I met JoJo the Crow for the first time after a bird walk at Thatcher Woods in River Forest, Illinois years ago. She lived in a cage inside the adjacent Trailside Museum. JoJo’s claim to fame was that she talked. There was another crow in the same room with her and I think he talked a little too, but not as much. It must have been around the time I moved from the apartment to the house, because I missed my contact with Elvis and I hadn’t made connections with my new neighborhood crows yet. I craved a crow connection, even if it was with a caged bird. I went back to see JoJo sometime later. She was alone the second time.
JoJo’s main vocabulary consisted of “HUH-lo” and a phrase that sounded to me like, “What’s wrong?” although the people who cared for her insisted she was saying “What’s up?” Quite a while later I talked to someone who had been trying to find out JoJo’s story. Apparently she was originally cared for by a woman who spoke French to her, and she was saying “Bon soir.” That made more sense, seeing as how JoJo could not reproduce the consonants, only the vowel sounds.
JoJo liked women more than men, I suppose because she had been cared for by a woman. She didn’t care for kids at all and would start braying noisily – it wasn’t a caw but her own voice of disapproval – when there were kids in the museum. Those of us who got close to her found she liked to have her beak stroked. She would poke her beak through the rungs of the cage and sit patiently while you softly slid your index finger down it. Sometimes she practically fell asleep, she was so content, the nictitating membranes closing over her eyes. It amazed me how trusting she was.
After I had found a way to fit JoJo into my routine, I would visit her on the weekends as often as possible. We talked, and she tried to look into my eyes often with both of hers, facing me, her head bent down low. I scratched her head a little too. Then I started bringing her treats, knowing perfectly well that it was forbidden, but I couldn’t see too much harm in a peanut or two. So our little secret would not become too apparent if a caretaker came in to check up on her, I broke up the meat of the peanut with my fingernails and fed her little tidbits through her cage. She often drooled in anticipation, and then ever so gently took the tiny pieces of peanut from my fingers. I’m sure I was aware of how lethal her beak could be, but she taught me that it could also be a tool of love as well. Beaks are wonderful things–the equivalent of our hands to birds; beaks can do everything except, perhaps, play piano.
Once I got careless. JoJo was on the bottom of her cage poking around her food, which often consisted of hard-boiled egg, unshelled peanuts, and raw hamburger meat. I stuck my little finger through the opening in the cage bottom and after a few seconds, she grabbed it, hard. I tried not to take it too personally, although my feelings were hurt as much as my surprised finger. I tried to pretend it was a joke on her part when I finally got my finger back, but she had reminded me of two things: never to take her beak for granted, and never to take her welcome for granted either. The bottom of the cage was her space and she wasn’t sharing it. When she hopped up onto her branch perch, only then she was ready to receive company.
But perhaps the most instructive thing about this lesson was how she reacted every time I told people about it when they stopped in to visit the museum and noticed me talking to her. JoJo would listen intently as I recounted the story and she almost seemed to smile with satisfaction when I got to the part where she grabbed my pinky. I thought later that her experience of hearing me tell the story was probably like mine years earlier when I was in Italy with my friend Linda who was fluent in Italian, and I listened as she told her Italian friends about something that we had done earlier. I knew what she was talking about but I could not understand the words.
As she got older, JoJo had trouble with her feet from being stuck in a cage all her life. From time to time her keepers would medicate her feet and wrap them up in colorful gauze dressings. I knew JoJo was mortified by this. Look at my feet with this stupid red, green or purple stuff on them. I stayed longer during those visits, I talked to her and tried to calm her down while she tugged and fidgeted at her dressings. I also felt bad for her because no crows were coming by to visit her anymore outside the museum window; West Nile virus had taken its toll. Crows are social creatures and I knew JoJo looked forward to my visits because I spent time with her. Once I had a wild, random thought because we had bonded so well. I asked her if she was my mother, who had died years earlier. JoJo looked deeply into my eyes, and if I believed such things occur, she could have been saying “Yes I am.”
One day as I was driving to visit JoJo, I was thinking I had never heard her caw like a regular crow. I wondered if perhaps she had forgotten how to caw, or there was no one to caw to, or both. I parked, got out of my car, walked up the path to the museum, and opened the door to the little reception area. The moment I stepped inside, I heard a loud “Caw, caw, caw.” It was JoJo. Telling me, of course she could caw, she knew perfectly well how to caw. I laughed and went up the steps into her room. She regained her composure, dipped her head in customary fashion and said, “HUH-lo.” “Bon soir.”
I saw JoJo for the last time perhaps a week or so before she was no longer “on display.” Her feet had been getting worse and I knew it was only a matter of time before she would be gone. I missed her terribly, but I knew the interspecies friendship we shared gave us both good memories. And I am sure my experience with JoJo laid the groundwork for my friendship with the Grant Park crows. I’ll write about my mind-reading adventures with them next.