Home > Essays > Never give a crow a tuna sandwich

Never give a crow a tuna sandwich

No good deed goes unpunished

Some months ago I read an amazing article in the New York Times by Michelle Nijhuis about how crows can recognize human faces. Humans have evolved some pretty sophisticated pattern recognition skills, especially where faces are concerned, but I’d always understood this was generally limited to the faces of our own species. I know that when I look at, say, a Golden Retriever, I tend to see that breed, and would have a hard time telling the difference between another of the same breed just by facial features. Though maybe dogs don’t differ as much facially as people do. Dogs tend to rely more on what they can smell than what they can see, so evolutionary pennies might have been wasted on making doggy faces different.

But getting back to crows. It’s not just that they recognize us by our face. They can also remember our good deeds – a friend of mine has learned not to give crows peanuts because they keep coming back – as well as bad ones. Even more remarkable is that they share this news – I guess you could call it twittering – among their friends and relations. In one study, students at the University of Washington who trapped crows were followed and harassed for months afterward, even by crows they’d never encountered. Fortunately the researchers had their students wear masks; grad school is tough enough without being chased around campus by an angry mob of crows.

Groups of crows are, in fact, called a mob, and I can see why. One Hallowe’en evening a few years ago while I was heading home from work, I was treated to an impressive sight. The sky was dark with crows: thousands of them, cawing scratchily, careening and swerving like the little black iron flecks in the magnetic toy that lets you put hair on the pathetically but comically bald little man’s head. Luckily I didn’t do anything to catch any one’s attention, as that was before I learned about the danger of either delighting or pissing off a crow.

Crows are very smart and inquisitive animals. My brother once flashed a shiny penny in the sun to get a crow’s attention. The bird approached with that side-cocked head that I always associate with deep thinking – even if it’s a dog or a graduate student doing it – and then took the coin. I wonder if crows started bugging him for spare change the way the panhandlers do on Marshall Street, the commercial strip near the college campus where I work.

At least the panhandlers here don’t follow you around. If I don’t feel like being accosted I can cross to the other side of the street. Still, even if I don’t think I should be responsible for satisfying all their needs, I feel bad about ignoring them. So I decided to select one mendicant to reward, partly as a spiritual practice and partly to relieve my sense of guilt. I settled on the guy who’d I’d seen there the longest. He had the best spot – the corner right outside Starbucks, where presumably people would both have spare change and feel bad about clinging to it after shelling out $4.50 for a cappuccino.

The guy I picked – and I’m ashamed to say I don’t even know his name – uses a wheelchair and rattles a tin can at the passers by. He smiles and says things like “hey big daddy, how you doin?” in his raspy, cigarette-ravaged voice whenever I drop a few coins his way. I give him a dollar a week. I figure the respite from my overactive conscience is worth $50 a year.

For a while I was giving him the “gold” presidential dollars, which doubled as bus tokens back when the fare was just a dollar. Then it went up to $1.25 and it was easier to buy one of those magnetic striped cards instead of fumbling to find two nearly-identical size coins in my pocket. But for a time, I stood out as the guy with the gold dollars. I’m just glad the Marshall Street people didn’t behave like crows, spreading the word among their associates.

So what, if anything does this have to do with tuna? When I recently returned from a two-week visit with my partner, I brought back two sandwiches of some tuna salad I’d made. Which was pretty decent, and that’s not always the case; as Alfred E. Neumann famously said of tuna, “Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s not so good.”

In addition to the uncertainty surrounding the quality of the raw materials, tuna sandwiches are always an iffy proposition for transport. I prefer them with a good amount of mayonnaise, but in short time moist tuna translates to mushy bread. I usually add a lettuce barrier to protect the bread, but this only works for so long, after which I’ve still got a soggy sandwich anyway only with wilted greens.

Somewhere in the life of every tuna sandwich is an invisible dotted line separating “yum” from “yuck.” And each person draws that line someplace else. So if I give you a tuna sandwich, I can’t be 100% certain of a yummy reaction that will leave you anticipating future culinary delights. You could just as easily be yucked out and tell everyone you know how you were nearly poisoned by my pigeon-of-the-sea cuisine.

In either case, I recognize that any act of generosity can come with unintended consequences. I’m severely introverted, so dealing with people’s reactions – even positive ones like gratitude – really tires me out. I’d rather be branded as aloof if the alternative is people expecting me to be nice all the time.

I always wanted to tell that kid in the book that before you give a moose a muffin, you damn well better figure out if you have room in your life for giant ruminants. I think the same can be said with respect to two-legged animals, regardless of whether they’re crows or people.

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Categories: Essays Tags: , ,
  1. January 14, 2010 at 8:16 pm

    ::stands up and applauds:: Bravo! This is a fantastic essay! I love how it all tied together better than the Dude’s rug.

  1. January 15, 2010 at 2:44 am

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