell do crows eat?)
I race to the office and go online. There is a surprising dearth of information on crow injuries, but I finally manage to find an article on bandaging broken wings – with pictures – which I print out. I gather reams of bandages, scissors, tape, a stick to use as a splint and head off to minister to my patient.
It is an hour later. We are both exhausted. There are bits of bandage everywhere. I am sure I have hurt her in my misguided attempt to re-enact an episode of Casualty. She has struggled, grasped my finger with her claws in an iron grip, pecked me hard, cawed as if her life was ending, and then just accepted her fate. Whenever I have managed to put the bandage on she has waited until I collect everything up and then pulled it off. I give up and leave, certain she will die from shock or something and it will all have been my fault. Bloody animals! More heartache. Why do I do it?
In the morning she is still alive. Bright eyed and looking at me warily. ‘Oh my God, the bandaging woman.’ I know by now she is a hooded crow rather than the more spookily-named carrion crow, as she has a collar of grey feathers, the rest being a glossy black.
She needs a name and so I call her Merlina. Over the next few days I find I am fascinated by her and attached to her, even though it isn’t at all mutual. In fact, much to my dismay having saved her life and everything, she seems to be terrified of me. It isn’t like this in films.
I call the local animal sanctuary, who collect her and take her off to a wild bird rehab centre in Florence, Tuscany. I give the rehab people a message that if she can’t be released I would like to have her back to take care of her.
After a short stay, during which I sustain a terrible injury to my hand rescuing a run-over cat, the wild bird people say she is not ‘auto sufficiente,’ that is, she can’t take care of herself. And although they have tried to save it, they’ve been forced to remove her wing, plus she still has a gammy leg, although other than that she gets around pretty well. So, three weeks later, we are reunited. I am thrilled, and maybe she is too. Hard to tell.
Once I have recovered from my injury, I build her an aviary from an old grape pergola in the garden, which takes me two days, a lot of swearing and a hundred euros worth of wire netting. I set it up with some branches, trying to calculate the angle she can manage with the one wing and the wonky leg. It gives me a ridiculous amount of pleasure trying to recreate a natural kind of environment for her – trying to think like a crow. I find this weirdly easy.
THE BRIGHTNESS OF CROWS
I decide as she is staying that I had better get educated in crows. I know from my research that I have a very bright bird on my hands who needs to be kept amused. It has long been known that crows are highly intelligent, some studies claim they are the most intelligent of all birds, others put them at number seven on the most intelligent animals in the world list, just behind dogs and dolphins. I watch some incredible footage on You Tube of crows in Japan that drop walnuts from their vantage point over a set of traffic lights. They wait for the cars to crush the nuts but don’t swoop down and collect them till the lights have turned red. I even watch with my mouth open as a crow fashions a hook from a piece of wire and uses it to access food which has been placed in a tube. Some crows talk, sounding like parrots. I realise I have chosen to get up close and personal with the bird equivalent of a genius. I bore everyone who will listen to death with my crow stories.
Apart from keeping her amazing brain occupied with an array of toys, I have the problem of food. I am unsure at first of what to give her to eat, but by trial and error I now have a kind of routine established. She gets a daily mix of chicken liver, insectivore pellets, salad, fruit, pine nuts (which cost a fortune), some puppy food (the most expensive kind) and dandelion leaves, when in season. I also give her a raw hen’s egg every two or three days. The builders come to do some work on the house and stand and watch incredulously as I take her breakfast. “Antipasti!" they laugh when they see the plate of delicacies I’ve prepared for my avian gourmet.
I have given her water in various containers (for fun) and she takes great delight in hiding her food under one of them, an upturned dog dish. This dish has also proved to be an excellent hiding place for her collection of small objects. Stones, beads, pinecones and even silver paper are regularly plac
ed under the dish and then moved on a whim.
She doesn’t hate me anymore, I don’t think. She doesn’t hide when I approach the cage but just pecks at the branch she’s sitting on as I talk to her. ‘Ciao Merlina,’ I say. She lowers her head, fluffs out her feathers and caws slowly between three and five times. I have no idea what she is saying, although I like to think it is ‘Ciao Fiona, thanks for looking after me and I forgive you for the crap bandaging.’
My feathered friend sits on the highest branch in her aviary and bobs up and down cawing when we go out in the car or when I reach the gate on my daily walks with the dogs. She even tolerates the dogs sitting against her aviary and the cats sleeping on the roof, but gives a warning shriek if anything other than the animals she knows approaches. The dogs then go racing to her rescue. She is part of the family now.
She looks sleek and healthy, she hops about and keeps herself entertained, but now I worry that she is lonely. So I’m scouring the fields for any other injured hooded crows. But you can’t force these things and I think when the time is right, one will just turn up. And I really hope it will, because if one crow creates magic, just imagine what two could do.