The Most Valuable Thing for People Is the Emotional Connection They’ve Made

Dr. Kaeli Swift reflects on her passion for crows — and for building a community for other bird-lovers.

Did you know crows hold funeral rituals for their deceased? For her doctoral research, Seattle-based Dr. Kaeli Swift has tracked these fascinating birds’ behavior, shedding light on crows’ intelligence and social behavior. But pushing scientific knowledge forward is only part of her activity — on her blog, Corvid Research, Kaeli has also fostered a community of people from all over the world, joined by their shared fascination for crows. The site is now a handy resource for non-experts who want to learn more about urban wildlife.

We recently chatted with her about her work, her public writing, and the value of engaging people from across society in the study of nature.

You mention on your website that you’ve been interested in nature and animals since childhood. How did it start?

I really struggled in school. I had ADHD and dyslexia, so it took me a really long time to learn how to read. School was not a fun, safe place for me mentally and emotionally. Being outside — that was my safe space, that’s where I went to feel confident and engaged. I didn’t care as much about the stuff I was learning in school, but I could go watch a bug on the sidewalk all day and be laser-focused.

That’s where it started. What began as an escape from the day-to-day blossomed into something I could actually do as a job when I got older.

Going into college I knew that I wanted to do something in wildlife science. I just didn’t know exactly what that would look like.

At what point did you decide to focus on birds — and specifically, corvids — in your scientific research?

I’ve always been interested in animal behavior. It started with bugs and then it moved on to wolves, but I also really liked birds. And birdwatching with my grandparents is something I have fond memories of when I was a little girl.

So in college, when I started to think, “what are the questions I could wholly dedicate myself to? What is the lifestyle I want?” I realized that while I still loved wolves, I wasn’t interested in them as a research topic any longer. I also realized that, as a future graduate student, I didn’t necessarily want to pursue something involving long field seasons away from my home base.

While all those different things were becoming clear in my mind, I started reading Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Heinrich. That was my “a-ha!” moment. It was the first time I learned that science was starting to appreciate these birds for their intellectual capabilities and for being models for questions about the evolution of cognition and the social-intelligence hypothesis, two topics that had long fascinated me. That’s how it all happened.

For people who are not regularly exposed to the magic of crows, how would you describe their draw and their power to fascinate?

There are so many ways you can answer that question. At this point in my career, what I’m really thinking a lot about is how accessible crows are, and what an important point of access to the natural world they are for many people.

With most people in the United States and across the world, we’re seeing this transition to urban living, where we have less and less access to the natural world. Demographically, there are groups of people who for historical reasons — discrimination, lack of access — don’t feel comfortable or interested in going to a nature reserve or a wildlife refuge. But they can go outside wherever they live and there’s a crow there.

Whether you’re a veteran naturalist or have no interest in nature they are just a great bridge to a whole other world that so many of us don’t have access to otherwise.
Kaeli Swift

Crows offer this unique and important access point where, whether you’re a lifelong bird watcher with lots of access to and experiences watching wildlife, or if you’ve never had much interest or opportunity to do that, you’re on equal footing when it comes to finding and appreciating the really charismatic things crows do.

The other part that make crows so valuable, unique, and interesting is that they create these permanent pair bonds and are territorial year-round. And they live a long time. When I get crows to my yard it’s not just “oh, there’s a crow!” — it’s “oh, it’s those crows, it’s my neighborhood crows, I know them.” It’s an opportunity not just to learn about wildlife, but to get to know it on an intimate and individual level. There’s just almost nothing else like that in the natural world.

On top of all of that, they do a lot of really cool stuff. For example, they have huge communal roosts they travel to by the thousands every day. When you see wildebeests or Monarch butterflies on Planet Earth, you think, “oh my gosh, that’s so cool, I wish I could see something like that in my life!” If you live in a city with crows, you can. Go watch the crows and you can see it every night. Whether you’re a veteran naturalist or have no interest in nature they are just a great bridge to a whole other world that so many of us don’t have access to otherwise.

Why did you decide to start your blog, Corvid Research?

There are two reasons. First, necessity. For the crow-funeral work that I did, I was going out into neighborhoods while having people wear masks and hold dead crows. I needed some resource to show I’m a legitimate scientist for people who’d come out and say “I’m gonna call the cops, what are you doing?” In the moment when I’m collecting data I don’t really have a ton of time to stand there and describe to people what’s happening — I’m working, I’m in the middle of my job. So the blog started as a way for me to quell a concerned public.

Second, one of the beautiful, and sometimes frustrating, things about graduate school is that you become an expert on such a tiny thing. You dedicate all of your time to that tiny thing. But there are so many things about crows that interest me, and I didn’t really have an outlet for learning about or making something out of all of that knowledge.

So then the blog became a project: I wanted to do something with all this cool stuff I was learning so I turned it into articles. At first it was just for me — I didn’t really think people would read it. It was a way for me to catalogue interesting things that I had learned. But then I would get emails: somebody who found it and had a question about crows. And the more emails I got, the more I was alerted to things people wanted to know, the more I produced: it snowballed. That’s how it took off: it was born out of necessity, then it became a personal pet project, and then I saw that it was fulfilling a need that the public had. I’m so excited that people want to learn about these birds.

What do you think it is that keeps readers coming to your site?

The most important feedback I get is from people feeling like they finally found a community. I have a lot of longtime fans or feeders of crows email me, who say that everyone around them thinks, “this thing you do is really weird” — they don’t have anyone to share their stories with. Finding the blog not only answers their questions about crows, but it validates their feelings about them and makes them feel like they’ve finally found people they can share their stories with. The most valuable thing for people is the emotional connection they’ve made: “Ah, I’m not alone!”

That’s how it took off: it was born out of necessity, then it became a personal pet project, and then I saw that it was fulfilling a need that the public had.
Kaeli Swift

For those of us who have no idea what bird research looks like on the ground, how does your average day look — and what drives you to continue?

It’s different depending on the project. For my crow work, it was walking around with binoculars, having people stand around with these really creepy masks and holding dead crows, and then maybe having the police be called on us.

In a nutshell — this is true of a lot of science, but it’s really true with wildlife — people tend to imagine it as an ongoing, exciting process, and it’s not. It is mostly a lot of long hours of watching or searching, and hoping that you get something out of that. It’s a lot of tediousness but with these punctuations of exciting moments. It’s not the “go, go, go!” action that a lot of people imagine.

If I never had those moments of being able to go out in the field and chase a jay around, get a bird in the hand, or see the fruits of my labor, I probably wouldn’t keep doing it. But because I see the results from all those hours I put into that study — I’ve found something new, I’ve contributed to what we understand about this animal — those moments are the best. And that carries with you for the next few months of sitting in your office, looking at spreadsheets.

Read more about Kaeli Swift’s work and about the fascinating birds she studies on her blog, Corvid Research.

Photo Credit: Jacob Gaposchkin

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