I found a fledgling crow dead beside a rosebush on my morning walk. Nearly grown, the little feathers around its eyes had not yet formed. It lay in the grass on its back with no obvious wound, nothing to indicate how it had died. The parents were still present in a nearby tree. Offended by my curiosity, they shouted at me, and dove in arcs at my head.
An hour later I went back to investigate and brought along my daughter, the ten-year-old amateur naturalist. We carried a paper grocery bag, a pair of disposable rubber gloves, and a slice from an old loaf of sourdough. I put on the gloves, picked up the dead bird and placed him in the bag. My daughter tore the bread into bits and placed them where the fledgling had been, a sign of sympathy for its parents. At home again I set the crow in our backyard and snapped the photo above.
Our idea was to observe the crow’s decomposition and to collect a skull or a pair of feet for our curiosity cabinet. But nothing went according to plan. The next day the dead fledgling was discovered by others of its kind. Whether these were the deceased bird’s parents, I don’t know. I found them inspecting the body that morning, and when I approached they flew off. I felt I owed them an explanation, but was unable to offer one.
Next day a nesting pair of crows from the maple across the street suddenly had their own fledgling to care for. It had left the nest but, like most fledglings, wasn’t much of a flier yet. It had wandered on foot into our front yard. For a day and a half we could hardly step outside without frightening it or upsetting its parents.
Again I wanted to explain that I meant no harm. Of course, keeping the corpse of another fledgling in my backyard would seem to make me a liar. But my daughter tore up some more bread for the worried parents and set a little pile of crumbs by the driveway. We watched from the window as they ate. Meanwhile they continued to care for their child, while they in turn were pestered by a pair of finches that also kept a nest nearby. After a couple days, the crows and their fledgling had gone.
I woke the next morning to discover that something had visited our backyard in the night. It might have been a raccoon or a possum or a cat. Whatever it was, it had badly mangled the now warmly-decomposing body of the first fledgling and scattered its feathers in the grass. It had also taken the feet which I had clipped from the body the evening before and had set out to dry in the sun. Cleaning up the half-eaten, footless body of the crow was an unhappy chore. I tried to pick it up by the long black tail feathers, but they came out with disconcerting ease. There was an odor of exposed shellfish.
How is it, I wondered, that we can be so disheartened by an experience and yet relish it so much? We may regret a death we witnessed and yet not regret our experience of that death, or of its aftermath. I can’t help thinking of my late mother-in-law. I wish every day that she were still with us. But the opportunity to be a support to my wife and children, to be (when I was able) a help to my mother-in-law, and to be there to witness the moment of her death – these things I could never regret. Much as I wish the result of those days last year had been different, I consider it an honor to have lived them.
The fact is that I might have been a fledgling prematurely dead, and so might you have been. I might have died before I had properly learned to use my eyes, or to walk, or to speak, or before I had fallen in love and married or had children of my own. When we hold death in our hands we feel somehow that we’ve come into contact with a truth of life. But this truth, I think, is more than loss. It is perhaps a cheap commonplace to say that all things are precious, even those apparently inconsequential things like the death of a bird. But I believe it is also a truth that loss teaches us.