'Crow Lady' has a faithful flock

Until Phyllis Alverdes pulled up in her silver Celica one recent morning, the gray skies of Bellevue were quiet.

But when the school-bus driver turned into a parking lot near where she works, the crow show began. Flapping and cawing, they swooped down from all directions and circled Alverdes' car. They came by the dozens, like an inky army dispatched by Alfred Hitchcock.

And they seemed to recognize Alverdes before she even turned off the ignition.

It has been this way for 12 years.

It started with a rare snowfall, soon after Alverdes began driving buses for the Bellevue School District. Through the snow and the slush, she saw a group of crows perched on a fence near her workplace.

"They looked so cold, so lonely. I felt bad for them," said the 60-year-old Kirkland resident. So she ran into nearby Larry's Market and bought some nuts and seeds to feed to the birds.

"Boy, did that perk them up," she said. "I thought I'd feed them just until the snow melted."

But Alverdes didn't know about crows. After a few feedings, the birds — scavengers by nature — were hooked on her.

Whenever she approaches the area, they swarm around her, shrieking and begging for food. When she drives off, a cloud of wings will follow her car for blocks, blackening the sky and drawing stares from strangers.

Some people would be scared if they were stalked by 40 crows. But Alverdes grew up on her grandparents' farm in Bellingham, and she knew right away the birds were special. "They're just so smart," she said.

In fact, crows and other members of the family known as corvids, such as ravens and jays, are the most intelligent birds, explained James Ha, an associate professor in psychology at the University of Washington who studies crows and specializes in animal behavior.

What's going on with Alverdes, he said, is basic learning.

"It's classical conditioning — Pavlov's dog, that whole thing. They've learned to associate her with food."

But what differentiates corvids from most other birds, Ha said, is their long-term memory and their ability to recognize individuals. And because crows are very social animals, they can easily pass along the message that food is available, drawing a whole flock to dine on a dead animal, supermarket trash or peanuts from Alverdes.

Most crows live only a year or two, so it's likely Alverdes has fed several generations, Ha said.

Aside from the giant flock near her workplace, Alverdes became friends with and started feeding some crows near her home.

She has been nicknamed "The Crow Lady" by friends.

Alverdes had no problems until about four years ago, when she says school-district officials asked her to feed the crows off district property and on her own time. No problem, she said.

But recently she received a letter of warning and a brief suspension for bringing the crows onto district property. The problem, Alverdes said, was that the crows followed her. She wasn't feeding them on the property, she told the district, but she couldn't keep them from flying along with her when she walked from her car to her job.

Ann Oxrieder, Bellevue School District spokeswoman, said that while some employees in the district supported Alverdes and the crows, others were upset about damage the birds caused to their cars. Alverdes was asked to park off-site, and she obliged.

"I think that's it," Oxrieder said. "I don't believe there are any more problems."

Though their behavior can be annoying to humans, in many cultures crows are revered for their cleverness and even represent gods, Ha said. Still, crows are often used in films and literature to symbolize darkness, evil and things unknown.

This bad rap dates to the 1300s, when the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, ravaged Europe. The more bodies that piled up, the more crows arrived, Ha said.

In reality, not much about crows is dangerous, said Ha, whose recent studies have focused on the food-stealing behavior of certain crows. The only caution he has is about West Nile virus, which can be passed from birds to humans via mosquitoes. Birds carry the virus, which can be deadly to humans, and a crow and horses in Washington have tested positive for the disease.

It's nothing to get alarmed about, Ha said, but people might want to be more careful about getting too close to crows these days.

Because of the issues at work, it has been a couple of weeks since Alverdes has fed the crows. Ha confirms that crows can also unlearn behavior, and that eventually they will pay less attention to Alverdes if she ignores them.

But for now, some still flock to her. She said one in particular is really attached, walking beside her and even "petting" her as it swoops over her head.

Strangers sometimes question her about her odd entourage, and Alverdes seizes the opportunity to educate the public about the birds.

Once, a man in the supermarket parking lot watched as a crow swooped down and plucked a peanut from her outstretched hand. The man rolled down his car window and asked, "How did you do that?"

"I asked him if he wanted to try, and he said sure. But when he offered the peanut, the birds wouldn't go near him," Alverdes said, laughing. "They just didn't know him."

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or nsinger@seattletimes.com