Go Tell the Crows

Justin Pickard

If we pay them even the smallest bit of attention, crows burst the anthropocentric bubble with spectacular flair.
Thom van Dooren, The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds

So, when you talk to bees, it is no good to say, “Please, would you mind not crawling up my nose?” because bees don’t talk to each other about crawling or noses and if they did talk about what smelling equipment they do have, they wouldn’t need to address the possibility of crawling into it because of the geometric impossibility: it just wouldn’t make any sense.
Ian Ingram. On Beyond Ethology: The Animal, the Robot, and the Behavioral Object.

Most days, Kay and Liam walk home together after work. The two of them are the remaining consumer sales staff in a combined hardware, book, and electronics franchise following management’s pivot to online retail. It’s fall, and the nights are creeping in. They walk while they still can, before the cold settles. Once the clocks change, Liam will start taking his e-bike, leaving her to catch the bus.

They trace an eccentric route back through the skyways downtown, looking out at the city streets, then are suddenly deposited at ground level. Past the convention centre, then a bridge over the interstate. Liam’s house comes first, a subdivided mansion with an absent owner, long past its prime, any pretence to grandeur now rubbing off, flaking like gilt leaf. All arches and columns, stern cobbled walls, topped by a round tower with a conical hat. Rooms let to those not easily spooked, like Liam, or with a flair for the dramatic.

Kay slows her pace as they reach the front gate. She goes to say goodbye, and carry on, but he stops her, laying an open hand on her jacket sleeve. “If it’s okay,” he says, “I’d like to show you something.”

Swelling, her curiosity overspills its bounds, and she nods, following him up the path towards the porch, and round, to the mansion’s rear.

She takes in the scrubby backyard. A sizeable water butt pushes up against the building’s solitary turret. A washing line rocks gently in the breeze. The grass is unmown, scorched and yellowing after the summer’s heatwave cascade. And, at the far end of the yard, abutting the scrubland beyond, is the subject of his enthusiasm. Part picnic table, part kinetic sculpture, an articulated sky table, open to the heavens. He turns back to her, beaming.

In Kay and Liam’s world, support for rewilding and birds of prey is sufficiently widespread that the sky table, a raised platform for the depositing of food, particularly carrion and roadkill, is a familiar typology, something that could be referred to in conversation (see, for example, Horton).

“They call it the Clayton-Ingram apparatus.” Named, in part, for Professor Nicola Clayton, a psychologist whose work addresses comparative cognition; specifically, the evolution of intelligence and problem-solving in humans and corvids. See, for example, Clayton and Emery, and Coldwell. The name resonates; she’s heard … something; the combination of syllables itches and echoes in the bright halls of her mind.

The depicted apparatus also extrapolates from the work of Los Angeles artist Ian Ingram, who uses “robotic objects” to weave “messy webs in the umwelts of non-humans and humans”. Borrowing from animal behaviour, the movements of machines, and human stories about animals, Ingram uses “scale, form, signal, and gesture” to mimic or emulate animals’ actions — remaining optimistic that interspecies communication is possible, however indirectly, and that animals have their own stories to tell.

Bundles of cables run the length of the plywood frame, sunken beneath the table-top. Kay recognises speakers and sensor modules, mounted in fabbed casings, some brand names familiar from store stocktaking. Improvised duct tape weatherproofing keeps the tech safe and secure, while struts on opposing diagonals lend the structure tension and stability. She spots the characteristic charred edges of a novice-operated laser cutter. And there’s something she can’t place, suspended within the frame, on ropes.

Then there are the crows. A cock of the head. A beak peck; some questing avian mind —poking, probing, untrusting, easily spooked. A curious, tightly drawn combination of abundant fear and irresistible curiosity.

She looks up. “‘They call it’? Who are they?” Her query goes unheard, as Liam pulls out his phone, and brings the contraption to life.

Rubbery robotic actuators whir, stretching and buckling into new positions; preparing to dispense a mix of tater tots, nuts, and dry pet food. Cameras track the avian visitors’ movements, recognise individuals, assign and anchor identities, extrapolating from details that would pass, unnoticed, by watery human eyes.

They sit at a rusting bistro table on uncomfortable chairs, a chipped mug between them. “There’s an app.” He shows her his phone screen: summaries of the past day, week, month, permitting him to set a communication strategy, steering the apparatus’s actions for the days to come. It reminds Kay of dance notation, or a game of Go. Iterated strategies between partners, improvisation within constraints, building upon—or deviating from—suggestions from the machine and experimenters elsewhere. Pinching and pulling her fingers apart, Kay pulls the map back, zooming out to reveal a froth of A-B testing, iterated strategies bubbling across the upper Midwest, the United States, and both Americas.

Patterns flagged as significant or surprising, Liam explains, get piped upstream. While most data stays local, secure on his own hard drive, these machine-selected highlights are bundled then parcelled out, to be crunched on volunteered computers, games consoles, and household appliances —surplus compute capacity, primed for when energy prices dip.

An example of volunteer-distributed computing, or online citizen science, modelled on the experiences of SETI@home and BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing), but making use of fog computing; see, for example, Baudry et al.

Liam has assigned names to the visiting crows, christening several after their colleagues at the store. A former supervisor. Some of the regular drivers. Not her, though. She seems to have earned immunity, as have his housemates. A couple of more recent visitors have been named for family members; his father, an aunt, two cousins.

Artist and writer Elisabeth Nicula on befriending a California scrub jay: “How would Frank [the scrub jay] have accounted for himself? It embarrasses me that I persist in calling this bird Frank when I have no way of knowing how he thought of himself; naming him at all is an imposition of domesticity, when I should be aiming for the opposite. But this is how I say this bird is someone to me, and important —that every bird is worthy of attention, of obsession, of friendship, of being known as an individual, by me and by many. Every lingering of insects, everything that is useful to non-humans, is important; everyone has equal status.

As far as Liam can tell, the named birds are from a common roost, drawn to the city as winter draws closer, seeking refuge from the frigid cold. Inverting the travel patterns of Liam and Kay’s store colleagues, these roost occupants sleep in town at night and fly out to the rural hinterland at daybreak to forage. See, for example, Daniel W. Gade Kay struggles to imagine what it must be like to be part of a roost —is this an extended family, an apartment complex, co-workers labouring for the same employer, or something closer to a commune?

Liam’s apparatus is a jalopy, bolting together retrofitted junk hardware, freshly-fabbed fittings, and components from the store; a rickety composite, puppeteered by an algorithmic ghost fettered to his phone.

Even in this ramshackle, cobbled-together incarnation, Liam’s apparatus channels its original designers’ hopeful salvage modernism —an incongruously retro throwback, sincere in its experimental aspirations, and deceptively simple. Though she still doesn’t fully understand it, Kay can appreciate the promise of inexpensive replication, as Liam haltingly describes a stretching of his agency and capability, pooled with distant others, pressing up against worlds as yet unknown.

“And what’s the message? What are you telling them?”

Liam overrode the suggestions that arrived from on high, auto-populating the relevant text fields. As far as she can tell from his labyrinthine self-justifications, his apparatus is looping through a message of gratitude and remorse in a pledge to atone, making amends on behalf of humanity as a whole.

This sits poorly with Kay, his self-appointment as human ambassador striking her as simplistic and grandiose. Not quite the full saviour complex, she’d admit, but redolent of some twentieth-century children’s fantasy paperback, or one of the Japanese roleplaying games her son spends his weekends plugged into. Yet another quest narrative; a race to fix their broken world.

“Don’t know about making amends for everything we’ve done wrong, Liam. Where would you even start? Seems like it’d be a bit of a heavy burden, even if you’re only ministering to the locals here.” She indicates the apparatus’s visitors. “And who’s making sure you follow through on these promises?”

“Besides,” she looks at the crows on the table, then up at the sparse, skeletal trees, “they seem to be having a good time. And you’ve put on a decent spread here. That should count for something.”

For the birds, this city is a laboratory, throwing up new opportunities, like using automobile traffic to crack open nuts (Yoshiaki and Hiroyoshi), and supporting nesting and feeding behaviour through access to a veritable “nutrient bonanza” (Gade). Corvids are a synurbic population, at home in the city, and a greater awareness of this might better equip those who would gladly hold space, or make room, for the “experimental gestures” of these wily, adaptive birds. (van Dooren)

Part of Liam’s work here, not that he’d ever describe it in these terms, is in crafting multispecies community, contributing to a project seeding and multiplying “spaces for experimentation”, while allowing the apparatus to pose the question: “what else might be possible together?” (van Dooren) Over a longer time horizon, this might contribute to visions of a multi-species city, with a duly reworked urban built environment as a hard surface capable of mediating between multiple ways of being.

It becomes clear that Liam sees himself as an ambassador, engaged in a dance of diplomacy with these birds. Kay remembers going to the zoo as a child, peering at animals, pressed up against the glass. This isn’t that. They stand together in the yard, her and him, and them, at the outer edge of his place of dwelling, where garden yields to scrub. The Clayton-Ingram apparatus, this sky table, is an embassy of sorts, a point of contact between radically different worlds. Not quite common ground, but close enough.

Here we see what it might mean to approach the apparatus as a gesture towards, or vehicle for, interspecies diplomacy, bending to the “the subtle art of working with-and-against another to produce mutually liveable worlds.” (van Dooren) Starting with a concession to the different participants’ diverse, often jarringly divergent ontologies, sensoria, and phenomenologies, such an art might seek to find a more fruitful balance between scientific certainty and epistemological humility. (Chaudhuri)

With all their “calls, songs, wags, waves, winces, smiles, laughs, pheromones, gestures, crouches, teeth-barings, lip-flips, sulks, chest-thumps, trumpeting, and hackle-raisings”, animals (including humans) “are making their internal states external for others to interpret.” (Ingram)

As Kay stands here, hands thrust deep in jacket pockets, her smoke breath curling in the air, she can, if she concentrates, glimpse the contoured outline of a peopled world beyond the human, teeming with wily, intelligent others, some of whom might elect to meet her gaze, with a glimmer of something approaching recognition in their alien eyes.

Zoöp & the Practice of Zoönomy

Further reading & references can be found in the bibliography.