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In the City, Heeding The Caw of the Wild

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page D01

It's not enough for Lisa Couturier to show you the thousands of crows hanging out behind Bed Bath & Beyond. It's not enough for her to demonstrate that, yes, nature really does still exist out here near the Congressional North shopping center on Route 355 -- Rockville Pike, for pity's sake! The least natural stretch of real estate in the whole, mall-scarred megalopolitan area! -- or for her to explain that, actually, crows have been roosting nightly in a clump of trees by Montrose Road, less than a mile from here, for longer than the shopping center has been around.

No. She wants you to hear their individual voices, too.


A crow returns to its haven near the suburban congestion of Rockville Pike. (Photos Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

"Did you hear that?" she says excitedly, then mimics a rapid-fire crow noise, something like d-d-d-d-d-d-du. "It sounds like a baby's rattle, almost."

Alas, you did not. You're too deafened by the chorus of caw-caw-cawing to pick out the soloists. Crows blacken the fairway of the Woodmont Country Club; they darken the winter-bare trees; they swirl like windblown ashes through the twilight sky.

Couturier, who's 42 and lives in Bethesda, recently published a book of essays called "The Hopes of Snakes: And Other Tales From the Urban Landscape." It's a series of meditations on the largely unnoticed fauna of American cities and suburbs, written from a sense of intense, personal connection to these still-wild creatures. On the page and in person, she works to transmit that connection to others -- and never mind that this evening's audience appears to be deaf.

"Did you hear it? There it was again!" she says.

Sorry.

"I would love for you to hear the different sounds."

"The experience of dread and beauty, I learned in the woods of childhood, can be simultaneous."

-- "The Hopes of Snakes"

When Lisa Couturier was 12, she wanted to be Jane Goodall. Too young to travel to Africa, with no chimpanzees to befriend in her Rockville neighborhood, she settled for crows. Day after day, pencil and pad of paper in hand, she observed them feeding in her yard.

She didn't grow up to be a primatologist. Yet some would argue that Couturier's chosen topic -- the wildlife closer to home -- is every bit as important as Goodall's Tanzanian chimps.

"There is this notion in people's minds that wildlife does not exist in and around cities," says Bob Cook, an urban ecologist whom Couturier once helped conduct a snake and turtle census in Brooklyn. But, in fact, it is everywhere, and scientists alone cannot ensure that it is preserved. They need help, Cook says, from ordinary people who have learned to see it -- and more importantly, who have learned to care.

This is where writers such as Couturier come in. For it's easier to care if you can hear the voices of individual crows.


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