Tuesday, August 9, 2022

A couple of crows on a tree in my backyard

     Between my backyard and the village property beyond is a line of trees — healthy pines, with the exception of one very dead tree that no doubt will be removed soon. Stepping onto the back deck, I glance at the top, and was rewarded by seeing a large black bird, a crow, perch there, soon to be joined by a second. They surveyed their surroundings while I watched them.
      Usually, crows are encountered on the ground, flapping a few dozen yards off. Up close, they can be unsettling. They always give me pause, as harbingers of something. It must be their impenetrable black color. Their size. Some big birds are impressive —herons, hawks. Crows are just large. There's something ominous about them.
     I'm relieved to see this isn't a bias peculiar to me.
    "The Night-Crow cried, aboding luckless time," Shakespeare's King Henry VI exclaims.
     "Crows are most associated with corpses and dark death," Diana Wells writes in her essential "100 Birds and How they Got Their Names." A question she doesn't answer while skipping through the numerous ways crows impact our language, from scarecrows to Jim Crow to eating crow. My favorite being "crowbar," which she suggests is named for "the crow's strong curved bill."
     A bill—I'd call it a beak, though the words are synonymous—used to sometimes eat other birds, or steal their eggs, or pluck their feathers to line their own nests, a quality put to good use in a letter by Horace when chiding a lesser colleague, encyclopedist Aulus Celsus, in this translation by David Ferry:
    ...He's been advised, and surely
It's good advice for him, that he should write
Out of himself and out of what he knows
And stay away from those old writers he reads
In Apollo's library on the Palatine.
Someday the flock of birds might come back asking
To have their brilliant feathers given back
And the crow, stripped naked, is certain to be laughed at. 
     Lines Robert Greene surely had in mind when defaming William Shakespeare as "an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers."For me, the duo in my backyard echoed, not Shakespeare, but Thomas Mann, whose "Death in Venice" is crammed with auguries. Gustav von Auschenbach at first rejoices at being on holiday in the plague-bound city, thinking back to his Teutonic home, "the scene of his battles in the summer, where the clouds blew low across his garden, and terrifying storms put out the lamps at night, and the crows which he fed were swinging in the tops of the pine trees."
     Wells doesn't address "to crow," as in boasting, and I thought of my game of which usage came first; in this case, the bird or the brag? But of course the bird would have to come first, its distinctive "caw" or "crah" easily applied to self-congratulations, noises that would have to explain its name as well. "Crow" is practically an onomatopoeia.
     The OED starts with the great Dr. Johnson's definition, "a large black bird that feeds upon the carcasses of beasts." Though they'll eat just about anything: carrion, insects, berries, with a particular fondness for cultivated grains — hence scarecrows. The usage is over a thousand years old.
     Among the crow-based phrases the OED touches upon, "to have a crow to pluck or pull (rarely pick) with any one" is to have a disagreeable, awkward matter that must be gone over with another person. That would seem a bit more evocative than the standard "bone to pick." The boasting, swaggering meaning is 500 years old.
     In my research, I got sidetracked to scarecrows. They're such literary figures, stars of horror stories and "The Wizard of Oz." And in the 19th century, metaphors — governments were tossing up this and that as scarecrows. I wondered how useful scarecrows actually were.
     Plenty, apparently. John Armstrong's 1840 "A Treatise on Agriculture: A Concise History of its Origin and Progress;the Present Condition of the Art Abroad and at Home and the Theory and Practice of Husbandry" recommends them. After a discussion of keeping insects off cherry trees by burning a mixture of pitch and sulfur, Armstrong notes, "Birds are here a more potent enemy; and the best remedy against them are old fishnets thrown over the trees, clapboards, scarecrows, and fusees."
     Fusee is an old term for flare. Clapboards hardly need explanation, except to note that they are still used. Little corellas, small white cockatoos that flock by the thousands, chewing on streetlights and causing "stress and concern" for residents of Alexandrina, according to their web page, which passes along "scaring techniques" from the South Australian Little Corella Management Strategy, including:

     "Two pieces of timber (approx. 400mm long x 35mm thick) with a door hinge at one end to join the two timbers together. Hold the clap boards up high and start clapping the boards together loudly when birds are present."
     Alexandrina is on the southern coast of Australia, not far from Adelaide. And here, it strikes me that we've come quite far from two crows on a tree in my backyard. They stayed there quite a while — a least five minutes, which I felt in my arms, holding up my phone to snap their exit. Finally, my patience was rewarded: one flew off and then, after another long pause, the other followed.


  1. Don't ever come to Seattle Neil. The crows are everywhere, overpopulating our evergreen treetop canopy of Douglas fir, spruce, hemlock, cypress, and pine. Even terrorizing the nesting eagles in our neighborhood, which makes for a noisy (but admittedly entertaining) ruckus. I'll miss the throaty purr of this neighborhood's ravens when we move to the Columbia River Gorge, but not the abundance of crows.

  2. Shame it was only 2. "A murder of crows on a tree in my backyard" is so much sexier!

    1. It does seem weirdly appropriate that the murder of crows in Neil's backyard was settled on a dead tree rather than a live one.

      The technical side of me suggests that they picked that tree because it gave the most unrestricted view of the surrounding area, but still... Hitchcock had an eye for scary things to turn into movies...

  3. Early one morning a few years ago, I saw a crow chase a squirrel down the street and into my front yard on South Keeler (a couple blocks from Madigan's house). It was a startling scene, but the bird gave up when it had cornered the squirrel, which I'm guessing was seen attempting to raid the crow's nest (though here used literally, another metaphorical application starring the ubiquitous crow).


  4. Back in 1999 the West Nile Virus hit crows hard--100% mortality rate. They have come back since then, but I remember 20 years ago that seeing a crow was rare. They actually are pretty smart birds and have a fantastic memory--but the best fact is a group of crows is called a murder.

    1. And they can count up to four, according to a fairly well known story in which the caretaker of an English castle in an effort to get rid of a couple crows bothering the tenants, tried to fool them by having two or three men enter the building and one less exiting. They weren't fooled until the number was increased beyond four and then they fell for it...for lack of fingers to count on, I guess.


    2. Perhaps West Nile (which hit Ohio hard) is why I don't see them much in around here anymore. I miss them.

      They seemed to really proliferate in the fall, and glisten and shine in the October sunlight. Perfect accessories for Halloween, too. I even liked all the noise they made. To me it meant "fall in the Midwest." Crows were the soundtrack of my DeKalb County days. It must have been their fondness for all that corn. They probably sneered at the scarecrows out there.

      When I moved to Cleveland, thirty years ago, crows were all over my neighborhood. Sometimes they held big loud conventions in the yards, and high up in the trees. A lot of the trees have since died, and have been removed, and the crows seem to have left, as well. Or else they were mostly wiped out by the virus.

      I would not mind at all if the big flocks of crows came back. But the older I get, and the shorter my time becomes, the more I realize that I probably won't be seeing and hearing them again. Another good thing gone, and now a part of my past.

      I've never been much of a bird guy at all, but I've always liked crows a lot. Go figure.

  5. As a child, when we would visit my uncle's farm in Missouri, he would set me and my cousin 12 and 11 loose on his acreage with .22 rifles and instructions to shoot the crows. Seems horrible now, but vegetables from that garden Had to get them through the winter and they just weren't in the mood to share

  6. Interesting to compare the way the two resident EGD writers approach totemic animals. Neil turns to the Shakespeare and Dr Johnson and the OED on crows; Caren looks to Native traditions of medicine and relics.

    Also, I'll throw out that the Europeans (Aesop, La Fontaine) had a similar view of crows as smart and somewhat malevolent, and fox took the places of coyotes.


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