The Strangeness of Our Animal Bonds

Ben Crair | The New Yorker

Charlie Gilmour, the author of “Featherhood,” with his magpie, Benzene, named after her plumage’s resemblance to the oil slicks in the junkyard where she was found. Photograph by Polly Samson

Last spring, I started boiling two eggs for breakfast every morning—one for me, and one for the crows. A mated pair patrolled the rooftops around my Berlin apartment building; I’d begun luring them to my balcony with peanuts and other snacks. They loved not only eggs but also mealworms, cat food, cashews, chicken hearts, stale bread, cheese, and chunks of lamb fat; they barely touched liver, walnuts, vegetables, and dried fruit. In Germany, we were under a covid-19 lockdown. But the birds were free. They fascinated me with their distinct personalities and intelligent behaviors. The large male was a glowering bully who tipped my potted plants if I forgot to refill his plate. The smaller female was curious and sweet. She watched me as closely as I watched her, and learned to manipulate me by fluffing up her feathers; I always responded to this adorable display by rummaging in the refrigerator for treats.

“Wherever you go, crows are watching, making note of our habits, our weaknesses, our wasteful tendencies,” Charlie Gilmour writes in his memoir, “Featherhood,” which was published in North America this past January. The book begins as Gilmour’s partner, Yana, brings home an abandoned baby magpie—a beautiful black-and-white member of the corvid family of birds, and a relative to crows, jays, and ravens. Gilmour asks his mother for advice about caring for it. “The person you should really be talking to about this is your father,” she tells him. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, Gilmour’s father, the writer Heathcote Williams, published several long poems about animals; one describes his adopted bird, another kind of corvid called a jackdaw, which he took in shortly before meeting Gilmour’s mother. In “Featherhood,” therefore, the challenges of parenting a magpie become entangled with Gilmour’s lifelong quest to know his father, an infuriating and unwell man.

The British press heaped praise on “Featherhood” when it was published in the U.K., last year. Many compared it to Helen Macdonald’s memoir, “H Is for Hawk,” and to Ken Loach’s film “Kes,” from 1969, about a young, vulnerable boy who finds solace in caring for a kestrel. The Sunday Times called “Featherhood” a “work of magpie investigation that ranks among the best modern coming-of-age memoirs.” Having spent the year wondering what it would be like to raise a crow myself, I was eager to read it. But I set it down a little disappointed. It’s odd that so many stories about animals turn into tales about babies and parents. Why do encounters with wild lives so often domesticate our own?

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Father: "He never amounted to anything". Mother: "Who the hell does he think he is"? Former Teacher: "Smart as a bag of hammers". Former Boss: "Condescending". Brother: "Mom loves me more".
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