The crows are in our neighbourhood tonight. As I went to take out the garbage just now I stopped to admire the clear sky and the bright gibbous moon, letting the night sounds catch me up. Above the slow whoosh of cars passing by, I heard the strange croaking calls sounding high and clear. Across the street, a pale-limbed tree had sprouted dark, dark leaves in its upper tier of branches. But these were no leaves.
They seem to roam about the city in a pattern I don't understand. A couple of times I have tried to track their movements through the neighbouring city of Waterloo, trying to determine whether there's a rhythm to their choice of roosting places. Around here they move in thick, dark flocks that seem to fill the sky with unholy noise, shifting and billowing as evening draws on and they slowly settle in for the night. They like the tall trees, the spruces especially.
Earlier today, in the early afternoon while the sun was bright and the air still, I took a walk up the paved trail that runs along Schneider Creek, going slow and listening. I was struck by how much crow-noise there was ahead of me, upstream- they don't usually visit our part of town in numbers. The second thing that struck me was the deafening silence in my immediate surroundings, and once I had clued in to that I stopped still, listening harder. A small breeze blew, two dry leaves rubbed together, and that was all. I started walking again, looked up, and saw the Cooper's Hawk roosting in a low branch not twenty yards in front of me.
I've written about this terror of the urban woodlands before. Its short, slate-grey wings and long tail are adapted for diving and banking between trees, which means that it can chase down its aerial prey if the element of surprise isn't enough. There could be several patrolling the wooded sidings of the downtown railway tracks, but in my mind there is only one. It was right out in the open this time, facing me and preening its speckled belly. I watched until my attempt to crouch down for a better view unnerved it, and it dropped off its branch and vanished into the trees. I tried to follow, but after a few minutes of turning up nothing but crows I returned to the trail.
Farther along, a guild was working the trunks and low branches at the edge of the treeline- a mixed flock of chickadees, downy woodpeckers, juncos, and cardinals. Their feeding music was sweet to the ear, but before long I heard the clump, scrape, clump, scrape of a human in winter boots approaching. The songbirds fell silent, vanishing one by one, but it was only as the walker passed me with a friendly nod that a cardinal in one of the topmost branches broke the quiet with an alarm call, then again, and again and again. I looked over my shoulder just in time to see the Cooper's Hawk banking away, back into the forest. The cunning bird had shaken me off, then lain in wait for a noisier human to use as cover for its attack on the guild. Now I watched it cross the creek, sure that this time I had lost it for good.
I tell this story partly out of a birder's sense of exultation, and partly as a way of illustrating the ways of crows. I did not think it necessary to mention, throughout this gripping episode, that the crows never let up their noise. Not for one second. As far as I can tell, crows live in a world entirely separate from other birds. They aren't preyed on by hawks and they don't prey on songbirds. They're among the most intelligent of avians, known to gather shiny objects for their pleasure and capable of recognizing individual human faces, and yet they seem to take no part in the subtle, ever-shifting web of intrigue between hawks and songbirds.
As I neared my home end of the creek, I passed through the raucous flock and crossed the footbridge into a residential neighbourhood. Did I mention that I was walking slowly? Very, very slowly, scanning every tree. This was well, for as I started up the street toward my building I saw the hawk a third time, swooping up to perch on a short wire slung between the street line and a house. Its back was to me this time, but it was playing no games. As I approached, it dropped off its perch again, startlingly low, and vanished around the house at the street corner. For the third time, no amount of careful footwork and steady scanning could reveal its hiding place. Eventually I turned homeward, silently radiant. Hunting is a game that only the privileged play for fun, and I consider it a profit to have lost to the master.
Meanwhile, the crows gather. Did I mention their incredible noise? Nature's game is one of balance, diversity, dynamic forces at play, and when you see such a crowd of beings, all the same, all doing the same thing, you know that something is up. These crows come to the city in such numbers because of us. Like dark shadows they follow our crowded movements, and in a very real sense they are hunting us. Feeding off of us. They are aware of our unawareness, and know that they can profit from it. No matter how I track their movements across the stars, I will never know the crows as well as they know me, as I come down from my apartment on a Sunday night to take out the garbage. Almost too easy, they seem to say, laughing their dark and knowing laugh. They'll return to the landfill when morning comes.