As a writer, I have often been asked whether my characters are inspired by real-life people. My answer is generally negative. Of course, I use my world knowledge and personal experience when I write a book, and this includes observations of other people’s behaviors, reactions and opinions. I may even literally quote some non-standard phrases that people around me (particularly my husband) love to use. But I have never tried to describe a real, familiar, individual in a novel. With one exception.
This exception is not a human being, however. It is a bird. Specifically, a crow.
One of my first fantasy novels is about a woman who has a special talent of speaking to animals. Not speaking in the most literal sense of the word; rather, she understands them, takes care of them, teaches them – and they love her and cooperate with her. Among the animals she worked with was a crow called Cyril. This bird had a real-life inspiration, a crow whom we called Cyriusha (a pet-name derived from Cyril.) In my childhood, we used to stay in the countryside every summer, and my father had to walk through a forest to the train station in order to get to work. One day he brought from the forest a young crow with a broken wing. Unfortunately, there was no way to cure the bird, but we kept it and took care of it. We learnt so much about birds and their cognitive capacities then!
After we decided to call the crow Cyriusha, he knew that this was his name on the very second day. I love dogs passionately, I’ve had dogs throughout my life, but I have to acknowledge: they don’t learn their names that quickly. Further, Cyriusha was extremely sensitive to other people’s attitude. One of my grandmothers loved him, as she loved animals in general, and he was very happy every time she came to visit us. The other grandmother found him irritating – and he reacted to her visits correspondingly.
He also found very clever and creative solutions as far as communication with us humans was concerned. For instance, once my father was dining after having come home from work. Of course, we fed Cyriusha well, but apparently, upon seeing someone else eating, he decided he wanted some more. So what did he do? First, he stepped on my father’s foot. Then he pulled his shoelaces with the beak. Having made sure that my father noticed this, Cyriusha stepped off his foot. Finally, the crow clicked his beak several times. The message was more than obvious.
In the morning, when we were still sleeping in the bedroom (which the crow was not allowed to enter), Cyriusha got bored. He wanted to wake us up – and he found a way to do this. Specifically, he took small pieces of coal we used to stoke the fire (there was no other way to heat the house) and threw them against the part of the furnace which was made of metal. The resulting sound was quite loud. Cyriusha repeated the process again and again till we finally got up!
At some point he also started collecting other birds’ feathers that could be found on the ground. He definitely missed contact with his conspecifics. But unfortunately, due to the wing problem, we just couldn’t return him to the forest.
So when, many years later, I started writing a book whose protagonist had the magical gift of understanding animals, I knew that one of her friends will be a crow. And I had no hesitation about the name this crow would be given. Although not human, this character plays a substantial role in the novel. He is very clever (and now I know there is nothing magical about this!). He knows the names of the people who surround the heroine. As a result, when she got in trouble, locked in a house that was about to be burnt, it was enough to tell him the name of the person who could save her. The crow flew to that person directly and brought help in time. In another episode, he flew to an imprisoned hero, entering easily between grill bars and thereby informing the man that the heroine was close by.
In addition, Cyril was able to count objects, specifying their quantity by croaking the right number of times. This particular episode was inspired by Irene Pepperberg’s investigation of the cognitive capacities of African grey parrots – another kind of birds who turned out to be amazingly clever.
In this way, the amazing facts I have learnt about the cleverness of birds made their way into a magical world in which the contact between a human being and an animal can be more advanced than in reality.