“The crow when he sings is nothing short of a clown; he ruffles his feathers, stretches his neck, like a cat with a fish bone in her throat, and with a most tremendous effort delivers a series of hen-like squawks.”
This quote, attributed simply to a “Mr. Mathews” in the Anna Comstock Handbook of Nature Study, elicited a chorus of giggles from my flock this afternoon, when we encountered it during an hour spent informing ourselves about crows. Beanie, the nine-year-old, especially enjoyed it, and I heard her repeating it to herself shortly afterward.
This morning all our plans for the day went up in…not smoke, but mercury. Half the children have fevers and sniffles; some are worse than others. We canceled Shakespeare Club, much to the regret of the teenager and her mother (sob—we were to begin rehearsing scenes from The Scottish Play today), and although the older girls aren’t sick, we thought it best to forego their piano classes as well, lest we pass these unpleasant germs around.
Late in the morning, Rose and I spied a trio of crows quarreling on the phone wires out front. As we watched, it became evident they were fighting for a particularly choice perch on the fixture jutting out from the top of a pole. One bird claimed the spot, and the other two took turns wheeling and diving at him. He wouldn’t budge. They had us in stitches. Rose said it was like Saturday mornings on our sofa, when the children wrestle over the remote control.
We are often amused by the crows who haunt our yard, so we decided to find out more about them. Comstock was, as usual, more than helpful. (But if ever, ever, ever a book begged to be converted to a digital format, it is that unwieldy three-inch-thick behemoth!)
“The crow is probably the most intelligent of all our native birds,” she writes. “It is quick to learn and clever in action, as many a farmer will testify who has tried to keep it out of corn fields with various devices, the harmless character of which the crow soon understood perfectly….”
The kids enjoyed Comstock’s descriptions of tame crows, especially the story of one bird who “was fond of playing marbles with a little boy of the family. The boy would shoot a marble into a hole and then Billy, the crow, would take a marble in his beak and drop it into the hole. The bird seemed to understand the game and was highly indignant if the boy played out of turn and made shots twice in succession.”
Of course now we all want a crow for a pet.
After Anna Comstock, we had to see what the internet could tell us about crows. There was Robert Frost, of course, feeling cheered (as were we!) by the antics of a crow—
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
And Van Gogh’s Wheat Field with Crows.
Comstock had told us that when a flock of crows (excuse me, a murder of them), descend upon a field, one of them always stands sentinel. Rose thinks the crow in the left foreground is probably this bunch’s sentinel.
A tame crow seems to have caught Picasso’s interest, too—
When you’re talking about crows, Aesop comes to mind. We recalled the fables of the Crow and the Pitcher, and the one about the Fox and the Crow with the bit of cheese.
This site collects variations of the old rhyme about crows—we knew the rhyme (it’s in the Rosemary Wells Mother Goose book that Rilla and Wonderboy make me read almost daily) but I didn’t know it had to do with counting crows!
Nor had I grasped that the band “Counting Crows” took its name from that rhyme.
Also on that site, a collection of crow haiku.
Crow poetry makes me think of the Scottish ballad, “The Twa Corbies”—rather a grisly tale, but gripping! Here’s a YouTube clip of the poem being read (not sung) aloud in Scots. There’s an English translation below the “more info” link. We also listened to this version sung by The Corries—still grisly, but quite lovely.
We put some peanuts on our patio table and were almost immediately rewarded with a comedy routine performed by three curious crows—the same lads from this morning?—who were terribly intrigued by these Delicious-Smelling Objects left Unattended on the Flat Thing—intrigued but too suspicious to do more than cock their heads and eye them warily from the back of a chair. Then up they’d wheel and careen around the yard, swooping low over the table but never Getting Too Close.
Rose is keeping a count on the peanuts to see if the crows get brave when we aren’t looking.
The View from Here
Where the Weekend Went
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From the Archives: Life on the Trail