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

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