On the sofa with my laptop, I’m trying to go through all the proper motions of this writing thing when Plum, our cat, jumps up beside me.
“Go away,” I grump. “I’m busy.”
She rubs her cheek against the edge of the screen but I ignore her. I’m trying to write about the crows because I haven’t in months. It’s been over three years since I started trying to make friends with the crows in my neighborhood, with mixed results. The crows recognize me and know my schedule and always turn up for a handout from the bag of peanuts I keep in my car but that’s the closest we get. I never thought one day they’d be eating from my hand or sitting on my shoulder, croaking secrets in my ear or inviting me over for dinner, but I guess I though I’d understand them better by now. I see them every day but I don’t know them very well. I can’t even tell one crow from another.
On the screen facing me I have at least four pages of notes about relationships and corvid mating rituals and and nest-building techniques, random quotes and scraps and strings I’m puzzling over (insert Sartre here, transplant Marzluff there) hoping it’ll all come together somehow to create a whole. I type, “Like a crow building a nest…” and feel Plum staring at my hand, willing it to pet her. The fingers are moving so she knows the hand isn’t broken but for some absurd reason, it seems to prefer the feel of plastic to her soft fur.
Perhaps the hand has forgotten. Plum places her paw on my right hand, a gentle reminder I bat away while I read over what I’ve written about theory of mind (I like the way that sounds, theory of mind, so highfalutin, so paradoxical) which refers to a creature’s ability to attribute beliefs, desires, motivation, and reason to others and to understand that others may be moved by different perceptions, intentions, beliefs, and understanding.
A creature might have “a theory of mind” or “theories of mind” but not “The Theory of Mind” because it’s not just a discrete idea but a mind state, one in which you attempt to envision someone else’s perspective. “Theory of mind” refers to one mind’s ability to theorize about other minds, to mind minds, as if theory were a verb or an attitude, and in some academic circles it’s referred to as the “theory-theory.” I wonder what a person could do to think like a crow (take peyote? sit za zen? wear black feathers? toss oneself off a cliff?) and imagine a crow and me lying side-by-side on Frankenstein’s operating table, my human brain on a metal tray alongside a birdbrain, with arrows zig-zagging between us and exclamation marks drawn in the air to illustrate the process.
Plum bats my hand again, with a bit of claw this time. I pet her unconsciously because I’m envisioning my melon head on a little crow’s body flapping wildly for balance on a telephone wire. The term “theory of mind” was coined in 1978 by researchers who concluded that higher apes like chimpanzees can comprehend humans’ mental states, something that anyone who has ever had a relationship with an animal knows. Since then, many studies have supported the theory, but I’ve never heard of a study that tests humans’ ability to think like a chimpanzee (or like a crow, for that matter).
Plum doesn’t like the way my careless hand is petting. She nips my fingers and stalks off to perch on the arm of the sofa. She’s disgusted by my stupid hand. The only thing she’ll turn to me is one angry ear, one ear that betrays the fact that even with her back toward me, that cat is completely focused on finding a way to get me to do what she wants. I can imagine the wheels spinning in her little head, spinning out a plan to get me to pet her properly.
I don’t need a test to tell me that cats and crows have theory of mind. I’ve seen it for myself: My daughter says crows sometimes follow her down the sidewalk and since she has never fed them peanuts, I can only assume that they recognize her as part of my peanut-feeding flock and are keeping an eye on her. When I don’t notice them on the telephone wire they follow me down the street, casting their shadow in the road directly in front of my car. That’s right, they use their shadow as a tool to get food from me because they know my attention is aimed out the windshield. And recently I heard a strange sound outside, a noise a lot like the whistle I use to find my family in the park or the grocery store, a sharp “yoo-hoo” issued from between my teeth but when I went outside to look, I found a lone crow waiting for me.
Once when I ran out of peanuts and hadn’t fed them for a couple days, I came out to find that a crow had pooped on my car. This had never happened before but there it was: one strategic, economic, eloquent white stain on the keyhole on the handle of the driver’s side of my car, right where I couldn’t miss it. I turned to the crows on the telephone wire and pointed to the stain, shaking my head. “You’re not allowed to shit on my car, birds,” I yelled. “If you shit on my car again, you can kiss your peanuts goodbye.” But of course, I went to buy more that day.
Plum is sitting beside me again, just out of reach, staring me down. Daggers dipped in guilt shoot from her green eyes into the side of my face until I can’t take it any more. I stretch to pet her behind her ears where she likes it and she closes her eyes with pleasure.
She wants to be seen the same way the crows do, the same way my kids do. I know the feeling. Seeing is huge. Seeing is as large as love and as big as belief in the sense that the more you love something, the longer you’ll look and the more importance you ascribe to a thing, the more time you’ll take to really observe it.
I wish I had more time to watch the crows. I was never a bird watcher until I found a bird who watches back. The thing about theory of mind is that it’s more meaningful when it goes both ways, when both minds are involved: I open my mind to you and you open yours to me and we’ll both get something out of it.
Plum is asleep on the sofa beside me. I always forget how comforting the warmth of her soft body is. The sound of the crows cawing in the distance pulls me outside of myself and I think maybe they’re the smartest creatures alive, maybe they’ve figured out the trick to capturing my attention forever, because they’ll never be close enough to know so I’ll never stop looking.
This is a video I took when my crow friends invited their friends over for a party outside my house: