Gabi Mann from Seattle was only four years old when she became a collector.
She has several boxes of containers filled with bags of strange trinkets, with labels like: “Black table by feeder. 2:30 p.m. 09 Nov 2014.”
It all started because Gabi was a little bit of a messy eater. As a toddler, she’d drop her food in the most inopportune places—like having a chicken nugget tumble out of her lap as she got out of the car.
And birds would pick up the food.
Gabi started to realize the neighborhood crows were always watching overhead, and she started leaving out food for them. It started with sharing scraps of her bagged lunch, then grew to installing a backyard birdbath and feeder a couple of years later in 2013.
Everywhere Gabi went, there were crows. The birds would follow her even to school, or line up after her at the bus stop, waiting expectantly for her to drop more food.
And then Gabi’s mother Lisa started to notice the birds as well.
“It was a kind of transformation. I never thought about birds,” she told BBC.
But once they started leaving food out for the crows, things changed.
After the birds quickly ate up the platters of peanuts left out for them, trinkets started appearing. Small, shiny, colorful things that were light enough to be picked up by a crow.
The offerings were random in frequency and there was no pattern to the objects themselves either: a black button, a smoothed piece of brown glass, a pearl-colored heart charm (Gabi’s favorite).
And over the years, she has amassed a collection that might be the biggest crow-gifted collection that exists.
“We keep it in as good as condition as we can,” Gabi told BBC in 2015. She values every tiny object.
John Marzluff, professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, specializes in studying birds, particularly crows and razens.
He once did a study on crows and the relationship they form with people, and he told BBC there are maybe 20 or 30 people identified in the world who’ve received regular gifts from the birds they feed.
Not everyone who feeds crows receives a shiny gift in return; often they are the result of a very long relationship or a big event, like rescuing a trapped or injured bird.
Many animals gift things as a sign of gratitude, or in some cases, courting, but animals rarely form these give-and-take relationships with humans.
Crows are notoriously clever, known for being able to think creatively and solve puzzles to obtain the food or object they are seeking.
Which is why Lisa knew it was no coincidence when she received an unexpected object.
While photographing a bald eagle, Lisa ended up dropping her camera lens cap and losing it. But shortly after that, she came home to find it sitting on the edge of the birdbath.
She had an inkling the crows returned it, but she wanted to see the proof, and she logged onto her computer to pull up their camera feed.
“You can see it bringing it into the yard. Walks it to the birdbath and actually spends time rinsing this lens cap,” she said. “I’m sure that it was intentional.”
“They watch us all the time,” she said. “I’m sure they knew I dropped it. I’m sure the decided they wanted to return it.”