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Saturday, September 19, 2009


flight of the turkey buzzards

There must be some kind of thermal in the mountain across the highway. Odd, considering the temperature in the 60s and a wind. A little while ago at least 20 buzzards were circling above this one place in the mountain. If the mountain were a clock face, they'd be above 11 o'clock. It wasn't like they were waiting for something to die, more like riding an updraft. Then about half of them set out sailing from north to south to the ridge behind the house, gliding as buzzards do. Then I looked up and there was one buzzard left circling. A murder of about 20 crows flew up from the trees all at once. Three of them went to diving at the buzzard the way they do hawks. The buzzard was flapping wings and dodging them to get away from the pests. Something like watching a raincrow dive on a crow or a cat. It was also like watching footage from WW2 documentaries of big slow bombers with fighters diving at them and buzzing like yellowjackets.

The above, I wrote yesterday just after seeing the buzzards. Today I was sitting on the porch talking with Carole on the phone and several buzzards started gathering above the same mountain, but another place, like at 1 o'clock on the clock face, some of them trying to circle like there was an updraft. But today, like yesterday, is too cold, 60degrees, and windy, it seemed to me, for updrafts. More flew in. At first it was around twenty, flying around and around, gliding, enough wind to give the air substance for their wings to ride. More came in from all directions, mostly from the ridge behind the house, until there was a gathering of around 50. They flew in no order, and not all flew in circles. The whole crowd of them flew around for approximately a 60second minute, a huge cluster of them, each flying on its own terms, not bumping into each other, not even coming close. Then they all glided off in their various directions.

I sat here in awe. As much awe as when I started seeing that crows live in families, extended families. The way I see them interacting, they are conscious on a lot of levels. Their intelligence is beyond bird. Birds tend to be flock creatures like starlings or individual like wrens. In the crows I'm seeing conscious social organization, their social hierarchies, and that learning to speak crow language takes years. The young ones from this spring's nests are still making the monotone squawk with no music in it. They don't seem to wean their young. Mother gradually slows down feeding them, continues to as long as they demand it, to a point. Then she has to have some words with them in a you-better-listen-to-me tone of voice. The young ones are probably 6 months old now, and some of them continue to follow her around when she's looking for something. When she finds something, she'll fly off 15-20 feet and land in a place away from the others. When one follows her, she picks it up and flies another 15-20 feet. They wean slowly and gently. It's not like kicking them out of the nest saying, 'Have a good'n.'

The crows appear to have a fairly complex social organization. Both those sightings of buzzards gathering for a few minutes, then going on their own ways, coming in from several directions and going back in several directions. It had never entered my mind that buzzards might have social lives too. They probably live in families as well, to some degree, though nothing like crows. Maybe. Then there's chickens. The roosters and their harems. Some roosters seem to have the intelligence level of a crow. They're intelligent birds. They're wary too. While his women are out pecking around, he's watching like the buck watches for his does, though the rooster has to watch the sky as well for hawks.

I've always known crows made a variety of sounds, but never really paid enough attention to see how many. It's a kind of minimal language where tone has a lot to do with meaning, as in oriental languages. Sometimes I hear one sitting on a limb kind of warbling to itself, making sounds like it's talking. I hear many different sounds they make and the varieties of 'caw.' Always brings to mind a moment in childhood when I'd been out listening to crows and hearing they weren't pronouncing the k sound of the c, but were sounding more like h, haw, haw. I mentioned it to daddy like I'd made a big discovery and he said, 'No they don't. Crows say caw!' Another disappointment. Go outside and catch grasshoppers, pull their legs off, put them by an anthill and watch the ants make tunnels through them, carry them away a bite at a time.

Some crows are in the locusts behind where I'm sitting, hollering back and forth, at least 4 or 5 of them. So many different tones and expressions. It might be a cat rambling through. Crows don't like cats. Five of them just now flew to the trees across the highway. There are still some behind me, but it sounds more like they're talking to each other. They're alert to something. Now birds are flying in from other places to have a look at what has this one crow in particular so agitated. Now it's back to sounding like he's letting a cat or something know it's not welcome here. I don't need to see the cat to know that cat is walking along like it doesn't hear a thing, a casual stroll with ears alert, acting like he might like for a crow to take a swipe at him to see if he can catch one. If it is a cat, it will walk along in pretend nonchalance, daring the bird to do something about it.

I've surprised myself with the lives of the critters around here I'm seeing. Bluejays I've not seen all year have turned up in numbers. Hearing the various bluejay calls too. They are same family as crows, corvids. Their flight is similar, their calls range from the raucous to the melodious. I watch a spider that kept a web on the outside of the glass on the storm door to catch night bugs. There came a time he probably got tired of the door opening and closing so much. He moved to a place about 6 feet away to what he must have thought a better place. Must not have been. The wind blew it away easily. Opposite corner of the porch he's found a place where he has a post for vertical and the horizontal of the roof framing, a good place for a web. Used to be a lot of crickets until I mowed the lawn. Must have mulched a few thousand.

Here I sit, more or less a shut-in, unable to get out of the house very much, staying indoors to make Jr's helplessness something he can live with. He's right at that place where he's becoming pitiful. Maybe somebody else thinks he's already there, and they'd be right. As I see him every day I'm still able to see the Jr Maxwell we know is still in there, he's just not able to express himself anymore. It takes too much energy to talk, even to pay attention any more. A few days ago he said, lying in the bed, 'I have a short time to live and nobody comes to see me.' I wanted to try to explain that they want to remember him the living Jr Maxwell, who was a friend to everyone who knew him, but it wouldn't have mattered what I said, so I said nothing.

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