Friday, December 12, 2014

Crows Without End (Not an image post, but image heavy)

Crows spend the day in South Portland and the night in Portland.

Which crows?



I've seen it before.  Not in a long time.  It's not announced.  It isn't advertised.  If you aren't at the origin or the destination you might miss it if you don't look up.

It happens twice a day.

It needs to.  Logically it must.

And yet... no one sees its beginning.  No one sees its end.

If you should cross its path you will never see it end, no matter how long you wait.  Just when you think it must be over it renews, stronger than ever.  Always.  It never, ever, stops.

And yet it must stop if it happens twice a day.

But they always keep flying.

That little paradox, the fact that it must end, yet never does, isn't the part that stands out.

Crows don't flock.

That's what stands out as they appear by the hundreds.  That's what stands out as they cross the sky.  If you're where they land, as I was today, you hear some caws as they land in a place with fewer branches than crows.  They fill one tree, then the next, then the next.  And they never stop coming.  The flow never slows down.

I think this is the first tree they populate.  It also happens to be a pretty low density for them.
It is in fact quite dark, by the way, but the camera compensates.
Unfortunately that also makes it blurry because I am not a tripod.
It sputters sometimes.  Occasionally you think it might have stopped, only for it to pick up again, strong as ever.  They just keep coming, and coming.  No crow ever flies the other way, none leave.  They all come to the same place.  They only take up multiple trees because one tree could never hold them all.

No crow is ever counted twice, because none circle back.

Some do circle, looking for space to land, but they're small circles.  Nothing that could possibly make you mistake them for one just arriving.

Amidst the building they seem to cover the dome of the sky.  Black wings against the dying twilight of firmament.

The problem with photographing the crows in flight is that if you zoom out enough to see even a fraction of them
you've zoomed out too far to see that they're crows.
And they keep flying.

They keep arriving.

A silent procession across the sky.

But crows don't flock.

On some level this is understood.  They don't flock.  The come in small, manageable, easy to count groups.

It's just hard to organize an entire murder.

One crow bad.  Two crows good.  My mother's aunt knew this.  Knew it so well that whenever she saw one crow she needed to look around to find a second.

I wonder if this is because of the same folklore the movie The Crow draws on.  If a crow brings your soul to the afterlife, then a solo crow might be there for your soul.  But if there are two of you, wouldn't that mean you're both going to die.  Surely if that were it then you'd divide by the number of people.

If there are exactly as many crows as there are people in the car then that would bode worse than if there were just one.  Right?

So that's probably not it.  But crows being small in number is something that's there.  No one hears "six crows [whatever]" and responds, "When the fuck have you seen just six crows?  Crows in single digits?  Preposterous!"

No.  Crows in single digits? Folklore!

Crows in single digits: Superstition.

Crows in single digits: Normal.

Crows in single digits: Augry and ὀρνιθόπαις.  Seriously:
One crow sorrow
Two crows joy
Three crows a letter
Four crows a boy
Five crows silver
Six crows gold
Seven crows a story
never to be told

But what about seven hundred?  What of so many you can't count or hope to count?  What of crows without end?

It's absurd.  Crows don't flock.

When was the last time you used the phrase "murder of crows"?

You don't say that.  Well, maybe you.  I don't know.  But people don't say that in general.  When someone says, "I witnessed a murder," you [impersonal you] don't say, "Oh, that's nice.  I saw a gaggle the other day."

This conversation:
Person One: I just saw a murder.
Person Two: Was it a nice one?
Person One: Nice? It was gruesome
Person Two: I think corvī can be annoying too, but don't you think that's a bit extreme?
Person One: No. I saw a person be killed.
Person Two: Ohhh. That kind of murder.
has happened all of never.  And yet what is a person more likely to see, someone being killed or a crow?  If crows flocked then murder would mean "group of crows" first and "unlawful killing of one human being by another human being" second because people would use "group of crows" in every day speech a lot more than the other type of murder.

But they don't flock.  It only takes seven crows before you get to secrets that are never spoken of.  We don't even have a concept to encompass the idea of eight crows, much less crows beyond counting.

Crows don't flock; grackles flock

When you see them you think your eyes are playing tricks on you and they're grackles.  Grackles and crows aren't closely related, they share an order but not a family or genus, but there is a visual similarity.

If you're near the destination then you see a lot of them that have landed (wings and tail in reduces the visual difference between birds) and you tend to get a much better look at those ones, stationary as they are, than the unending stream of flying ones.

But you don't think they might be grackles because the look like grackles.  They don't look like grackles.  They look like crows.  They're too big and too wide to be grackles (if you've never seen a grackle, imagine a crow that was a bit shorter and a lot thinner, and was iridescent all over.)

You think they might be grackles because there are too fucking many of them to be crows so your mind is looking for any possibility to explain that.

But eventually you know that they're not.  For one thing, so many of them are in flight.  Even if they are moving there's just so much of it that it's hard not to see the difference in shape.

But it might be proportion that hammers home that, yes, they really are crows.  Grackles look similar to crows, at first glance, but a longer view lets you tell them apart.

Or it might be when one of them opens its mouth and calls out with a voice that was made raw and ragged through smoke inhalation when crow brought fire from the sky.

That sound rings clear.  Always clear.  Sometimes imitated, but never copied.

Crow earned that call by bring fire so that life could survive the first winter.  So that it would be the first winter rather than the winter that lasted forever without ever abating.

I've tried, sometimes, to see the end.  To see the last crows landing and the point at which no more come.

I'm not sure why, maybe it's to see how many there really are when all is said and done.

But they never stop.  The embers of sunset die away, darkness takes the skies, and still they come.

I need warmth.  I need crow's fire.  I need to get back to hearth and home.  I need my furnace.  I need what crow sacrificed for.  But the crows stay outside.  Separate from the gift they gave.

Yesterday was a fairly miserable day.  Getting a cavity drilled is never fun and moreover I was outside walking for probably six hours.  (I didn't just have a dentist appointment.)  It would have been eight hours but my psychologist gave me a ride home.  I had to wait an hour and a half, but it was still quicker than walking.  The rain had left me soaked, shuddering and shivering with cold.

Six hours in the rain, a little time to warm up and dry out after the first four hours, and I was pretty well worn down.

The crows have never been inside in their lives.

They fly on undaunted.

They keep coming.

Elsa's power flurries from the air to the ground in frozen fractals (way better than yesterday's rain); the crows are not afraid.

The cold never bothered her anyway.
You notice them more in the winter, not just because there are more of them.  They stand out.  Black feathers on white snow.  They don't even try to hide.  Nothing really hunts them.  They rule undisputed.

And why shouldn't they?  They're the ones who drove back winter.  They melted the first snow.  They have nothing to fear.  Their scorched black feathers and smoke choked voice stand as a testament to the fact that snow cannot stand against them.

They don't kill the snow, the snow spirits have the right to live as well, but neither do they fear it.

And they keep on flying.  More keep arriving.

They pay no attention the the houses, they prefer the trees.

This place is their home, their birthright.  It's in their bones.  Their light-weight tiny bones.

They've lived here for longer than my people knew this place existed.

They have a history.  Not just fire.

Their entire family has a history.

Their cousin Raven advised Noah on the ark, showed Utnapishtim, on his ark, that the waters were receding-- hell, cousin Raven made his own damned raft for the flood too.  Then again, cousin Raven created the world.  Cousin Raven did a lot.

Cousin Raven's descendants,  Huginn and Muninn, advise Odin to this day.

One wonders how crows view Odin.  Huginn and Muninn must have told them about Odin, but how do they view that great god?  Bird brains are not human.  They don't think as we think.  Is it possible they view the god as ... silly?

Odin gave up an eye, a huge sacrifice, but think what they gave up.  They gave up their fingers.  They gave up their voice, the best singing voice in the world.  They gave up their looks, the greatest beauty in the world.  To them, perhaps, an eye is a small sacrifice.

And what was gained in return?  Odin gained wisdom, but he still needs to climb upon his nephew's back to fly, when crows gave up their fingers they may have lost the title of dinosaur, but they gained the power of flight.  They need no Sleipnir.  They rise above, the soar, no wisdom needed.

Not that they lack wisdom.  They're crafty and smart.  But they're not, "I gave up an eye for wisdom," wise.  They've kept both eyes.  (Mostly.  It's not like there's never a one eyed crow, and when you see them you know that the eye wasn't given up for free.)

They lost their voice and their beauty to save the world by bringing fire.

Ok, so technically those are lyrics from Loki's Song.
For a very nice, color, rendition of crow bringing fire, click here.
Prometheus brought fire to mortals.  It's the basis for all of our technes.  Every civilization that claims influence from Greece owes Prometheus a debt.  Even now we still haven't managed to find a way to run our civilization without fire.

And yet ... Prometheus brought fire to Greek mortals.  Greek mortals didn't exactly need fire that badly.  When Demeter mourned the loss of her daughter and couldn't be bothered to maintain the world it wasn't winter that threatened to end all life.  That was a Roman alteration of the tale because they had been to northern Europe and it was fucking cold there.

No, winter was the stormy rainy season in Greece.  Demeter's lack of upkeep threatened to kill all life via the dry warm season.  Drought was what would destroy them.  The rains of winter were welcome.

That's who Prometheus gave fire to.

Crow brought fire to New Jersey:

All I did was search Google for New Jersey winter.
I think crow wins.

Of course, I live north of there, but I don't know the local tales of crows.  I only know of crow bringing fire because Fred Clark has linked to the story in the past.


And through it all they keep on coming.

When you're away from buildings you get a different view of the procession of crows.  You can't see them landing, and seldom hear a sound, but you have a better understanding of what is going on.

Crows really, truly, do not flock.  Ever seen a murmuration?  The amazing patterns that appear from random motions and remind you of a school of fish?  Crows don't do that.  Ever have geese fly over your head, honking like they do, in a formation (as happened to me during the second two hour period of walking in the cold soaking rain yesterday)?  Crows don't do that.

They don't have any kind of group cohesion.  They just all move in about the same direction at about the same speed.

They pay no heed to the other crows --except, presumably, to make sure they don't fly into them-- and each one seems entirely indistinguishable from a crow flying individually.  Seagulls are more clearly part of a group, and they're usually just trying to get refuse before the other seagulls.

But, in spite of their stubborn refusal to act like part of a group even when they are part of a group, they're part of a group.  One, long, procession across the sky.  Amid the houses near the trees where they land, or any buildings really, it's impossible to see the shape of the group.  It seems to take up the whole of the sky.

Without obstructions it's clear that it's nowhere near as wide as the sky, but it does go on forever.  Your best view is generally from a bridge.  No buildings, no trees, nothing in your way.  They go from horizon to horizon.

And, as mentioned repeatedly, they never stop.

No one sees the beginning, or the end.  Only sometimes is someone graced with a view of some of the middle.  No matter how long you watch, it does not end.

It makes one think of a problem in some textbook.  If the migration between the two cities is without end, how can it happen twice a day?  But try to put it into the terms of the textbook problems one is used to and the crows will laugh at you.

Well, they'll caw.  But it will be a laughing kind of caw.

Assume a frictionless environment -- nope, they're going to fly, that means air resistance; break out the differential equations.

Given a perfectly spherical crow... have you seen their wings?  Do you think, maybe, if you measure a crow's wing the length of the outline will increase with any given increase in precision?

Note how the length of the edge gets longer with additional iterations.
Crows are clearly on a level beyond our own.

Sure, they act like they're just reasonably intelligent birds that feed on carrion and such, but they're just sitting there, in their tree-- well, trees since they don't all fit in one (there's a sleeping-in-one-place group in Oklahoma that's estimated to number 2 million), being above us.  Figuratively.  Literally too, but that goes without saying.

This might be a good time to point out that I want to, somehow, make "Figuratively" an intensifier on the level of "Literally."  Why?  Because.  That's why.

You can see where this would work:
He stabbed me in the back.That's not so bad, I mean in this business-Figuratively!Damn.

Anyway, they might occasionally get West Nile and have their population drop by 47% or fall out of their nests by the wood-shop, but that's just to keep us guessing, and also to poignantly write themselves into our stories.

I could not get a good shot of Brooks looking Jake in the eyes.
He does, but the scene is pretty dark, so it's not a good shot.
Thus, Brooks + Jake and then Andy looking Brooks int he eyes.
And remember, only one of the three characters above successfully managed to not have his intended ending filmed thus changing his story from tragedy to hopeful.  Here's a hint: it wasn't either of the humans.


And they keep coming.  For longer than you watch, no matter how long you watch.

It's cold, but not as bad as the day before when there was rain instead of snow.  As I walk I think of crows and gods.

I think of seasons too.  I would have said the day before that I hate the winter rains, but it isn't winter yet.  Late autumn.  

Winter is coming.  Less than ten days.

I decide to take a picture of the snow, the crows opposite, the one whose white creation left the crow scorched black.

I know that the camera has a very low battery, I try to photograph the snow without flash, hoping to catch it in a street light.

No good.  It totally fails to get how much snow is coming down.  I switch to flash.  It's too much for the remaining charge and the effort convinces the camera that it's time to shut down and wait to be plugged in.

Crows laugh at needing to plug in to recharge.  They recharge by eating road kill and then taking a nap.  Though, honestly, have you ever seen a sleeping crow?  They probably feign such mortal frailty in places where it's expected (captivity, monitored nests, the like) but that's likely for our benefit.  How low would we feel in comparison if we knew that in addition to soaring above our heads they never grew weary?

But one assumes that they must dream.  Would they really leave the realm of dreams outside their domain?  What if winter invaded there and no one had brought fire to hold it back?  They must venture into dreams.  Without them, we'd all be in Jotunheim in our sleep.

And so we circle back to winter.  Winter is coming.

Proof that it will end is already here.  Those who stop the snow from taking over, who safeguard life, are already standing watch.

Their ancestors, the dinosaurs, were merely lukewarm blooded.  They have fire in their veins.  And why not?  Crow did bring it, after all.



I was supposed to have a short, non-[stream of consciousness vaguely edited together] bit at the end.  It got away from me.  Thus:


This was mainly composed when walking home yesterday, (every instance of "today" and "yesterday" above is thus wrong) though I'm sure I thought of much more than I wrote.  I kind of figured that people would prefer things going on in my head regarding crows and snow more than, say, "Yesterday I was cold and wet.  It sucked.  I wish I could afford cold weather clothing, especially of the waterproof sort."

Crows roost here in winter.  Of course, crows live here all year round, but it's the winter roosting that I've always noticed.  Black birds on white snow are kind of hard to miss.

The way they gather here is easy to miss though.  Apparently where they like to hang out in South Portland during the day is out of the way and not frequented.  (Other people have seen them hanging out at the place they like, I have not.)  During the night it's dark.  So you generally only see the giant roosting group if you catch them flying from Portland to South Portland during the day, or flying back at night.  They do it mostly in silence so even if they pass directly overhead you might not notice.

So this isn't one of the places where you really notice, "Good fucking god, we're covered in crows," and thus when you do see the procession it's different.

My guess as to why the procession lasts so damn long is that they really don't seem to be flocking birds by nature.  So when they do flock they tend to do it in a very non-flockly way.  Based on how they arrive and that they seem to generally go at about a uniform speed they cannot possibly take off in groups.  They have to be doing it randomly with any groups a result of statistical grouping rather than intent.

The way that they move when they do find themselves in groups is entirely unlike birds accustomed to moving in groups.  They don't draft and they do not get close to each other.  Their movement implies that they don't know how to get close to each other as they exhibit none of the movement patterns that allow birds who fly close to keep from bumping in to each other.

Watching a murder of crows seems, and I don't know if this is true (hence "guess" above), to be watching a group of birds, none of whom know how to act in a flock, trying to be a flock.  And generally doing it in New England, "If I keep my eyes front and don't make noise maybe everyone will leave me alone," style.  (I know that many other places have the same style, I don't know which places they are.)

Regardless, now that I do know the story of rainbow crow, and the procession left me thinking about crows as I walked home in the snow, the life-long thoughts of "Crows really stand out in winter" sort of became, "Crows stand in defiance of winter."

Also the bone structure of bird wings (no fingers) what was lost to get there (velociraptor: I have to give you what if I want to fly?!), how that compares to losing an eye, flood myths, the possibility of a crow or raven standing on the branch of an ash tree above Líf and Lífþrasir post-Ragnarok, and so forth.

Trying to sort it into something vaguely coherent (which involved some cutting, some forgetting, and a fair degree of reorganization) produced this post.  Welcome to my brain.


  1. I like the way you riff off things.

    Also, I hadn't thought about how crows don't flock - interesting to see.

  2. And yet what is a person more likely to see, someone being killed or a crow? If crows flocked then murder would mean "group of crows" first and "unlawful killing of one human being by another human being" second because people would use "group of crows" in every day speech a lot more than the other type of murder.

    I'm not sure that follows. I think hyper-specific names for groups of things tend to get used less often. If I saw a group of crows, I might think to call it a murder, but more likely I would call it a flock. (Even if they don't act like a flock.)

    All I did was search Google for New Jersey winter.

    I have never seen a New Jersey winter that looked like that, but to be fair, New Jersey isn't really one place so much as a bunch of little places, and for all I know some of them look like that in winter. Also, global warming.

    Welcome to my brain.

    Nice place you've got here.

  3. I finally read the post.

    Your brain is a lovely place.

    Now I have random thoughts rattling around about Raven and Odin and ravens and Loki and crows and fire. But I also have a headache.

    I see hawks and falcons here, and there's always that moment of meeting those eyes and thinking of the wise and magical goddesses who wear that shape. (And Loki, who borrows it... why?)

    The birds I tend to see in great numbers are seagulls.

  4. "ALL OF THEM" is debatable, pretty sure I wasn't there. But then, I'm a wrong kind of crow. I like this post anyhway.


  5. There is a winter crow roost at the Univerisity of Waterloo where the crows gather in uncountable thousands. Literally not able to be counted. I know the guy who has to count the crow roost for the Kitchener Christmas Bird Count and he just throws up his hands in despair.

  6. Crows teach themselves to smoke. They can work out how to use fire.

    Give 'em opposable thumbs and they'll probably do a better job than we have.