Tuesday, Nov 01 2011

A Murder Of Crows

by Jan D. Axtell

Ahhh, Halloween. I love this time of year. Even the slightest unknown leaf rustle brings to mind the things one wants to deny. Even the stoutest of hearts can be heard repeating “I don’t believe in ghosts…I don’t believe in ghosts…I don’t believe in ghosts. It is a time of year where the raspy “croak” of the raven and “caw” of crow seems to carry an unseen weight. So much so that the flocks of crows that gather in the late fall and early winter are called “murders”; a fitting name given the short days, long nights, declining temperatures, and post-foliage skeletal forests that characterize late the Green Mountains this time of year.

Taxonomically speaking the Common raven (Corvus corax) and American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are members of the Corvidae family. The birds are all black from the tip of the beak to the toes on their feet with an iridescent violet sheen, which is old news to anyone who has taken the time to look up. They grow to about 17.5” in length and can have a wing span of up to 40” long. The American crow is widely distributed across North America and can be found in all the states and Canadian provinces with the exception of Alaska and the Northwest Territories.

Ecologically speaking, crows and ravens play very important roles in the day to day rhythms of nature. They are omnivores, and because of their scavenging ways act as a kind of cleaning crew of the dead and dying. I have seen road kill deer carcasses picked clean to the bone in a matter of days by crows and ravens, the speed of which was astonishing.

No doubt this scavenging nature is how they came to their much maligned reputation. It seems that on the battle fields, old crows and ravens were the first visitors to arrive and feast on the flesh of dead soldiers. Not a terribly endearing trait and because of the misunderstanding they have been persecuted throughout time and thought to be the harbingers of death.

Ravens and Crows are considered to be of the highest intelligence. They credited with the intellectual ability to count, distinguish symbols, learn patterns, and retain information. Traits I myself could use some help with. They also display an incredible longevity with documented wild individuals living in excess of 14 years. It makes sense that crows would live to be old in that stupidity in nature is often rewarded with premature death.

With the onset of winter crows flocking up into large wintering groups often colloquially called “murders of crows”. This week, as I arrived at Trapp Family Lodge early in the morning, I was treated to a great number (200-300) of crows and ravens departing their nights roost atop Luce Hill. Their great flock’s mass grew as individuals joined the fray and swirled about like leaves in a vortex. It was a truly awe inspiring site. I watched the birds for some time, and as the “murder” moved off like a tornado I couldn't help but think how unique a phenomenon I had witnessed.

With the majority of the summer visitors gone, my bird watching drifts toward the stalwart few who carve out their niches year round in the Green Mountains. The murders of crows and ravens that etch out a living in our shared space are an interesting preoccupation for the bird watchers of the area. Against a snowy back drop they are striking birds whose existence transcends our simple biases. Given that, they still add an edge to the pagan’s holiday of Halloween because it simply wouldn’t be the same without their forlorn and eerie calls coming unseen from the gloom of a gray day’s dusk.

I don’t believe in ghost…I don’t believe in ghosts…I don’t believe in ghosts

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