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Crows

Earlier this fall I walked out of my garage to run an errand when I heard a blizzard of “caw caw caws” calling from about a hundred yards away.

I turned to see how many crows were making that racket, and there were more than I could count. In the hundreds, for sure. They soared and swooped against the crisp blue sky, their unblemished black dotting trees dressed in their here-comes-November glory.

Many merely circled above the others, riding thermals rising from the giant cornfield behind them that had been stripped by harvesters, leaving furrowed earth to soak up seasonally slanted sun. I smiled at the cacophony.

My neighborhood is full of trees. When I sit on my back porch, I can see no farther than the dense shade of a 60-foot red oak in my backyard; I cannot see beyond a tall row of skinny pines bordering a neighbor’s yard to my right; I cannot see past the maples that fill another neighbor’s yard to my left. The birds dive into the deep green, two and three at a time, and once out of sight, they chide each other with a variety of sounds: a sustained guttural croak, a duck-like quack, a close-quarters note that rises in pitch. I am certain these are not mere noises. I am certain these birds are talking to one another. When one lands at the swaying tip of a tall pine and cries out defiantly to the sky, I am certain it is challenging other birds, saying something like “You want a piece of me?”

They often glide at eye level as I watch from a patio chair. I love how they slow to stick their landing, pulling up at the last second to stop and then drop like feathered ballerinas. I love their graceful shape, their regal bearing, the way they are cautious without timidity, self-assured without arrogance.

When I was still a newspaper guy, I had the good fortune to edit a monthly column by Fred Meyer, a local bird watcher. If there had been a professional ornithologists’ league, he would have been an all-pro. The editors would crack cheap jokes when Fred visited; the jokes involved the phrase “tufted titmouse.” Ha. Ha. Fred usually was stopping to see when his latest column would run. The editors would sit on it for weeks, displaying a professionalism on par with their bird humor.

When I became editor, we gave Fred’s columns good display. Birds are everywhere, and Fred’s pieces were treats. They no doubt turned many readers into birders.

I once told Fred I had trouble telling one kind of hawk from another. Did he? He chuckled and said it was as easy for him to tell one hawk from another as it was for him to spot me in a crowd. The hawks still elude me. I think I can distinguish the red-tails from others, but I’m not sure.

What does this have to do with crows? It comes back to something Fred wrote. He said that although birds like indigo buntings and scarlet tanagers are jewel-like in their plumage, we shouldn’t think less of more commonplace species. I always had considered birds like crows and starlings to be nuisances. Fred opened my eyes about their own brands of beauty.

I thought of Fred that recent sunny autumn day as I watched those hundreds of crows convene in the treetop sky. I chucked to think about what they might be saying in their constant cawing. Were they busting each other’s chops? Who knows? Maybe they were laughing at that guy in the driveway across the way. If they were, then they found me laughing along with them.

Comments

( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
sahlah
Dec. 11th, 2011 08:11 pm (UTC)
That was a murder you know...

I think crows are pretty cool - they are smart too, so watch out.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 11th, 2011 08:26 pm (UTC)
Right about "murder," but I wasn't sure how many people are familiar with the term. Or these: an unkindness of ravens, a true love of turtledoves, an ostentation of peacocks, a murmuration of starlings, a sorde (??) of mallards, a paddling of ducks, a cover of coots, a rafter of turkeys, a covey of partridge, a host of sparrows, a descent of woodpeckers, a leash of merlins, a flight of goshawks, a convocation of eagles, a cast of hawks, a tiding of magpies, a flight of swallows, a mutation of thrushes, a building of rooks, a watch of nightingales, a congregation of plovers, a nye of pheasants, a charm of finches, a party of jays, a deceit of lapwings, a siege of herons, a mustering of storks, a wedge of swans, a herd of cranes, a herd of wrens, a colony of penguins, a company of parrots, a parliament of owls, a walk of snipe, a herd of curlews, and an exaltation of larks.

Having said all that, I spotted your comment because I was going to open up the post and strike the phrase "silent and obsidian." In retrospect, it's a bit too precious. Murder your darlings and all that.
sahlah
Dec. 11th, 2011 10:14 pm (UTC)
Gorgeous plurals - they feel like a treat in our language.

Obsidian is the perfect word for a crow.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 11th, 2011 10:44 pm (UTC)
All of the plurals come from a book called An Exaltation of Larks,</> by James Lipton. It has entries for just about anything you can think of.
sahlah
Dec. 12th, 2011 12:55 am (UTC)
Lipton of "Inside the Actor's Studio"?
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 12th, 2011 12:59 am (UTC)
The same.
sahlah
Dec. 12th, 2011 01:03 am (UTC)
Perhaps we need a Proust Questionnaire... let me think on that one.
nodressrehersal
Dec. 12th, 2011 01:24 am (UTC)
Welcome back, my writerly friend.

As an amateur but passionate birder, I really enjoyed this post. We get Cooper's and Sharp-shinned hawks in the yard a lot, but even from the distance of a few feet, I have a very hard time knowing for certain which one I'm observing as he waits on the deck for some unsuspecting lunch. Cooper's are larger, but none of them have ever stuck around for me to measure...

patrick_vecchio
Dec. 12th, 2011 02:12 am (UTC)
Hawks in your yard? That must be pretty cool.
strwberryfizz
Dec. 12th, 2011 02:57 am (UTC)
I have a great local guy who writes the most enthusiastic, genuinely delighted bird columns for the Courier. I feel like I learn a little more each week.

And a true love of turtle doves? A convocation of eagles? Perfection.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 12th, 2011 03:00 am (UTC)
Birds are like the sky: We miss the varieties of beauty unless we look up and notice the details.
(Anonymous)
Dec. 12th, 2011 03:26 pm (UTC)
You have painted a word-image so well that I can picture the crows in my mind as if I had been there.
John and I watched a crow perch on the very tip-top of the pine tree in our back yard, as if it were trying to be a black star atop a Christmas tree. Its weight made the branch wave back and forth, and it had to ruffle its wings every couple seconds to keep its balance, but it stayed there for at least a minute. I guess in that minute it was King of the Crow World. It was hilarious.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 12th, 2011 10:47 pm (UTC)
"Black star atop a Christmas tree" is a metaphor I wish I'd come up with.
vivitalia
Dec. 13th, 2011 12:28 am (UTC)
Gorgeous. I wish we had a bird column. Come to think of it, it's a wonder we don't, located where we are. There's nothing more majestic than watching a bald eagle fly, which I had the privilege to do out West once. In which state, I've since forgotten, but we were floating down a river on a raft and one of those birds took off from a bluff bordering the water and soared over our heads in lazy circles. I still wonder what he was thinking, and what we must have looked like from his point of view.
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 13th, 2011 12:38 am (UTC)
It's uncommon but not unusual to see eagles looking for fish as they circle above the Allegheny River between Allegany and Olean. Beautiful—and big. I was riding my bicycle near the bridge in Allegany one sunny Sunday afternoon and an eagle and an osprey were doing those lazy circles a couple of hundred feet up, with the eagle flying well above the osprey. It was near the bar Randy's Up the River, and everyone came out of the bar to watch.

I think it would be much, much cooler, though, to see one from a raft in a river, especially out West, where the scenery is much more, well, scenic.
(Anonymous)
Dec. 22nd, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for the kind words about my dad. He loved his birds and worked endlessly to write his bird column...which was a labor of love. - Terri Meyer Kissinger
patrick_vecchio
Dec. 22nd, 2011 02:37 pm (UTC)
Terri, your dad changed the way I look at nature. That is a precious gift. Whenever I spot a bird that I can't identify, I always think about Fred.
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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