Copyright: Karl Meyer
November 3, 2007

Crows in the night

They’ve become simply, “the crows.” And they are ever present. Of course they are ever present everywhere. But here, in this town of Greenfield, they have a large and not so secret roost. I do not know where it is yet, but I’m sure many do. Thousands of crows gather in the dusky skies nightly, heading for home. But it’s what they do that’s of most interest to me. It’s what’s most fun–most antic. What is it that the crows know?

They sometimes strafe the ridge top place where I sit above town. I was there early the other morning and a lone crow was rolling along in gleaning flight along the ledge. I startled it–which is unusual for a crow, and it quickly veered away from the cliff face in a broad arc. It’s not everyday you get the jump on a crow, so this day’s little quirk belonged to me. Surely I was not a serious material threat, just a known crow predator– a human. I did honor its passage with a quiet crow call, signaling no harm intended. It flew on.

But the other night, secure in my apartment just after dusk, I heard crows through an open window on an unusually warm, late October night. The radio was on. Truly it was dark, but I was hearing birds. It’s the radio, I thought, background noise not edited from a news interview. I ignored it. But then, next story, there was that noise again—a low, caw-caw-caw. And then it would stop.

At the third sounding I flipped off the radio; went to the window. Dark. There was just an afterglow in the western sky. This was night in late-October night. Birds don’t sing when the street lights are on, save owls and the odd mockingbird at the full of the moon. And, though the full moon was near, these were no mockers. “Caw, caw,” again. The call was not feverish, but a minimal communication, a signal–a crow sharing news. “Caw-caw,” something is up, someone is up, something is exciting and newsworthy in crow culture. Perhaps it is the moon, or, more likely the weather. Or maybe it’s just late-day crow intimacy too juicy to wait until daybreak.

It is night. The crows are singing. I’m fascinated and grateful to have these new neighbors—as someone who’s just moved to the city from the country. At this moment they are as wild as wildebeests.

And this morning, awakened, pre-dawn, by some unknown bump or scratching, I am up before six to make coffee in the glow of a single light. I return with it to bed and grab a the thick novel I’m working through. Shortly though, I hear it. Caw! Then another. Then, caw-caw-caw-caw-caw-caw! They are up, and not just one or two. This is bait I can not help but take. I rise again, and quietly head out the door to a second floor deck overlooking back yards and the dead end of a street.

Looming above is a tulip tree, nearly a hundred feet tall, with a large silver maple in its understory. The leaves are half-fallen. And there are the crows, yelling, then silently moving to-and-fro in pre-dawn silhouettes. The chorus is truly big neighborhood news, but the neighbors are not up yet. It’s too dark to see if perhaps the point they are making is that there’s a predator in this tree—an owl or roosting hawk. I’ve seen a Cooper’s hawk around. The yelling continues. More crows fly in, joining dozens. Others scoot by for a look, some moving off to the west. But the core of them stays, continuing to grow. There is split-second quiet when I move, telling me they’re aware of my presence, but it is momentary. Whatever they have to share is more important. The gabfest goes on.

Coffee in hand, I’m there for ten minutes, fifteen. When it seems like the darkness has lifted enough to make binoculars useful, I duck in and some. The noise continues; crows swirl. I can’t make out any lump of an owl or hawk, or marauding raccoon or fisher either. It’s just those shadowy crows. They have something. They must. But my vantage just will not reveal it—there is a side of these two trees that will remain hidden from my sight as darkness continues to lift. I move up and down the deck, hopeful of catching some predator’s hunch, or a bit of movement. Once or twice I hear a plaintive, low call—something more than a cooing, but similar to it. I can’t place it though.

Daylight makes a slow entrance this gray morning. The catcalls of this wondrous hoard continues, but with less intensity. Inevitably morning brings a subtle, quiet dispersal. Crows peel away one and two at a time until its just me left on the deck, pondering their wildness–wondering who and what had come to rest in that tulip tree to receive the honor of such noise. I’m awake, in a still wild world.