Something to crow about amid another false spring

MOSCOW DAYS

You wouldn't think so, given their generally gloomy manner, but the Russians are optimists. They are, for example, unshakably convinced that spring has begun. The other day they even marked its beginning with a celebration in Moscow's Gorky Park at which they set fire to a straw man, an effigy of winter. It was so cold that only a few people turned up. It has been snowing, on and off, ever since.

I was reminded of this spirit of optimism yesterday on meeting a middle- aged Russian woman, a vague acquaintance, who suddenly demanded to know if I had bought any presents yet and, if so, what? Seeing my blank expression, she explained: today is International Women's Day, a Soviet-era holiday which is still observed.

Men are expected to buy gifts for their wives, daughters, and mothers. "Get something fanciful, something to celebrate the season, something spring-like," my friend counselled, before wading off cheerfully through two feet of snow.

It has struck me before that the way Muscovites come to terms with their endless winters is by lopping off a couple of months at the beginning and end, and pretending their climate is no different to that of London and Paris. But, standing outside fretting about the presents, it dawned on me why this communal fantasy can't work. In the gaps between the rumble of city traffic and the all-too-frequent scream of car alarms, the place lies beneath a deep wintry hush. There is almost no birdsong. In fact, there are very few birds.

With one outstanding exception: crows. Just as voles have reportedly adapted to radioactivity around Chernobyl, and are breeding away on the surrounding landscape, so too have crows evolved which seem to thrive on the smog and refrigeration of Moscow. They are the Russian traffic policemen of the ornithological world - bossy, squat creatures, of acquisitive habits, in bluish-grey uniform. And they rule the roost, outnumbering the city's flocks of tatty-looking pigeons and sparrows. Here there is no parliament of fowls, but an outright dictatorship.

The Moscow grey crow, known by locals as "the flying grey wolf", has generated its own mythology. Russians will tell you that these birds build their nests from aluminium and copper wires stolen from building sites; not a difficult task as half the city is either falling down, or being rebuilt. They are regularly accused of having driven away every smaller bird - nightingales, chaffinches, starlings, thrushes - from the city.

So numerous are they that legend has it, when a toddler in Moscow was recently asked by a kindly relative to "make the sound that the birdies make", she replied not with a "tweet-tweet" but a forlorn cawing noise. All this has not made the crow popular. Nor has the fact that Muscovites, who tend to live in tiny apartments, often store food on their balconies. The sub-zero temperatures keep the food fresh, but provide no protection from the flying policemen.

Scientists estimate about 300,000 grey crows nest in Moscow in the summer, rising to a million in the winter, when they fly down from the north for food - some from as far away Siktivkar, 2,000 miles to the north-east. They are attracted by the city's many rubbish tips and by the residents' habit of throwing scraps out of their windows (a practice which has led some dog owners to muzzle their pets, to ensure that they don't eat something poisonous).

"If Moscow had to have an ornithological coat of arms it would be a crow," grumbled the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets several years ago, in an article which called for squads of schoolchildren to mount a guard over the crows' nests to prevent the hen birds from returning to their eggs.

Periodic calls for the stoning of the crows are not new to Moscow, whose corvine population pre-dates Ivan the Terrible. But they win no support from Igor Lebedev, a biologist at the Moscow Veterinary Academy. He estimates that every day the birds eat 60 tonnes of the city's organic waste - detritus which would otherwise breed an even larger population of rats, as well as stench and disease. Moreover, he points out, the grey crow is highly intelligent, with an IQ comparable to that of a marmoset. Nor is Igor Lebedev the first here to admire the crow. Centuries ago, the Slavs thought crows were a kind of deity, because they walked on two feet.

Perhaps Napoleon's army had the best idea after invading Russia in 1812. Discovering that spring had not sprung (no doubt despite local assurances to the contrary) and that they were freezing to death, they did what any self-respecting Frenchman would do when confronted with an empty stomach and living creatures. They ate them.

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