The Season of Crows

Field Notices

Luther College Chips
March 6, 2008

Feb. 22 was a banner day. It marked a moment of turning between the season of crows and the season of the catbird.

On that sunny morning I heard cardinals outside my office window testing to see whether they could remember some of their warm weather songs. Hallelujah, what sweet music!

We’ve had frozen ground and snow cover for, what, about 18 months? Since Thanksgiving anyway. Hard frost clears out the bird community and quiets the air. The simplicity and purity of the snow season feels refreshing around Christmas and the first of the year, but by March I’m ready for nature to crank up the tweeters.

Much as I might resent mosquitoes, houseflies and caterpillars, they make Decorah a good summer home for some of the birds that fill warm weather days here with sound: robins, house wrens, catbirds and chimney swifts. At the very early sunrises in late June, I can hardly sleep if the bedroom window is open — there is so much soulful birdsong in the neighborhood.

The small seed-eating birds that remain over winter are the Scandinavian Lutherans of the avian world: hardy and healthy, but preferring to keep their feelings to themselves. They leave plenty of open airspace for their mouthier neighbors.

That’s why I call the last month or two the season of crows. The bird sounds I most associate with winter are crows, jays and hawks: the bullies of the air. If you are a titmouse in January, you stick close to cover. There is not a leaf to hide behind, and against the snow you might as well be lit in neon as far as the local sharp-shinned hawks are concerned. So you keep quiet and watch your back lest one of your big fast neighbors rip your entrails out.

Crows are a different story. Over the icy drifts this February, you could hear them making reedy barks and guffaws from one side of campus to the other. When a whole flock gets agitated, it sounds like the Blue Crew when the home team is down by three at a Wartburg/Luther football game. The Union balconies shake.

Crows scavenge. They are the criminal masterminds of the bird world, and their communication skills shine. They love the Luther campus because no one here carries a gun and seemingly everyone has more food than they can keep their hands on. They’ve got their syndicate eyes on you, and they’re talking about what they see.

I had a raven tap me on the chest as I lay bundled in my mummy bag one cold, foggy sunrise. Just checking to see if I moved before he decided to move in on my face. So I know in my very ribcage what it feels like to be on the pecked-at end of corvid (that would be the crow family) attention.

The last crow I saw on Friday as I left campus was a puffed-up fellow perched on top of a snow pile and tearing into what looked like the upper half of a Big Mac, not inclined to share with a companion standing with its head cocked nearby. Come May there will be fresh eggs and baby robins, but for a crow on leap year day, the picking doesn’t get any better than the leftovers of a Farwell student’s late-night munchies run.

Don’t get me wrong. I think crows are as beautiful a piece of work as exists on God’s green earth. But what keeps them going over a Midwestern winter when nuts and seeds are buried in two feet of snow is road kill and garbage. That keeps them close to roadways, back alleys and Luther’s walks and parking lots, and it keeps the air well supplied with their raucous commentary.

I’m looking forward to warm weather and the liquid arias of the catbird that nests in the hedge outside my window. For now, that sleek little singer is chasing bugs in Panama. So in the meantime, I am listening out for more of those cardinal arpeggios.