The crows are flocking once again as they do each November. Around sunset they cross the sky over our house, coming out of the west, some returning from 30 or 40 miles away. They start to flock each year about this time to huddle together during the chilly nights at their annual refuge in the median on Route 9 at the eastern approach to the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Poughkeepsie, New York. Don’t ask me, “Why there?” I would have to answer, “Why not there?” It’s an easy place to find.
The trees in the median are maples with broad spreading branches that can hold hundreds or maybe thousands of them. It’s hard to say just how many crows gather each night. It looks like hundreds or thousands. Probably not even they know. Driving under them you start to think of Halloween or Alfred Hitchcock as they look like dark birds of prey, perched on leafless limbs, waiting to attack en masse unsuspecting mice or chipmunks or lost souls. Even though we are safe with car windows rolled up, they outnumber us. However, they are not birds of prey, but scavengers. They let other critters do the killing.
In the morning, still in bed, we hear them cawing in the early light as they return to their daytime haunts many miles away. They fly westward over the house, but on some mornings they seem to linger in trees across the road and on the hillside, squabbling over something or other. Breakfast? Something that died in the night? One of them takes the lead, perhaps as a scout or out-rider scanning the piles of dried leaves for something dead and edible. Then the scout caws, and others arrive, and for awhile they raise a chorus of urgent cawing and scolding as they decide how to handle the situation. They eventually move on, but certainly not all of them partook of this meager breakfast. If that’s what it was. And yet somehow even on the coldest days they find nourishment.
Crows have gotten a bad reputation over the years. No one ever stops in the middle of doing something and says, “Oh, look! There’s a crow!” like we stop to say, “Oh, look, there’s a blue bird!” Or red-tail hawk. Or eagle. Or humming bird. Some people find crows to be a nuisance. But crows keep the grounds cleared of decay. They are smart and playful like their cousins the ravens. Corvus corvus, the humble cornfield crow, and corvus corax, the mysterious raven of mystery and magic—they know how to survive. Their dark shadows and shapes on earth and in the sky are comforting to me in spite of the ghoulish reputations they have acquired from poets and artists and survivors returning from fresh battlefields. I think some folks just fear their dark color or the lack of it. Both birds are strong and reliable companions through the cold months of winter. They stay on the land, as do I. They hunker down at night, as do I. They express their aggravations, as do I.
In his ode “To Autumn” John Keats asks, “Where are the songs of spring? Ay, where are they? / Think not of them, thou hast thy music too.” He is thinking of bees, gnats, lambs, the red-breast, and swallows that twitter in the skies of autumn. Yes, they have their music too, but so does November. Perhaps it is a bit harsher than the music of spring and early autumn. It is the music of approaching winter. Wind rustling through dried cornstalks. Crumpled, brown leaves coughing in the corners of the porch. Cold needles of rain splattering on window panes. Flocking crows flapping loudly, cawing out a crisp, challenging song of winter which has its beauty too.