Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Murder of Crows!

I awoke this morning to a flurry of activity in my backyard. I looked out the window to see a gathering of crows feeding on something in my grass (I started to say lawn, but despite our best efforts, the grass in our backyard does not constitute a lawn...). I'm not sure what attracted them, but apparently crows will eat anything and everything, so it could have been seeds or bugs (probably the former which might explain our lack of a lawn). There were more when I first woke up, but Laika scattered some of them before I could take a picture.

I've said it before, I'm no naturalist, but I'm fairly certain these were crows. Apparently crows are partially migratory - the ones in colder climates will migrate south for the winter. Here in Maryland, most are probably resident year 'round, but we may get some transients from New York in the cold months. I was just really happy to have an excuse to use the phrase, "murder of crows". Apparently it's been documented since the 15th century although of unknown origin. I find it very poetic and think it really captures the effect of a thick, shadowy, flock. I read somewhere that scientists don't use the term "murder" - that it's more poetic than technical. True perhaps, but how can you resist calling a group of them a "murder"? My poetic side wins out over the scientific in this case.

They are not particularly elegant birds in sound or movement, and many consider them a nuisance to the point that they hunt them en masse (when I was Googling crows, I stumbled onto some unsavory pictures of hundreds of dead crows killed by chest-thumping "hunters"). I've witnessed crows raiding robins' nests during the spring, and spent the better part of a day rescuing a baby robin that a crow dropped on my roof, so I know they are not altogether warm and fuzzy birds, but I always find a "murder" of them in my yard very cool. I also found the video below on YouTube very cool - and lovely.

Another reason I have a particular fondness for crows is because it's the first bird sound that my daughter learned when she was was learning to speak. I have priceless video of her answering the classic questions about the noises animals make. I ask her what the dog says, and she answers, "woof, woof". I ask what the cow says, and she says, "moo, moo". I ask what the bird says, and where I'm expecting, "cheep, cheep" or "tweet, tweet", she cries, "caw, caw"! The crows clearly made an impression on her, too.

Here are a few links that you might find interesting. The first is a site about American crows with lots of great information and some neat videos (including the one above). The second is a link to what The Word Detective has to say about a "Murder of Crows" and other terms for groups of creatures.


The Word Detective:  Murder of Crows, etc.

It's always fun to review the interesting words that have come to describe groups of animals - a "gaggle of geese", a "cete of badgers", a "knot of toads". The Word Detective explains that we first see the term, "murder of crows" in a 15th century compilation called "The Book of St. Albans," created by Dame Juliana Barnes, prior of a nunnery in England. A more modern discussion of the various collective nouns can be found in James Lipton's (of "Inside the Actor's Studio" fame) 1968 book, "An Exaltation of Larks". It's clear why he chose that one for his title.  It truly makes the heart soar. Visit The Word Detective site to find more interesting terms that have been passed down through the ages or invented more recently (for instance, an "attitude of teenagers" - perfect).

While I thoroughly enjoyed the crows this morning, what I'm really waiting to see when I look out the window is a flock of red-breasted robins. Though some winter here in Maryland, the vast majority typically return in late February through March, and their arrival is one of my most vivid harbingers of spring. They appear by the hundreds with their own riotous sounds, though not as raucous as the crows (riotous - unrestrained, tumultuous; raucous - rough in sound, harsh, strident - I looked up the distinction to be sure I had it right!)

As heartwarming as the arrival of the robins always proves, I think they also deserve a better term than "flock" to describe them as a group. Here are a few suggestions that I think would work nicely:

A "cheer of robins"
A "promise of robins"
A "gaiety of robins"
A "revelry of robins"
A "herald of robins"

Any other suggestions? What harbingers of spring are you awaiting? It's really not that much longer. We're only  a week away from February, and February is when spring starts to come! Caw, caw!

PS - Maybe I have birds on the brain as a result of venturing into the world of Twitter and tweeting.  You can follow Cape Blogger on Twitter now using the link at the top of the blog sidebar (search for CapeBlogger) or "tweet" any given blog post by clicking on the Tweet button below. www.tips-fb.com


Papa said...

Can't tell for sure, but they look a little small in the picture. Might just be the perspective. We had some migratory brown headed cowbirds come thru a week or so ago. They can look solid black depending on light and make a burble-burble sound. Did these "caw"? Red wing blackbirds also flock like this, but haven't seen them yet.


Christy said...

I took the picture from my upstairs bedroom window using the zoom on my cell phone camera. Not the best lens of choice, but they were a little bigger than they look in the picture. They seemed plumper and less twitchy than grackles, and very black. I'm sure there are lots of possibilities, but only one that's called a "murder"!