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Column by George Sibley

Wildlife – March 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

I’M SITTING HERE thinking about water, thinking I ought to be writing something about water, but I’m being distracted by a murder of crows.

They’re in the yard across the street, about forty of them, some in a tree but most on the ground, pecking at the snow — drinking maybe. A study in black and white because it is a gray morning outside with just enough new snow to cover the grass. It might snow more.

In the meantime, these crows are distracting. Some of them are announcing something to the world in their aggressive New Yorkish way – warning or threatening life in general about something. I could never figure out how Poe heard “Nevermore” from his raven (that’s just a crow in the mountains). What I hear from crows is “Rack! Rack!” Or these days, I imagine: “Iraq! Iraq!” They’re that kind of bird.

I’m not the kind of nature lover who mistakes birds for sweet and loving beings, the kind of beings I wish people were. I like to wake up on a summer morning to the sound of birds, and the pleasure isn’t diminished by knowing those melodious songs are basically the birds’ version of the “Trespassers will be violated!” signs that humans use for the same purpose. That’s okay — maybe it would help us put private property in perspective if we made all property owners sing their property lines rather than signing them.

And as for all of those little birds — the sparrows, the pine siskins, the finches — that flock around the winter feeder outside the kitchen window? You wouldn’t want impressionable school kids learning cafeteria behavior from those cute little birds. Pine siskins especially; some of them will all but starve themselves keeping others away from a feeder that really has enough for all. Cooperation doesn’t seem to be a dependable feature, even for those birds of a feather that flock together.

Nonetheless, there is an ingratiating combination of pertness, swiftness, agility, gumption and song to the little birds that makes it easy to like them. But the really big birds are something else again: the hawks and owls and eagles. They are what you might call “big enough to know better.” They keep their distance from us, for the most part, like most of the big mammals, and try to do their thing where people aren’t — which of course is increasingly difficult for them.

But crows? Crows are big birds with a little bird mentality. They have decided, like the little birds, to coexist with humans rather than grant us our space and seek their separate peace like the big birds. And they take up an increasing amount of our space — or at least it seems so to me.

Last summer two crows nested in a big spruce in front of our house, and raised the most noisily dysfunctional family in the neighborhood. I saw the neighbor across the street one morning looking up at their aerie, more easily heard than seen; she saw me and shook her head: “There goes the neighborhood.”

Crows are smart too — but in an amoral kind of way, smart like Kenny Lay, or Charles Hurwitz, that ilk: single-minded intelligences reducing everything to a lowest common denominator: money and edibles. Maybe there are such qualities as beauty, dignity, honor, altruism in the crows’ world, or in Kenny Lay’s for that matter, but their lives and actions don’t express it.

THOSE DETERMINED to apologize for all forms of life not human will remind me that crows do a service in cleaning up garbage and the carrion that sleeps by our highways. But I also see them carrying baby birds that hadn’t yet become carrion and other equally discouraging prizes to the nest. Seen up close, those powerful dark bills give me a shudder — and I suspect that’s why the collective term is “a murder of crows,” but I’m not sure I really want to know the whole story.

I know, I know, we humans also eat the young of other species, and are usually about as noisily and aggressively dysfunctional in the world. That’s what’s most depressing about watching crows: the sneaking awareness that we probably deserve each other. We spread such a feast of carrion before them that I think we give them an edge over the rest of the birds; if they are crowding out the little birds, it is probably our doing.

In the meantime, the crows in the yard across the street have gone off somewhere else on crow business, and the study in black and white is now just the whites and soft grays of a day that looks like it might snow.

Someone told me once that, where crows gather, there’s a door open between worlds. Maybe that’s where they went, but I doubt it. I know if I go outdoors and listen for just a few minutes, I’ll hear one — even if I don’t see it — somewhere in the distance. They’re ubiquitous, this murder that haunts our town. Iraq! Iraq! Here in the mean time. Are there more crows than there used to be? It seems that way to me.

George Sibley teaches and writes in Gunnison.