Birds of Firle: How To Tame a Crow by Charlie Gilmour

‘The carrion crow is hot and has ostentatious ways. It recognizes air and seasons. It scarcely awaits various outcomes; where it knows there will be sadness, it hurries there. Its flesh is not very useful as medicine.’

Hildegard von bingen (1098-1179)

After my daughter was born, I began making regular excursions to the local churchyard to feed the crows. Not just to feed them, but to tame them: to have them come when I called and perch on my outstretched arm. Crows are good students, and this particular murder were soon able to recognise my face, swarming like black bees around a honeypot the instant they spotted me approaching with the pram. Before long, the boldest were sharing our bench, sidling cautiously along the seat to beg for a peanut, or a dog biscuit, or a fragment of my daughter’s rusk.

There is a theory suggesting that crows have already been tamed: that they were once domesticated by our ancient ancestors, made as friendly and loyal as dogs are today. It’s a seductive idea, for which there is at least a little evidence. Archaeologists digging Iron Age sites report that crows are one of the most frequently discovered birds. In the caves at Lascaux, the site of some of mankind’s earliest known daubings, a crow-like figure occupies pole position. And then there’s the evidence presented by the crows themselves: their easy familiarity with humankind, the way they constantly hang around, as if waiting for orders we’ve forgotten how to give.

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To my daughter the crows were, at first, simply colour and noise. A croaking mobile she stared at from her pram. As her awareness grew, and she came to understand that these shapes were living creatures, I got the sense that she was looking at them as potential friends – equals even. Seeing those crows through her eyes brought back memories of my own early magical thinking: perhaps befriending a crow is as simple as reaching out your hand; perhaps all you have to do to talk to birds is speak.

That crows are listening to the words we say is beyond doubt. Corvids are masterful mimics, and they’ve been eavesdropping on humanity for aeons. Pliny the Elder has much to say on the subject, noting that crows, ravens, and magpies are all good talkers and that such birds are ‘especially fun when given wine’. Macrobius writes of a raven which delighted the Emperor Augustus by croaking ‘Hail Caesar, the victorius commander!’ And Herodotus recounts the story of a ‘black dove’ – likely a crow of some kind – which ‘spoke with human voice’ to the people of Dodona, informing them that God was in the trees.

A crow-black thread weaves through the tapestry of human history, and there are tantalising glimpses of them serving as helpers and companions. In The Epic of Gilgamesh and the story of Noah, ravens are called upon to find dry land. A highly-trained crow supposedly helped one of the Pharoahs manage his kingdom, bearing messages to any destination its master cared to name. And a Sioux myth tells of a Chief who used a tame crow as a spy, teaching the bird to understand the languages of the surrounding tribes and eavesdrop on their battle plans; a story that resonates with that of the Norse god Odin and his two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who surveyed the world on his behalf.

After many months, and much dog kibble, I realised that the only thing my crows – as I came to think of them – were good for was disposing of scraps. That in itself can be a civic virtue. Ever wondered where all the dead pigeons go? Crows pick the city’s teeth clean. But, beyond that, they refused to perform. Eating from my palm was out of the question. Nevermind accompanying me down the highstreet, a mob of feathered bodyguards that might protect the baby and me. They would escort me as far as the nearest bus stop – but no further. I realised that the crows thought of me as one of their humans: an obedient one at that.

To attempt to train a crow is to risk the crow training you. Seeming neither fully wild, nor truly tame, they live alongside us as wily fellow citizens. Black beaks, beady eyes, sharp brains. They call their rough greetings down from the trees and my daughter and I call back.

Charlie Gilmour is the author of the acclaimed memoir Featherhood (Weidenfeld & Nicolson): a story about repetition across generations and birds that run in the blood; about a terror of repeating the sins of the father and a desire to build a nest of one’s own.


Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts. The project gives emerging and unpublished writers the opportunity to see their words archived alongside those of established artists and authors.

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Birds of Firle: Chicken by Esther Woolfson

For thirty years, I shared my home and life with a bird, a rook brought to me as a fledgling. She was called Chicken. During our years together, I had time and opportunity to think about the lives of humans and other species and to wonder what we are and how we should, as humans, act towards those of other species than our own.

It was living with and observing Chicken’s qualities and capabilities which inspired all my thoughts and work on the natural world. In my latest book, Between Light and Storm, I explore some of the questions I’ve been reflecting on for a long time, concerning human exceptionalism and a philosophy of rights, moral status and personhood. What is a person? Should the term be extended to other species? Might a concept by which we regard other species in a radically different way alter the historically damaging treatment which has led to our present crisis of species loss and environmental damage?

After Chicken

Everything is different. Lights which burned continuously for years so that she wouldn’t waken to darkness are extinguished. Doors always open can now be closed. Even when she was very old and no longer as quick to come to find me wherever I was, I left the doors between us open so that we could call out to one another, know exactly where the other was. 

Now, she lies in a flowerbed under a granite wall topped by a handsome trellis painted pale green and laced with jasmine and clematis. Her grave is as perfect, neat and deep as I could dig it, lined with roots, teeming with the disparate creatures who will be her companions now. A grave suitable for an old rook. It’s just outside my study, her study, the room where her house, now dismantled, stood for all the years of her life.  She lies next to Spike the magpie, a choice, given her suspicion of him, she might not have made herself.   We’re still within distance of the other’s calling.

Chicken at Rest by Esther Woolfson for Birds of Firle

One morning, a raining morning in November not quite a year after she died, I came downstairs and saw my black boots standing at the foot of the stairs and for a moment, thought that they were her.

I’ve accustomed myself to silences where there were none, at times when there would have been her voice, in the early mornings, at that last moment of evening when ceremonially, we’d bid each other goodnight, the soft murmurings, whisperings, clicks and peremptory calls which were the sounds I heard most often for decades. Now, only the sparrows, jackdaws and magpies call to me from the garden as I work. In her later years, she had begun to intone the word, ‘he-llo’, gently in greeting, ‘he-llo!’

§

I was busy preparing a book for publication when she died. While I added notes, checked, corrected, I was already feeling distanced and distracted although I didn’t yet know by what. By the future perhaps, Chicken’s death only days before a sub-microscopic entity began to steal across the world like a miasma, a vapour of death. 

I didn’t know anything about it that early winter, but when the nature of it became evident, it seemed more fulfilment of a threat than an unexpected event. Everything that had occupied my thoughts during the years of writing the book seemed forewarning, not from any percipience on my part but as a consequence of following trails from the topic of one academic paper to another, gathering words – ‘pathogens with zoonotic potential’, ‘land use change’, ‘natural resource over-exploitation’ – as a shadow over everything I was writing about industrial farming, fur farming, the illegal wildlife trade, the pet trade, hunting, a summation of the scale of human disregard for others’ lives. 

She’d been with me all during that long and often difficult process and now, as the first spring without her progressed, completing it was my task alone. The lawyer in Madrid with whom I’d been negotiating the increasingly complicated matter of obtaining permission to quote from Federico Garcia Lorca disappeared into the bitter tragedy of Spain’s early pandemic. I’d been warned against dealing too lightly with the Lorca estate and so I paraphrased the quotations instead. I regretted that I couldn’t use the lines from the poem he wrote in 1929: ‘New York—Office and Denunciation’, an angry exposition of cruelty towards man and beast, a lament for the daily animal slaughter in that city; of ducks, pigs, lambs, the two million chickens ‘smashing the sky’, the sound of terrified cows which  filled the Hudson valley.

The quotations from Lorca weren’t the only ones I altered. I couldn’t do anything else because the moment for haggling, even in the most discreet and literary way, had passed.  Prolonged email conversations ended abruptly, dissolved into panic and flight, threads of delicate pecuniary settlement drifting airborne, discussions of rights holders, word counts and ISBNs scattering the floors of empty offices, blowing invisibly along miles of abandoned corridor.

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As Chicken aged, she began to develop a few silvery grey feathers. I picked them up when she moulted or when she discarded them after preening. The most beautiful, I photographed and kept. I wrapped them carefully but when recently I took them out of the drawer where they were kept, they’d been eaten by moths. Only bare feather shafts remained, frail structures on which to build a universe of profound and eloquent metaphor.

I wouldn’t have wanted her to live any longer. For years, I hoped every day she’d live on but now, it was time. I had tried to prepare for her death, not anticipating her extraordinary longevity. For years, friends would ask with care, What will you do…?, as if I might never have thought about the prospect of her death. 

In fact, I planned to travel which I hadn’t been able to do for a long time. As she grew older, I became reluctant to leave her, even with her birdsitter who she welcomed every time with apparent joy. Apart from necessary journeys for work, I travelled very little. I went on holiday twice in fifteen years and then only for three nights each time. And now, in a world closed down, I couldn’t travel and no longer wanted to.

In the book, I wrote about the relationship between the creatures we love and time, the rueful knowledge we carry of the asymmetrical lives of man and bird or beast and here it was, that yardstick, now my own. A question I’ve often asked myself is if there is a difference between the death of a human and that of a member of another species. I’ve never been able to answer it.  I could as usefully ask, what is the size of grief? 

I don’t know if she saw herself as different from me. In one way, our lives now seem an unequal sort of contract – I’m sure she didn’t learn anything from me while I learned everything from her.  After a long time together, the boundaries between us, bird or human, seemed to dissolve into an abstraction, one from which she was free from the start. I learned that words of separation may lose their power to separate.

And now, as one does after a death, I evaluate, re-evaluate, question, but one thing only seems important and that is to know that as I am, she was – a person.

Aberdeen (May 2021)

Esther Woolfson is the author of Corvus – a memoir of her life with Chicken and other birds – and Between Light and Storm: How We Live With Other Species. Her acclaimed short stories have appeared in many anthologies and have been read on BBC Radio 4.


Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts.

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Birds of Firle: Curls of White Feathers by Jean Wilson

In the first week, we were an alto less in choir. Within a fortnight, the big burly driving instructor in our community was gone…

Behind the local supermarket, there is a small nature reserve created by the redressing of the former coal pit. Coots, mallards, a heron and a pair of swans have taken up residency. Each March the Council begin to drive in stakes at the water’s edge to cordon off the nesting site. The weather was unseasonably mild as they began work last year, even as Covid started to darken our lives.

In the first week, we were an alto less in choir. Within a fortnight, the big burly driving instructor in our community had gone, leaving his wife (a care home worker) and their three children.

Even as the grim totals rose daily on our screens, a swan sat demurely on her nest in the Reserve’s upper lake, while the other held watch with apparent serenity.

I was drawn to them daily in exercise hour. As the world around me began to change beyond recognition, here – almost hidden from view – an age-old miracle was taking shape. Responsibilities and the weather then kept me away for a frustrating time, but on the first day of my return I noticed tiny curls of white feathers drifting around the nest site. Intermittently, the swan stretched her neck up high, and then it came: a long, high trumpeting call, triumphant and terrifying. As it faded, she lifted both wings for a brief moment. Within their protection, she was hiding two tiny rows of squirming cygnets, perfectly moulded to the shape of her breast.

The day was still sombre with expected rain, and no shaft of sunlight pierced the clouds to celebrate the birth of these fragile birds. But bending down, I gathered up the wind-blown white downy feathers – a hatching of hope.

Swan Feathers Too by Jean Wilson for Birds of Firle

Jean Wilson is a retired English and Media Studies teacher, who writes monthly for her church website. This is her first online publication beyond professional articles and locally-published pieces.


Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts. The project gives emerging and unpublished writers the opportunity to see their words archived alongside those of established artists and authors.

Enter your email to sign up

Birds of Firle: Raven by Adam Nicolson

‘…this sudden blue nearness in my hands, with its sheened and sheathed feathers, overlapped as soft-edged scales, came as a deep unlikelihood.’

A raven is a fount of glory.

When I found one on the road in Crete, hit by a car I think, not shot, the blueness of its feathers first drew me, so unexpected in the bird of darkness, and so unsettling their nearness. Because the raven is a bird of the distance, never to be held, never to be known in any intimate way, but removed in mind as much as in space. Its blackness and its distance are co-actors in its life. And so this sudden blue nearness in my hands, with its sheened and sheathed feathers, overlapped as soft-edged scales, came as a deep unlikelihood, as if it had acquired in death a substance it had only ever hinted at in life.

With this non-raven in my hands, I started to look through it, as if exploring an abandoned house, a habitation that life had left: the hand-axe of its bill, more palaeo than any bird-body I had seen; the ruffled nape; the splay of the primaries, as structural as a medieval vault, no matter wasted, each rib as strong as required, as fine as necessary, graded in width and strength from outer to inner wing and from tip to root.

But then the claw, dirty from life, as knobbled as a malacca cane, the darkness giving way here, as an undertaker’s shoe might when muddied beside the grave, to a leathered practicality, armoured against the world, padded against rock.

The raven disassembled in my hands, became its parts, was not raven, was memory of raven, raven lost, raven gone back from blackness, raven body, raven with no soul.

Adam Nicolson writes books on history and the landscape. He was awarded the 2018 Wainwright Prize for THE SEABIRD’S CRY and his latest book, THE MAKING OF POETRY, was shortlisted for the Costa Biography award 2019.


Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts.

Enter your email to sign up

Birds of Firle: Auguries of Harvest by Nicola Chester

In the year since my father died, new words and phrases have entered our language. There is a rich, etymological seam he would never hear: shielding, zoom, Coronacoaster, Covidiots, PPE, Clap for Carers, ‘rona, social distancing, furlough, Eat Out to Help Out. Our first year without him in it has been an extraordinary one. 

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In the spring of last year, before Dad was ill, I discovered the shock of a dead heron by the side of the road. It looked as if someone had cut the strings on the ancient creaking of this pterodactyl-marionette. One great wing stretched up the bank, the other sweeping the road in an awkward final-curtain bow. The bird’s serpentine neck folded around its yellow, stickleback-harpoon of a bill, and the white neck feathers marked with black darts and red chevrons. A crumpled house of cards. I wonder if it had been shot and, after a stricken glide, fell, crashing Icarus-like into this pile of unglued feathers and hazel-pole legs. A thunder-cloud fall of woodpigeon sky.

Heron is a talisman bird for me. Spirit of my Grandad, scholar gypsy and Romany Rai, I picture him now, producing his worn, warm copy of The Observer’s Book of Birdsfrom his leather waistcoat pocket for me. He always said he’d come back as a heron. It suited him; his hunched wisdom and careful stepping. His windswept, jet mortarboard of hair. I still feel his influence, and I wondered what this dead bird might mean; this augury of significant feathers, like a collapsed tent. 

Book of Birds by Nicola Chester for Birds of Firle

It was near harvest time when we began to voice our concerns about Dad. The withdrawing. The far away-ness. Between jobs, my brother had come over by chance from Australia and, it being the summer, we had the gift of much family time together against the growing unease that something was wrong. Mum and Dad’s house is just a farm away in our village. We walked backwards and forwards through the process of harvest, the air hazed with the grey-gold of chaff and chalk dust. We walked over the folds and heights of the downs, when we weren’t looking after Dad. The birds had fallen into their harvest silence, moulting feathers, and we made a collection: red kite, buzzard, woodpecker. 

Throughout those days, from mid-afternoon onwards, a tawny owl called from Mum’s garden. I tried not to be superstitious. Roman ‘augurs’ would note the ‘auspices’ or behaviours of birds and try to predict what might happen. An owl calling in the daytime was a bad omen of a world out of sorts: one on the roof, certainly inauspicious – with a death in the house likely. But we liked the owl and by now, we thought we probably knew what was coming. 

It was still a shock, nevertheless, when Dad died within a month, just seventeen days after the diagnoses of an aggressive brain tumour. We’d broken him out of hospital and he died peacefully at home – a gift for the bereaved not granted to those who lost someone in 2020. 

The ravens, rooks and jackdaws gleaning the stubble seemed to shout the news with their Berkshire-accented, harvest warning ‘Oi! Boi!’ Fyre, barn, fyre barn.’ Dad had been a fireman.  What followed was a year of birds and grieving. Quietly at first; the kite’s mournful whistle on fog-shrouded days; the robin’s notes from the tangled miles of traveller’s joy or ‘bedwine’ that wound through the hedges like an elaborate handrail I needed to get me away from home and back again – even the feathered seeds are curled around their central globe like tiny ostrich plumes.  

Most poignant were the song thrush’s strident, repeated phrases that began on the midwinter solstice and carried me through and beyond the midsummer one, through all the birdsong of the most beautiful, blossomy spring in living memory. Our Covid spring, our global plague year, our year of hope for change; my first year without Dad in it.

As harvest began to swing round again and the birds moulted their feathers and fell into a late summer silence, a new anxiety bloomed. Two of our three children’s immediate futures were to be decided by a faulty, unequal system that would not favour their small, rural comprehensive education.  During an unsettling, unprecedented heatwave, more new words entered our language along with overwhelming uncertainty: algorithms, tropical nights, masks. 

Autumn in the time of Coronavirus by Nicola Chester for Birds of Firle

I wonder what Dad would have made of it all. How he would have reacted. He would have marched on someone over the exam debacle, certainly. His whole life was about protecting family. 

As harvest and the anniversary of our losing him came round, a pair of barn owls moved into the oak tree near the house. I saw them nuzzling up to one another and one bright, September morning, picked up a feather beneath the branches. The light shone a white gold through it. It felt like an exhalation. We could hope, perhaps, for owlets next year. The two eldest children got the exam results they needed and we prepare for another leaving. Our son, spreading his wings and leaving the nest for University. Dad would’ve been so proud. 

Nicola Chester lives and writes in the kitten heel of the Berkshire ‘shoe’, at the heart of the glorious North Wessex Downs and half a mile from both the Wiltshire and Hampshire border. She is the RSPB’s first and longest-running female columnist in Nature’s Home Magazine and a Guardian Country Diarist.


Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts.

Enter your email to sign up