By Irena Nagler
I’m preparing to leave a corvid hurly-burly. Beneath its restless swirl I lean against an oak tree, attempting to be unobtrusive. Nearby, under the storm of wings, a man is standing, his back to me, profoundly rooted, silent by a stone marker. We both wear coats as black as the feathers of the birds. Above us, they arrive: alighting and arising, some perching on branches, others in perpetual motion and outcry.
As I walk down a curving hillside street, more are pouring into the area to join their friends. In enormous numbers, they fly on a backdrop of gray-white clouds tinged with orange. The distant crows far to the west are barely visible. They seem to be generated from the cloud-world in an endless fountain and materialize as they draw nearer. The clouds their fathomless source, they are faintly outlined, then hurl themselves into the foreground. Sometimes, swerving abruptly, they appear to change worlds, to make visible a quantum leap, as if a page turned in the air.
It is strange to look around and see weary people heading home from work, waiting for buses, not looking up at this fantastic play directly overhead and filling the horizon.
The crow gatherings are a winter phenomenon. They are boisterous and convivial. Trees and skies teem with unfurling black tatter-coats and calls that sound like fabric being ripped. Their occurrence in urban areas is fairly recent, beginning after the 1950s when cities, where hunting is prohibited, became more forested, often preserving big oak trees. Crows like small cities with large trees and nearby agricultural fields.
I remember my first introduction to them. I was three years old, out in the back garden with my father. It was a grey day, raw and windy, probably in March. My father was busy at some work.
I was looking up into an old oak. Just beside it, two black birds appeared, seeming to lie on a bed of air emanated by the oak. They probably cawed. I remember a sensation of time slowing.
“Crows,” said my father. He didn’t like them much, but that didn’t come through in his voice; he merely named them for me. They were two musical notes on an invisible staff strung from the tree. I sensed something resonant, iconic.
An artist friend, Dino Lampron, painted a picture that he said was partly of me. A face in profile, a high forehead. A player on a flute or pipe. Nested within the figure where its bronchi might be, and suggesting the vocal source, is a crow or raven. Dino calls the painting “Alter Ego.” It is vibrant with voice and spirit motion, emerging from trance, an unwritten legend. The colors are fiery, with a touch of the green flash preceding sunset.
Crows are sometimes feared and persecuted as shadows. A crow may call, synchronous with a perception, as if affirming it. I find that supportive and heartening. So do many. Others interpret it as ominous.
Railway tracks cut through a barren, stony swath under the Broadway Bridge. It collects rain puddles that, seen from the bridge, become eyes reflecting the sky. Though the pools are messy and temporary, the reflections are whole, flawless, numinous. They could be doorways to alternate versions of the world. Shadows thrown from the high bridge loom large over that narrow strip of transit land.
One late afternoon in April, walking on the bridge, I notice a crow strutting along in the dirt by the tracks. It has that loveably awkward bird-gait with waddling hindquarters. I think briefly of a crow I once saw being shot. Its tribe had flown to circle and scream around the fallen one.
I see the shadow of me crossing the bridge, looming long in rays of evening light. The scene down there becomes theater: my shade, the incarnate crow. The two pass through each other. There is a heightened awareness of desert-like drama in the railway area, its dry-dirt strip of land after winter, the sky in the water, and the alter egos in shades of black and gray.
I used to walk under a crow roost in a tree on the corner of High Street and Elizabeth, wading in a gray-black snow of downy feathers that had accumulated over time. At dusk, the birds clustered overhead spoke in sleepy descending croaks and croonings. (“‘Night, everyone…”?) I took some feathers home and deposited them in an eccentric red glass candleholder or ginger jar (I never quite figured out what it was) that I’d acquired somewhere, maybe in the basement of Treasure Mart.
One morning I awoke from a dream of rising from a tree into daybreak in the midst of a black-feathered flock. The red contraption with its feather collection was by my bed, an Aladdin’s lamp of feathery smoke. The dream scattered atoms into the day.
Ann Arbor has a “nationally outstanding crow population,” according to a 1997 Ann Arbor News article by Joanne Nesbit. Late in autumn, rivers of crows in the afternoon sky migrate to pan-clan gatherings. They are better weather predictors than humans. A few years ago, I was a little puzzled by this wintry behavior in mid-November, earlier than usual. Two days later it was snowing. The weather channels had not predicted it.
Circa 1991, Cynthia Sims Parr, a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan doing doctoral research on crows, gave a talk about their vocalizations at the University’s Exhibit Museum of Natural History. She played tapes of calls and croons and conversational noises. She had studied their winter and summer patterns of movement and association.
In the summer, the crows live in family groups. In winter, they congregate near dusk in great numbers, then disperse again to sleep after dark in communal roosts comprised of a few families. One can come upon these unexpectedly at night: winter oaks with a mysterious new population of leaves, black against an indigo lake of sky, maybe a full moon. Suddenly a leaf rustles and croons or calls in rough tones, arises from its branch and settles again, echoed by a flurry of others.
Between the birds, the sky forms negative-space doorways into infinite reaches. At night, trees filled with murmuring black leaves hug Central Campus buildings and nearby houses. Attempts to drive them away only succeed temporarily.
I began to visit the most obvious crow winter staging area, and found another deep in a small, wild local forest. Wearing my black coat, I fancied that I was like one of the birds, or at least a sort of distant cousin.
I brought friends, one or two at a time. As we approached, hearing loud cawing, we would see a forested ridge above us blackened and scintillating with arriving birds. An excitement gripped us. They flew in great cauldron-swirls overhead. One, perched in a white pine tree, called with such a human voice that we had to laugh, and wonder aloud whether it had been in some sort of relationship with one of us.
One friend wanted a photo of the crows. I asked him not to reveal the location if he posted it online. When we emerged from the scene, he found his camera had temporarily ceased to function. It resumed again once we had left the crows.
Corvids can be taught to imitate human speech. There is a myth that they must have their tongues split into forks to be able to speak words. Some cruel behavior has resulted. Their tongues play only a minor part in vocalizing. Instead of the larynx as a sound resonator, birds use the syrinx (based on the word for Greek musical panpipes): a structure connected to the twofold branching of bronchi toward the lungs. They can thus make two sounds at once, layering them.
Corvids may not be cognizant, in the human sense, of the words they mimic. But in speaking them, they resonate with us.
Crows have much in common with humans. They can distinguish faces in a crowd. They will watch and remember behavior for years. They sometimes give gifts to humans who befriend and feed them: jewelry, candy, and other objects that they have picked up. They create technologies: one might bend a wire into a hook for use in lifting something, or fill a cup with water to moisten food. Crows have been observed putting walnuts in front of stopped cars to be broken open by the wheels.
There’s a crow tree in my backyard. A family returns to it year after year. The young ones have a call not unlike a human baby’s, persistent when asking for attention or food.
Crows mate for life. They usually nest in evergreens. Parents croon to their offspring, half of whom do not survive predators. The young ones frequently stay for a few years and help to raise new nestlings and fledglings, feeding them, bringing food to the incubating female, defending the territory, calling to ward off predators, guarding family members while they forage in fields. If they leave for years and return, they are welcomed back into the family. Crows do not breed until they are two years old.
Crows are suspected of driving away smaller birds. Their tendency to eat grain from cultivated fields does not endear them to humans. There’s a hunting season for them in many states, including Michigan (no bag limit).
They do sometimes eat other bird species’ eggs and attack nestlings. But, in general, studies don’t indicate that crows’ occasional aggressive behavior makes a decisive difference in songbird populations. If they are removed, other predators move in.
Like their mythic counterpart, the Raven — who stole the sun to bring light to the world — crows seem to seize pieces of sky and set them glittering on branches. Though crows don’t hoard shiny objects, they do play with them.
Before Europeans arrived, there were more ravens than crows in Michigan. Ravens prefer seclusion and forestland. It’s possible that Ann Arbor was once more of a hunting territory than a town or village. It was also perhaps sacred land. According to a descendant of Potawatomi in the area, a healing center here drew people from all directions, accounting for the many trails that meet by the river.
In the city’s oldest section, near the river, are many examples of the meeting of three roads. Ancient Greeks would have consecrated them to Hecate, Goddess of the Crossroads. One of her many animal symbols is the crow.
The Irish Morrigan, a warrior goddess, has a crow’s head. Like most of the “dark goddesses,” she is linked with the sovereignty of Earth, the imperative to orient oneself and society toward Earth’s wisdom and long experience, to allow its natural authority and guidance in creative efforts, so that human brilliance will not upset too many balances.
Crows are associated with other goddesses of darkness. Black has been given a negative connotation in Western culture, with racist elements. But for many individuals, it throws a shadow of evocative beauty and depth. The mystery holds great treasures. Crows and ravens are iridescent in their black plumage. There is a blue and violet shine to their feathers when light touches them.
Naturalist Jed Bromfield accompanies Jennifer Kovach and me to a crow gathering place near a beloved nature area. It’s February, but the weather is warm and rainy. We squelch around in a forested valley that drips and echoes, and Jed names plants for us. We can hear the birds beginning to arrive.
Jed can caw like one of the tribe. We walk and walk, following the crows at a distance. Stones loom around us, and, everywhere, the old trees. The air is gray, enclosing us in soft mystery.
Afterwards, the three of us make a foray into Café Verde in our rain capes and mud-spattered boots, feeling that we drag along with us the aura of the rain-drenched valley and soaked winter leaves. Sitting at a table, drinking the most intense lemon-ginger tea ever made, we become “Blackwater Hattie, Jenny Greenteeth and Sir Jed Corvus Brachyrhynchos,” a swampland trio.
Outside, in their winter palaces among oak branches, our alter egos brim over with the excitement of reunion at the end of a day. Their voices scrape rough ink-strokes of sound on the air. They land on branches with heart-stopping grace, folding black fringes of wing.
Birds are sentinels who inform everyone, avian or otherwise, of what’s going on in the worlds of forest, field, and city. For those who know how to interpret the communications, knowledge of — and safety in — the environment is enhanced.
When present enough, we may tune in through resonance with any being of our living system to a world thrumming with its own electric communication. It taps on our bones, waiting for us to listen.
Our alter ego crows insist upon it.