The first time I met DaVinci, WildCare’s crow ambassador, I was intimidated. I didn’t know that at the time, but I’ve come to realize that the unsettled feeling in my belly and the self-conscious hunching of my neck and shoulders are my personal markers for that uneasy emotion. WildCare, our local wildlife rehabilitation center, is where I spend my Wednesday mornings, cleaning cages, feeding wild orphan babies, and fraternizing with the best bunch of wildlife fanatics it’s ever been my joy to know.

DaVinci lives in a huge flight cage on the upper level of the center. He was found as a youngster on university campus grounds, which was a fitting place for him to fledge because he is an eccentric professor at heart, brilliant and quirky. Crows are in that rarified community of the smartest of all birds, sometimes being compared intellectually to a five-year-old. I’m here to tell you that he is far brighter, and more calculating, than that. DaVinci remained at WildCare because of a bum foot and wing that never repaired.

“We need someone for the DaVinci Team on Wednesday mornings,” said Jennifer the shelter manager. “Would you like to do it?”

DaVinci, Prince of Darkness

DaVinci has his own team of caregivers. A bird of such brainpower and complexity requires a lot of attention and interaction, and a group of us are assigned to be his slaves. Some of us are his trainers. All of us are his trainees. I agreed to join the group, and was given a morning of training that included details on how to clean his cage, prepare his daily banquet, play games with him, and avoid getting attacked, should I be one of those to whom DaVinci does not take an immediate liking—which, of course, I was.

I am a woman who can—with confidence and calm—wash a hawk, medicate a possum, fend off biting squirrels, and wrestle with injured raccoons, but I discovered that I could not enter DaVinci’s palace without being instantly overcome by a feeling of total clumsy, dorkness.

DaVinci has this look, you see. It is one of utter scrutiny, arrogance, and mischief. You can see that brain of his clicking away like a slot-machine on steroids. The first few weeks I worked in his cage, he would welcome me with a jaunty, “Goodbye! Goodbye! Goodbye!!” holding out his black wings like Dracula’s cape, and bobbing his shiny head up and down.

That would be the best of our interactions. Our other social contact consisted of him dive-bombing my head, chasing me around his enclosure pecking at my ankles, and—if he could grab onto them—hanging off the skin of my wrists while flapping like a lunatic. Did I mention that his beak has the force of a jackhammer and can hold on like a pair of vice grips?

Outside of DaVinci’s cage is a logbook where team members chart daily notes about their interactions with him. After my Wednesday assaults, I would sit down at the logbook and read: “DaVinci was so playful today! He wanted lots of pets…” or “Such a cuddly bird today. He loved playing with his cardboard box and rocks.” I would leave my own notes, such as “Tried to shred my socks today,” or “Didn’t draw as much blood as usual.”

Kindly team members would write back to me, assuring me that DaVinci was simply getting to know me, and that it could take awhile. Some reminded me not to show any fear of him.

Actually, I had no fear of his attacks. I’ve been bitten by harder mouths than his. All I felt when I was in his enclosure was stupid. Just plain, awkward, stupid.

For a brief period of time, I asked myself why he disliked me so much. Soon, though, I asked myself the more relevant question, which was, “Why do I feel so self-conscious around this bird?” It is always the questions we ask about our own attitudes that hold the greater harvest.

I began observing myself around DaVinci, and realized how many expectations and attitudes I took into his cage with me. Here are a few of them, and believe me, there were many, many more:

“He WILL like me. Animals like me because I like them.”

“If I keep my willpower strong, I’ll wear him down, and THEN he’ll like me.”

“I want to pet him like the others do. I’ll just keep trying.”

“I’ll be my confident self today, and act as though I don’t feel like a dork.”

Outside DaVinci’s cage one morning with a peace-offering of Cheerios in my hand, I finally had my aha moment. I cringed with embarrassment. I was setting up a challenge between myself and an injured, captive crow. In my heart, my stand was an aggressive one, pushing myself and my desired onto this bird. Thinking back, I saw that I had often reached for an animal with my own agenda out in front, dominating the interaction.

Looking deeper, I realized that my need to be liked carried over big time to my interactions with animals. Behind my pushiness lurked a deep-seated insecurity I’d been reckoning with for decades. I just didn’t see how it played out in my feeling world until DaVinci.

In his palace, DaVinci sat silently, watching me with those penetrating black eyes. The phrase “Who do you think you are?” came to mind. It seemed that who I thought I was—or wanted to be—was the dominant energy I brought into all my relationships in one way or another.

I gave DaVinci his Cheerios, and went off to reflect on my insight for many weeks. It was an intimidating insight, but very fruitful, with many far-reaching effects on me. Through the eyes of a Crow, I became able to see myself in a new way. I’m still settling into this newfound wisdom about what drives my behavior, and how I play that out in the world. I’m realizing in a much deeper, more subtle way, that it isn’t all about me.

One change I made was to enter DaVinci’s enclosure with a humble attitude. Really, I was simply there to serve, to tend, to companion a crow. He didn’t need to like me. No being NEEDS to be bullied or manipulated into liking me. For a time, I became concerned that perhaps my presence in his cage was a source of stress to him, but I was told by the team to just carry on.

Over the months, DaVinci quit harassing me. Slowly, he revealed his acceptance of my presence by bathing while I was cleaning his cage or sitting by me when I set his food on the floor. A couple of times, he tolerated brief strokes of his lower wing and tail feathers before warning me off with a thrust and snap of his beak.

Over these months, I’ve brought my new awareness into my interactions with my chickens, my frogs, my dogs, and my husband. I am becoming more humble and peaceful inside by tiny increments, and learning more about myself every step of this new journey.

Last month, DaVinci came and perched near me while I was on the floor filling his bath basin. Without preamble, he bowed his head to me and opened his wings—his invitation to pet. Carefully, I moved my fingers gently up his shoulders and he closed his eyes and lowered his neck as I massaged deep into his shoulder and cape feathers. For the next twenty minutes, we sat that way, him turning his head to get his beak stroked, his head rubbed, and his eyes tickled. Twice since then, he’s solicited massages from me. This week, he’s molting, and warned me to keep my hands to myself, which I have the good sense to do these days. No more pushy me. No more.

The chickens and my husband are pleased.

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