Sunday, March 23, 2008

Robins have displaced the crows in my neighborhood.

Robins have displaced the crows in my neighborhood. Because of the general lack of color this time of year these latest visitors, even with their dull brown backs and barely flushed chests, are a much brighter addition to our landscape than then their uniformly sable predecessors.

The red-breasted thrushes are appearing in groups of up to six or seven on lawns all around town. The crows traveled in much larger hordes and were much, much noisier. They also began their days earlier and ended them later. We hear the robins less often and their songs are akin to those of an acoustic folk balladeer. The crows are more reminiscent of the Jimi Hendrix rendition of the National Anthem as performed by a chorale of less talented yet more highly amped guitar wannabes.

This change to the aural environment is definitely welcome.

There is no unique group name for a gathering of robins - unlike the murders, hordes, parcels, or musters of crows that preceded them. Nor is there one for the Cardinals, another regularly seen, sweet-singing piece of ornithological eye candy - not even obvious ones like "college" or "see" (i.e. The Red See). This seems odd since other equally common birds such as sparrows and starling have their own collective designations - a host and a murmuration respectively. Cardinals, being territorial, are at the exact opposite end of the gregariousness scale from the crows. I'm not sure how large an area each couple has under its jurisdiction but for as many years as we can remember there has never been more than one pair (plus offspring) in our yard at a time.

Robins are somewhere in between, but closer to the solitary end of the spectrum. We periodically see small groups of these birds encamped in our front yard. However, unlike the crows who seem to be in perpetual verbal and gestural conversations with their immediately surrounding confreres, the robins behave more like an audience of strangers at an opera whose physical proximity is an accidental offshoot of their common aesthetic interest rather than a desire for socialization. More frequently they show up unescorted - waiting calmly and patiently for dinner to mistakenly pop its head up out of the ground.

Crows are the high school gangs of the bird kingdom - seemingly unable to establish any identity for themselves outside of their chosen group setting. Cardinals, in spite of their flamboyant appearance and frequent extramarital dalliances (a.k.a. "extra-pair copulations") are the monastic cenobites. As humans they would, with their mate, build that solitary log cabin deep in the wilderness and sustain each other on nuts and berries gathered from the countryside and songs of their own creation.

The murders of crows have also been replaced by slightly smaller collections of Grackles. Grackles have no group name of their own. Like a junior varsity or minor league team they get whatever identity they have from their association, however tenuous, with the big leaguers - in this case the crows. Although unrelated to their much larger fellow birds the Gracula indicate by their every action that they consider them to be that to which they aspire but they cannot quite pull it off. In this instance size does matter. For example the back and forth walk of the larger crow is blatantly brazen braggadocio. A Grackle just looks ludicrously Chaplinesque. Like the crows the throngs of Grackles will soon stop appearing - driven by their own seasonally induced imperatives.

The robins on the other hand will faithfully decorate our landscape for the next three seasons and in some cases beyond that. They blend perfectly into our quiet middle-class neighborhood of modestly sized houses and yards - efficiently going about their mating, nesting and eating protocols while calling minimal attention to their presence other than with an occasional musically whistled "cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up" or a sharp "chup".

It is, after all, the way that most of us get our sense of selfhood around here.


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