Monday, November 5, 2007

Interview with Pete Lund, American Crow-talker

Probably the best way to describe my uncle Pete would be to call him a 'character.' Armed with an open mind and a boisterous laugh, Pete has done more in his life than most anyone else I've ever met. Among the hats that Uncle Pete has worn since I've been around include: publisher, singer/songwriter, writer, artist, reggae band keyboardist, mystic, seller of quartz crystal, treasure hunter, cairn-creator and, when I was little, part-time babysitter.

Uncle Pete is also remarkable with animals. Tripper, the dog he had when I was young, was the best-trained dog I've ever met. Pete also took in a standard poodle named Hunter that had proven too wild for my family. When Hunter bit (playfully) one of my brother's friends, Pete volunteered to take in the dog and, in no time at all, had turned the dog into one of the friendliest and most recognizable (thanks in part to the Hunter's new deadlocks) dogs in Portland, Maine.

In addition to dogs, Pete has always been able to interact, mostly through call-and-response, with American Crows. Recently Pete and I exchanged emails about his relationship with crows and his insights into their social behavior.

bDC: Yo, Pete. When did you first begin to understand the social behavior of crows and how did you go about first attempting to participate in their behaviors?

PL: The first real knowledge of the social nature of crows came from two stories that I read when I was quite young. The first was a very touching story about a young boy in a village in Japan who was kind of a social outcast, who, during an opportunity to speak at a village gathering, imitated how the crows' calls sounded depending on what was going on. In particular I remember that he imitated how the crows cawed when a person in the village had died. It changed the villagers ideas about both the boy and the crows.

(This story was reflected in an experience I had when I was 18, when, after leaving a memorial service for a fellow who had passed away, two crows flew down low over us as we left the funeral home, uttering very plaintive, sad-sounding caws.)
I also had, as a young boy, read a short story written by the famous outdoor author, Jack London, where he detailed the social activities of a group of crows. He transcribed different crow calls onto a musical staff. Having been taught to read music, I understood the "danger" call, and I recognized it when I heard crows using it. I tried it out when there were crows around, and they would flee the area while repeating the call when I used it.

The first attempt that the crows made to include me in their interactions that I really noticed was when I was about 35, when two crows flying forty or fifty feet up dive-bombed me (it was a dry run) to about eight feet above my head as I was walking through the middle of the huge empty parking lot near City Hall in downtown Portland. It seemed playful, as they were not harassing me vocally, which they do when they are upset with me.

There are a few events leading up to this, and many thereafter, which serve to document the growing awareness and interactions between me and the crows, which I can expound upon later.

bDC: How did you react to these birds playfully diving you? Did you feel you understood why these birds were acting this way?

PL: When I got over my initial reaction, which was surprise and astonishment, I assumed it was their way of acknowledging me and welcoming me into their extended family, sort of like an fraternity initiation. It made me feel included, and special. It also made me feel happy and lucky. I've never seen or heard of that happening to anybody before.

bDC: After you felt that you were initiated, how did you proceed to interact with crows? Did you continue to see the same pair from the City Hall lot or did you feel a connection with others?

PL: The "initiation" encouraged me to continue to interact with them, of course. My usual method of communicating with the crows is to call to them when I see them, or use my signature piercing whistle. That's whistling with the lips drawn back and the tongue folded over, which carries for quite a ways.

Honestly, I can't tell one crow from another with the exception of the head of the group, who has a distinctive halting call. He uses the call to identify himself when he wishes. I use it back to acknowledge him, or to let the other crows know that I know their group leader, or to see if he's around.

They have several places they hang out in town, on top of a few different buildings.

I used to be too self-conscious to talk to them in public, but once after I saw an old man calling to them I figured, hey, if he doesn't care, why should I? After that I didn't are who was around, I'd just let loose with a few caws when I saw them. Sometimes the crows would jump up in surprise but they got used to it after a while. After they learned I was being friendly and social, they would occasionally put on a show and all come fly high over me, just higher than the buildings, circling and cawing. Once it happened right in front of the police station downtown. It was a riot! Five or six crow can make quite a racket, I was very pleased.

A little while before that, I had seen a young crow, too exhausted to fly anymore, kind of skid down the side of a building right on to the sidewalk. There were people walking by not seeming to notice, but his parent hid in the nearby tree so as not to draw the attention of any predator. I crossed the street and picked up the young crow, then about the size of a robin, looked him in the eyes, cawed gently to him a few times, and put him safely behind a chain-link fence onto the lawn of a church building that used to be across from the old Levinsky's clothing store on Congress St. Then I left, and cawed to his parents to say hi. This was in the springtime.

Early that fall, I saw a crow sitting on the telephone pole at the same location, and, as I watched, he left his perch and flew, hovered in the air for fifteen seconds or so, right over the place I had picked up the young crow. I suddenly thought, this is the same crow I picked up, showing me proudly how well he could fly now. That was cool! It could have been his parents that had dive-bombed me as a way of saying "thanks!".

Once as I walked by a group of high-school students, one of the students cawed. I think I was being teased because I had been noticed talking to the crows in public. I thought it was funny!

The main times I would interact with the crows was when I was walking my dog(s) in the areas away from the inner city where there were a lot more trees and open spaces.

bDC: How did the crows react to Tripper and Hunter?

PL: I don't know exactly how the crows reacted to the dogs. I think it was more a way that the crows identified me, because I usually had one dog or the other, or for a while, both of them, with me. But also they could see that I had dominion over the dogs, that they obeyed me, so the crows had some idea of our relationship.

Tripper (my first dog, a mid-sized terrier mix) loved to speak with a loud "ROOOOOoooo!" anytime I asked him to. He was full of enthusiasm that way. And any time I noticed crows around when I was out walking, I would have him speak. I think the crows took it as a greeting. I hadn't yet started talking to them directly yet.

I think the crows liked Crow-dog ( a standard poodle) because he was black, like the crows. His name was "Hunter" when I got him, when he was three-and-a-half years old.
But he was so independent and headstrong that I couldn't scream "Hunter" fast enough before he got into mischief..

One day I had brought a crow skull and some bones down from up the hill under an apple tree where I had placed a dead crow I'd found on the road, a couple of years before. I had the skull and bones by the front door with intentions of making some kind of artistic arrangement of them on a board to hang on the wall or something. The next morning, after I had let Hunter out, I noticed the bones were gone. He'd eaten them. Just then a crow flew very low over my backyard, cawing. That's when I named him "Crow". It seemed as if the crow knew what had happened. So Crow was actually part crow, seeing as the bones he ate went into his bones, most likely.

bDC: What are your interactions with crows like now? Do you hope to communicate more closely with them as time goes on?

PL: My interactions with the crows are generally less intense than they were in the past. It has settled into a fairly predictable routine. For example, as I crossed the big parking lot close to City Hall yesterday, I gave a loud whistle, and a couple of crows who had been in Lincoln Park flew out and lit on the top of Franklin Towers, which is the tallest building in the area, overlooking that section of the city. From there one of them started calling down to me, and I responded in kind. I stopped walking for a few minutes to watch them and "hang out", then continued my trip to the post office. It's the same way I interact with my neighbors or acquaintances.

I don't really know how I could communicate with them more closely, but if I could, I would. For now it seems enough for both of us to enjoy mutual recognition and appreciation of each other's presence in the world.

Sometimes I wonder about re-incarnation, thinking that it might be cool to come back as a crow. But I don't know about having to sit in a tree by the side of the highway waiting for a car to run over a squirrel.

originally published 9/18/2006


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