Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Surfeit of Information

The crows are migrating through our neck of the woods. According to the local newspaper "a colony of crows that sometimes numbers 15,000 or more birds has moved east, spending some nights in trees on the grounds of the State Capitol and of the Supreme Court and State Library complex across the street."

That's just where they roost. During the day, like many visitors to our state, they explore the surrounding suburbs -- such as mine, Wethersfield, the town immediately south of our capitol city. Based upon the relative populations of all the surrounding towns, our village's proportional per capita share of crows should be about 2,500. Of that number, my yard's portion, there being but two of us at home, would be .2 birds. A wing maybe. Or a beak and a claw. Perhaps a pile of tail feathers.

That is not what is happening. All of them, all fifteen thou have been on my lawn in the past several days. And the tide shows no sign of abating.

A collection of crows is known as a "murder".

According to James Lipton in his book "An Exaltation of Larks" there are six families of such terms of venery (as Lipton calls them).
5. Comment (pro or con), reflecting the observer's point of view): A RICHNESS OF MARTENS, A COWARDICE OF CURS
6. Error (resulting from an incorrect transcription by a scribe or printer faithfully preserved in the corrupted for by subsequent compilers): A SCHOOL OF FISH, originally a 'shoal'."

Lipton leaves it "to the reader whether a MURDER OF CROWS belongs in the second of fifth family." It is a really difficult choice.

"An Exaltation of Larks" gives the etymology of "murder" as follows.

"The term appears in the oldest of the manuscripts [of veneries], Egerton, as a Mursher of Crowys. By 1476 it had become the more easily recognizable Murther of Crowes in the Hors, Shepe & the Ghoos."

What is happening on our lawn is clearly "mass murder" (or perhaps "mash mursher").

The birds descend on my property like a gigantic, glossy black, storm cloud turning my lawn, which at this time of year should be struggling to convert from winter-white to spring-green, into an ocean of ebony. The entire murder seems to touch ground simultaneously and immediately begin their gangland wiseguy strut around our property.

Being scavengers they peck their way through whatever sunflower or thistle seeds might have fallen from our feeders and any kernels of corn inadvertently leftover from the squirrel's "critter mix" -- picking and discarding randomly as if to indicate their utter disdain for this inadequate banquet. (Not enough protein perhaps?)

I assume it is this predatory swagger, coupled with their dismal coloring, that has earned these animals their unpleasant venery. Yet, in spite of their tough guy reputation the gang that hangs out at my place really are just a bunch of scaredy-cats.

Unlike the squirrels and finches who, very often, will blithely hang on to their feeders, chowing down on carbs when Mars and I leave and enter the house, the purportedly malevolent big black birds spook, as a group, at the slightest movement. Even the act of me rising from my seat inside the nearby family room leads to an instantaneous mass evacuation. They return shortly thereafter but one or two more moves on my part are enough to send them away for the rest of the day.

It is really hard to believe that this group appellation earned over five hundred years ago is so totally false. So what are the strange circumstances that could turn this Murder into a Milquetoast?

On the same day that the newspaper reported on the temporary crow infestation it also told three other pertinent local stories. In one, a household pet chimpanzee attacked and seriously wounded a friend of its owner and, in the second news item a man held a significant portion of an interstate highway at gunpoint for several hours. The journal also ran part two of a weeklong series about a hometown Mafia-backed hustler who is alive and well and heading into his apparently well-heeled dotage.

It is enough to cause me, who has a lifetime of roots in Connecticut, to wonder why anyone would want to live here. And it just has to make any group of our state's transitory tourists at least a little skittish -- even those that would ordinarily be a Murder most fowl.


Here, at no extra charge, are some of the bird veneries identified by James Lipton.
A covey of partridges
A murder of crows
A rafter of turkeys
A brood of hens
A fall of woodcocks
A dule of doves
A wedge of swans
A party of jays
A company of parrots
A colony of penguins
A cover of coots
A sord of mallards
A dissimulation of birds
A peep of chickens
A pitying of turtledoves
A paddling of ducks [on the water]
A siege of herons
A charm of finches
A skein of geese [in flight]
a tidings of magpies
A cast of hawks
A deceit of lapwings
An ostentation of peacocks
A bouquet of pheasants
A congregation of plovers
An unkindness of ravens
A building of rooks
A host of sparrows
A descent of woodpeckers
A mustering of storks
A flight of swallows
A watch of nightingales
A murmuration of starlings
A spring of teal
A parliament of owls
An exaltation of larks

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