Monday, February 22, 2016

Murder He Wrote

A collective noun is “a noun, as herd, jury, or clergy, that appears singular in formal shape but denotes a group of persons or objects.”  Some collective nouns are specific to certain animals, e.g. a “covey” of quails, or a “pride” of lions”, or…
…a “murder” of crows like the one that has been visiting our neighborhood for the past couple of weeks.  The first serious bout of white winter precipitation recently settled into our area.  And with the snow comes the birds.
All year around we are hosts to a “host” of sparrows and a “charm” of finches – as well as a “conclave” of cardinals.  (Okay, I made up that last one.)  Increases in their numbers at our feeders are normal during winter so the population growth of these little songbirds is not necessarily noteworthy – but an influx of Genus Corvus, family Corvidae is an entirely different matter.
Groups of crows travel under several aliases – a Horde, or a Parcel, or a Storytelling – but a “Murder” always makes the headlines.  And when the act gets repeated day after day after day – serially as it were – it is definitely time to stop the presses.
There are between fifteen and twenty of the large glossy, black birds in the gang, and they have appeared pretty much everyday somewhere within the square mile that roughly defines our neck of the woods.
Many of these sightings have been inside the boundaries of our property wherein they partake of the culinary largesse of our various bird and squirrel feeders – dispensers of sunflower seeds, thistle, or kernels of corn.   As well as feasting on the naturally abundant supply of acorns – some fallen in situ, others secreted by the quartet of tree rodents that claim our oak trees as their home.
On each visit they specialize in one of the three major feeding areas: kernels, seeds, or nuts.
The squirrels for whom the ears of corn on the rodent-sized Adirondack chair feeder are intended, are not the tidiest of eaters leaving about one-third of what they strip from the cob on the seat behind them and another third on the ground below. 
These dwarfish gray gourmands eagerly wolf down any stray sunflower seeds left on the snow.  Yet they totally ignore the bright yellow carbohydrate bits that they walk through several times a day on their trips up and down the tree that is home to the feeding device.
Not so with the crows who descend en masse in a satiny, ebony cloud onto the area wherein the maize resides – including the green, metal feeder seat – and rapidly decimate every golden nugget in sight.  Within minutes they rise up and fly away leaving naught but footprints in the white powder to remind us of their visit.
On days when the seeds are the target they storm that section of the yard like feathered bit-actors attacking Tippi Hedren in the eponymous Hitchcock movie – causing all of the lesser-sized avians that normally dine there to seek shelter in some of the nearby leafless bushes.  The invaders then strut unimpaired across the territory onto which (birds not being that much more efficient than squirrels) a large residue of uneaten sunflower pips lay on top of and beneath the snow which is already trod upon by smaller feet.
When neither supply is available in sufficient volume, whatever that means, the crows spread out over the remainder of our front yard randomly pecking away until – in response to some unseen and unheard signal – they rise in unison and fly away to the site of their next feeding frenzy.
Which sometimes is one of the roads that abut our property upon which they repeat much the same process on asphalt as they did on snow-covered grass.  I have read that this pavement pecking may in fact be a way to ingest tiny stones for future use as a digesting aid – “Because birds do not chew, or masticate their food, they need grit in their crops [gullets] to help them grind up food before it goes further in their digestive tract. This grit can range in size from bits of sand and small pebbles in small birds to pea and peanut sized stones in larger birds.”  (
They also apparently like the taste of the salt that is left over from the various anti-ice treatments that are applied to roads this time of the year.  As well as an occasional piece of actual food that has strayed onto the tarmac.
In spite of their threatening and sometimes morbid appearance we welcome all members of Corvus Corvidae to our homestead.  As any mystery book reader knows – there is nothing like a good murder to warm the coldest winter day.

(You can find other collective nouns at

February Foliage

In the naked woods
a chattering of starlings –
black leaves on a tree.

Monday, February 08, 2016

The Space Between the Images

The Space Between the images

Former Wethersfield Men's Garden Club member Phillip Iannucci told a story about how it came to be said that gardeners have a “green thumb”.  Hint – it’s not a symbol of natural ability but rather the result of something more like horticultural Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
In his heavy Italian accent and mellifluous voice Phil explained how even when a plantsman goes out into his yard without his tools – wearing his “Sunday best”, and with nothing in mind other than enjoying the setting – he cannot help but reach out with his bare hand and snap off that single tiny twig that totally spoils his view – and in the process leak virescent sap onto his fingertips staining them with the gardener’s badge of honor.

Would anybody else even notice the offending slender little branch shoot?  Probably not.  But we plant people can’t see anything but that insult to perfection – until we notice the next one.

Gardeners are tinkerers – never quite happy with what nature provides.  We are dead certain that just one more flower in just the right spot can actually make the world a perfect place.  And then another.  And another. 

Say you are visiting a public garden.  Do you find yourself grabbing your own wrist in order to hold back the pruning pincers of your dominant hand?  Do you see what is there? Or is it what could be there if only they let you have a few hours to fix things? 

Have you ever been caught under the cover of darkness plucking weeds from your neighbor’s garden?  Or even worse, have you relocated any of their shrubs that run along the border of your property – or in other places?  Or secretly introduced “something special” into one of their flowerbeds?

Even haphazard landscape designers like me – whose idea of a strategic plan is to see a plant that needs saving (like Teasel from Christa Swenkyj’s about-to be-sold property), dig it up, and jam it into the first piece of available space that I see in our own yard – are following their own (largely unknown to them) private blueprint.

 Our daughter-in-law and son are both graphic designers – plus she is a gardener. Together they create comic books.  And he also teaches that craft at a University of Art and Design in New Mexico. Recently he was asked by a local newspaper to explain the difference between stories presented in that graphic form as opposed to other media.

“Prose and film offer continuous story construction, comics do not. The reader is a participant when reading a comic…filling in the images that aren't shown and designing a story uniquely theirs.”

Likewise we gardeners see the blank spaces in the natural world  – and endlessly create our own plots to fill in those gaps.  The rest of you just don’t know all of the fun you are missing.