Some Things I Saw This Winter

Many recall the scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds. An occupied park bench, behind it a playground jungle gym.

A single crow silently alights on the structure. Then another. And another. Finally, the bars of the jungle gym are just rows of large, silent black crows.

This wasn’t like that. Outside my house the crows were in full caucus. There is a certain call they share when upset by the presence of an interloper. I’ve heard it when a snake was angling toward a nest; when an owl was discovered in a hemlock tree, and when hawks lingered too long in “the neighborhood.” But never in the dead of winter–not until this January, ’06.

I followed the cacophony to the center of the whirlwind. Out on a large limb (literally), with an excellent view of the Hudson River, sat a mature eagle suffering, though not noticeably, the dives and vocal ribbing of the crow-rabble. I watched for about ten minutes as the crows swirled about the eagle, coming within two or three yards of it.

Crows took turns with this guard duty, setting up a perch perimeter of about twenty feet around the larger bird. A few of the braver crows began diving closer to the eagle. After a few more minutes, the nation’s symbol took off and on his tail trailed a single crow. It followed the eagle north along the river for three hundred yards and then turned on his tail feathers and returned to the now sedate, and probably self-satisfied “murder” of crows.

• Cat Walk (Dec 24, 2005)

The neighbor’s gray cat was at it again. Last fall she stalked a white tail deer feeding on our shrubbery. The deer pawed the ground, snorted menacingly, and the cat reconsidered her options. She chose an ignominious but safe retreat.

Today, Gray Kitty feinted the flock. Six wild turkeys, each more than twice the size of the cat, were placidly scratching and pecking when one spied the intruder. Then all six began their warning gobble-babble. The cat walked in their direction, as though she didn’t see them–stopping now and again to sniff the earth. She got closer. The birds moved away, but kept their tiny beady turkey-eyes on her, still in full panic voice.

Within mere yards, Gray Kitty lunged at the birds. They trotted off, squawking, but remained in formation and earthbound. The cat looked up the hill toward its house. One more feint for the heck of it. One more graceless turkey retreat. Then, apparently bored, the cat began walking toward home. Two of the turkeys escorted her. The other four continued to hunt and peck, trusting the escorts to keep the cat contained.

The escorts followed the cat at about 25 feet, walking it almost home. Then, when they were sure she wasn’t going to turn around, they rejoined the rest of the flock and went on their way to my lawn looking for places the snow no longer covered.

A few days before this, with a lot of snow on the ground, I saw a turkey jumping up to get berries off the lower branches of a bush. The bush was too flimsy to hold the bird’s weight, so the only alternative was to jump. Neck stretched, it hopped as high as it could, grabbing a berry with each leap. Swan Lake it wasn’t.

Patiently waiting beside the jumping giblet was another turkey. When number one turkey one succeeded in grasping a berry, a few other berries would fall. Turkey number two was not sticking his neck out or risking its dignity, but ate well, nevertheless.

I like turkeys. And, I’m in great company. Benjamin Franklin opined on Eagle vs Turkey with the following: “For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati* of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…”