crows

When I was a kid, a neighbor had a crow for a pet. I was altogether fascinated by that bird. It was huge and black; it walked with a dignified, clerical stride; and it was astonishingly clever. It was so smart it hardly seemed to belong to the bird family. It was was almost as if some sort of spirit being was inhabiting an unnaturally large bird’s body. The bird was so large I found it a little scary and intimidating, but I was completely taken in by it.

Ever since I’ve been a fan of the crow. A fan of all the larger Corvidae, actually — ravens, jackdaws, rooks, magpies — but mainly the plain old common crow. One of the things I love about crows is that despite their size (they’re burly bastards; they get up to about 21 inches from beak to tail) they’re almost invisible. People simply don’t notice them most of the time. Cardinals, they notice. Goldfinches, they notice. Blue jays (also Corvids, by the way), they notice. Bright, cheery, colorful birds — even the tiniest of them — get noticed. Crows get ignored. It’s like they have the power to cloud the minds of humans.

From the day I first picked up a camera, I’ve wanted to take a good photograph of a crow. Not a good ‘nature’ photograph that includes a crow. Not a documentary photograph. Not a ‘pretty’ photo. What I wanted was to take a photograph that showed crow-ness. I wanted to shoot a photo that depicted crows as I understood them. That desire became more intense after I discovered Karasu, the book of photographs by Masahisa FukaseKarasu means ‘ravens’ in Japanese. The English-language version of the book was called The Solitude of Ravens. They were the most amazing black and white photographs — strange and wonderful. Fukase’s ravens were feral and furious; they looked supernatural and dangerously smart. I wanted to photograph a crow the way Fukase photographed ravens.

And I tried. For years I tried. If I saw crows — in town, in the woods, on a bike path, it didn’t matter where — I’d often follow them. I have been led astray by crows more times than I can count. But I never got a shot I liked. Never.

Yesterday on my Thursday Walk for Utata I happened to hear some crows flying overhead. I was talking on my cell phone at the time and had to end the call rather abruptly. “Oh god, crows…there are crows…lots of crows…have to go…bye.” I couldn’t see where they were coming from; a bulding blocked the way. But as I cleared the building I could see a tree filled with crows. Filled.

So I rushed to get there. I needn’t have hurried though. Crows kept coming. And coming. And flying away and coming. For an hour crows came, landed in the trees, rested a bit, took off, flew away. An hour. The most amazing hour. And they were still there when I left, still flying away, still arriving.

After about ten minutes I realized there were really too many crows. It was impossible to focus on just a few. It was a crow jumble, a mosh pit of corvids. It was almost Biblical. I’ve no idea how many there were. An overwhelming number of crows. There are, for example, 482 visible crows in the photograph above (Yes, I actually counted them, putting a red dot over each individual crow so I wouldn’t count them twice; 482…and there are certain to have been some I couldn’t make out in the tangle of branches).

The noise was staggering. Thousands — tens of thousands — of crows, all cawing and cackling. It created a sort of pervasive white noise. Your brain filters it out. Intellectually you register it as noise, but it somehow seems both physically and emotionally distant. Like if you were hearing it through the wrong side of a telescope — if that makes sense. Perhaps it was just sensory overload.

It never occurred to me to use my camera to video the crows — which I deeply, deeply regret. Instead I tried to find some way to photograph the mass, to show the scale of the murder of crows. It was impossible, of course. Maybe Fukase could have done it. Maybe. I surely couldn’t.

Eventually I stopped trying. I let the camera hang idly in my hand. I just stood there and watched and listened and was amazed.

It was, for me, a truly phenomenal moment — if you can call an hour a ‘moment.’ I don’t know why so many crows gathered together. I don’t know where they came from or where they were going. They were flying off into the sunset. Literally.

I still don’t have the photograph I want. I came a bit closer, but I suspect the only way to show real crow-ness — to show the essence of crow — is to zero in on just a few birds. Three, maybe, or four. Or two. Maybe one. Maybe just a part of one. I don’t know.

But last evening’s experience didn’t cure me. It added another level of enchantment to my understanding of crows.

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14 thoughts on “crows

  1. When I worked for a pharmaceutical company, every day I would watch the crows fly down from Garrett Mountain, all land on the tops of the copse of trees around my building and talk to each other for a while. I would go outside and eavesdrop on their conversations. Occasionally, I would be gifted with a large feather or two…they didn’t just lose them, it was as if they would put one in my path for me to find. If I tried to mimic their sound, you could hear them laughing at my bad accent.

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  2. Four or five years ago it was rare to see a crow in Nashville–not ‘oh, my God’ rare but worth noticing. Now they have moved in. There are lots of them. And this morning as I left the house a crow was sitting on my fence. He didn’t leave as I approached, he waited for me to get closer so I could admire him. They are big suckers, aren’t they?

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    • They’re surprisingly big. But tend to be awfully cautious. The crows around here will allow you to get close to them IF you’re walking — but if you slow down or pause for a moment, they take to the air. As a photographer, that annoys me; as a human, it makes me respect them more.

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  3. Yes, the ravens do gather at sunset; every evening I see them flying westwards, settling in the tall trees by the lakeside, cackling, cawing, exchanging greetings, gossiping, recounting their day, I don’t know… like a party. Then off they fly, all the crows of the world heading for the first dark of night. We have a few that watch over our garden, always ready to clean up the cat’s mouse-leftovers, for which I am thankful. It is against the law to feed them here, so don’t tell anyone but I do give them bits of ham fat and today they are going to get some duck trimmings. Their watcher will be on the roof opposite before I have my hand on the door, and his mates will be here within seconds.

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    • Is it against the law to feed ALL birds? Or just crows. There’s actually a long history of discriminatory laws passed against crows and ravens in Europe, dating back to the 17th century.

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  4. Greg, if you ever come to visit Vancouver, BC, you will have to make time to see the Burnaby crows. Every evening thousands upon thousands of crows come from somewhere (I don’t know where, but maybe some people do), home to roost for the night in Burnaby (suburb). It’s an inspiring sight even for people who are *not* into crows.

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  5. Hi Greg,
    I love your photos. I, too, am a huge fan of crows and ravens. We had a pet raven named Cyrano De Bergerac. He was so smart and so funny. I was wondering if I could use/buy one of your crow photos to include in a painting I want to do.
    Thanks from heather

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    • You’re welcome to use any of the photographs — on one condition. You post an image of the final work here. Right here, in this comment section. That would please me enormously.

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  6. If I ever saw this many crows, I’d be stuck to that spot until they left or the cops came and got me. What an experience — and what lovely pictures! I wish the amazing book you mention in this post was available for less than $370 used, lol; but it looks incredible, and I thank you so much for making my random internet search turn up gold!

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