Wednesday, February 21, 2018

All Night, All Day, Watching Over Me

Here's the thing about birds. They're always doing something you should know about.  They're beautiful, even the ugly ones. They're all over the place. And if you pay attention to them, you will find yourself several notches happier, effortlessly. Besides, they're paying attention to you.

And yet most people pay so little attention to birds that they can't identify more than three or four. Here we are, under constant surveillance, and we're walking around completely oblivious to it, like the birds are Homeland Security or Facebook or something.

So I've advised people over the years to get in the habit of noticing birds. The noticing of birds is its own reward. After a while you're paying more attention to their troubles than your own, which is healthy, and cheering on their social conquests, and whacking neighbor cats on their behalf, and you're getting to know where to look for individual ones and what kind of nest they might be cooking up, and you're driving your car with your head out the window staring straight up, which can get loud and exciting too.

You could see someone special.
I might be amazed now at how unaware people are of what is all around them every day, but I used to be pretty unobservant myself. I remember thirty years ago Dave and I noticed that crows kept flying over the house heading southwest right around beer-thirty. That was the extent of our scrutiny. We didn't know where they were going or if it was just a little group of them going to Book Group in the next block or what. Years later, when we were paying attention and doing a lot more walkabouts, we realized they were going downtown for the night, and they were gathering in big groups, and we did a little research and found out they like to roost together most of the year and only stay in their home trees during nesting season. And we began to admire them more and more. Their roosting place varied. Sometimes it was the south end of town, sometimes north, sometimes midtown. They'd fly around and make a bunch of noise, and we'd be home before they turned in proper.

A lot of people only notice birds when they poop. A while ago a woman wrote a letter to the editor. She'd encountered massive amounts of bird poop on the street and sidewalks and was incensed that the city didn't clean it up more often. Disease! Pestilence! Dry cleaning bills! She was het up. Sugar? You're in a city that owns one snow plow and employs a single pothole dude with a bucket. We aren't going to have a poop removal force. That's what rain is for.

So now I'm constantly watching crows and reading up on them and using words like "tactile rictal bristles" without embarrassment and, in general, thinking I know some stuff. And then my own oblivitude rears its baffled head yet again. I'm downtown for my monthly date with my friend Pat Lichen. I'd walked around a bit in the dark, vaguely taking in an interesting polkadot pattern on the pavement, without giving it much thought. When I meet Pat, she asks if I'd seen the heroic amount of bird poop on the street. Shoot! Of course. Usually when you see a bunch of bird shit it's all in a row under a light post or something, but this was all over evenly, like a Jackson Pollock painting, so it hadn't registered for me. "Don't look up!" I joked.

Learned that lesson more than once.

But we couldn't help it. We looked up. And there, in the dark winter silhouettes of elm branches, for blocks and blocks, with the starry sky beyond, were large black shapes, sleeping crows, thousands of sleeping crows, motionless, presiding over us heedless goofs below with our blathering and our headlights and our traffic and our pointless noise. A soft stratum of feathered life, a blanket over us all. We both knew about the roosts. But we'd never looked up.

29 comments:

  1. I can so identify! I pay more attention to the birds than I do to people. Many times I am driving and see an especially fine looking crow or vulture, and stop my car, and look at it with awe, and even say "Oooooo... how beautiful you are!" If you like crows, I recommend Canuck and I on FaceBook. A crow that was rescued as a chick and human-raised, then released, took a liking to a guy named Shawn. He visits him every day, they hang out together on weekends, and Shawn lovingly documents all this. This year, Canuck has found a mate (Cassiar), who is a completely wild crow, but she is getting used to Shawn, and has even hopped on him. I am looking forward to hearing about them building a nest and raising young. (In case you hadn't guessed, I have a thing for crows.)

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    1. I've read about Canuck and he just pisses me off. You know how hard Dave and I have worked to befriend our crows? We've invested walnuts and almonds and they will just stare at us until we go back into the house--there's no shoulder-landing or howdy.

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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this essay. You had me smiling and giggling and reading out loud to the spousal unit.

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  3. Not just don't look up, but don't look up with your mouth open is an even better warning. Mostly what I see on the way to work and home are ravens and a few eagles eating road killed deer. There is a definite hierarchy in feeding protocol.

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    1. I've never had a yard raven, but I do get eagles going overhead. They don't visit the feeder but they're welcome to all the cats they can find.

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    2. Noooooooooooooo!!! Cats are people, too! Not their fault if their people don't keep them inside!

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    3. I'm with Murr. If cats can indiscriminately kill songbirds, eagles should be able to indiscriminately kill cats. Nobody's "fault"... it's just poetic justice.

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    4. I loves me a good cat, you know that. Cats are people too and so are eagles and coyotes, and it DEFINITELY is not the fault of songbirds and other native wildlife that people let their cats out.

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    5. Not all cats are killers. Mine don't give a rats ass about live prey. Hmmm, maybe I could've phrased that better. At any rate, they won't even touch the flies in the house. Lazy good-for-nothings.

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    6. You're right. I think you phrased it exactly right. (Saint) Larry didn't care about birds but she was all over the mice in the house, and she could even catch one if it was in the dishwasher, which it often was.

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  4. I was teaching a class in my backyard yesterday when a blue heron flew up the canal. I watched it come from from a a quarter mile away to the left (and behind) the group and fly about the same distance to the right. It started a long train of thoughts, and more than one student thought maybe I was having a stroke. Seeing birds had all sorts of associated perils.
    But here's the thing, while the herons have been around all through this mild winter, and the groundwater filling the canal hasn't changed in depth, I haven't seen them do these long low glides up the canal since fall. Also, yesterday was a cold snap, the coldest of the winter, so temperature isn't the factor causing them to glide or not.
    Shrugs. Not a stroke.

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    1. And you pay attention, so you know what's normal and what isn't and have the curiosity to noodle about it. Just the other day I watched a male junco (probably our most common yard bird this time of year) sit on a twig with his tail fanned out. I assume he was showing off for the ladies, but I never saw that before. Could be he was just airing out his drawers, though.

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  5. We have the roosting phenomenon in our town, too (as do probably all towns). It's quite amazing to watch wave after wave of them in the hour before sundown as they come in a steady stream to their special woods.

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    1. I'm wondering if this year I can pinpoint the day they quit going downtown. When the first egg is laid, or before?

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  6. I would love to see thousands of crows all at once. Here we see thousands of Galahs, or Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, or Corellas when it's their season to be heading to the parklands for feeding. And boy are they noisy squawkers. I never see more than two crows together.

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    1. Don't you be complaining about no cockatoos! Dang that's exotic!

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  7. Used to have a huge crow rookery a few blocks from my old rental house. The West Nile Virus came through. That's over twenty years ago and I don't think they have recovered yet.

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    1. Wow! It's hard to imagine them not recovering. You have SOME, right?

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    2. I wonder if they've set up somewhere else, Bruce. The ones here switched from one patch of woods to a different patch of woods across town, a few years ago.

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    3. True that. When scientists have captured crows to band them, they would have to get it right the first time, as the crows would not return to that area again, associating it with capture. If they saw scores of their dead companions under their roosting trees, that would be enough for them to leave and not come back. Not only do crows have a long memory, but they pass on information to other crows who were not even alive for the original event. They are fascinating creatures!

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    4. I wonder if they could get them to associate it with acquiring jewelry, rather than capture? Just a little shift in perspective.

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  8. I notice birds all the time and enjoy their calls, singing and antics. But I could not tell you their names. I have a hard enough time remembering humans names!!!!

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    1. Well, there's Marge, and Studley, and...

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  9. Crows and pigeons are the only birds I see all winter here in the frigid north. I know spring is coming when the cardinal who hangs out in my neighbor's yard returns and starts singing. I don't know what he's singing about because at that point we still have 4 feet of snow on the ground but it does mean there's the possibility of spring, even if I've given up all hope. That bird is smarter than I am. Either that or he shows up early because he gets a divorce every year and is cruising for babes. Er, chicks. Whatever.

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    1. He's singing for territory, and chicks. My friend Vivi calls him the Laser Birds. Pew! Pew! Pew!

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  10. I was trying to find the difference between a raven and a crow and apparently, it's that one has five fingers, or 'pinions' and the other six...though I can't remember which is which. But basically it all comes down to a matter of a pinion...yuk yuk.

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    1. Oh, you did not just do that. Right here on my page.

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