August 24, 2002

The Black Birds of

The Black Birds of Goose Creek

I had been sitting for some time with my back up against a large leaning white pine, up the valley there, where the Rhododendrons on the banks meet at their tops, forming a green tunnel that hides the riffles and pools of our nameless creek. I decided it was time to head home.

Maybe I had stood up too fast. I felt more than heard a rushing noise, so low frequency it seems to be coming from inside me, a visceral sensation somewhat familiar to me. It's not my heart racing, as I first suspected. This kind of thing happens in the spring, when the ruffed grouse are drumming: you feel the thudding of that mating display in your guts more than hear it through your ears; and more than once, I thought I was having tachycardia.

I felt this inside. It was a whirring, rushing sound; sounds, plural, like helicopter rotors, very soft ones, hundreds of them, and it reached consciousness that it was happening overhead. I looked up not knowing if the something was going up, or coming down on top of me. Boat-tail grackles, at least a hundred of them, had roosted for the night, and I must have startled them when I stood up. Startled me, too. But after putting the sound into context, I was able to appreciate that this was one of my cherished 'signs of Fall'...the blackbirds of Goose Creek becoming restless, congregating around their migratory maps, bickering about the best route and the best timing, and of course, who would lead and who would follow. Grackles and starlings, I am not unhappy to see them go.

Starlings, grackles, crows, ravens, buzzards: the black birds of Goose Creek, from smallest to largest. My personal favorite is, without question, the raven. Most ravens pass through our area over a month or two in the spring, and again in the Fall. A dozen or so hang around for the winter here and I love to see them soar and glide, with their distinctive fan-shaped tails. Despite their urban garbage-seeking behaviors in some places, in these parts, they are very reclusive and wary birds. More than once, I have watched as one approached from the far ridge, heading so as to pass overhead. From a quarter mile, I can tell it has just spotted me standing down there, a bare speck, as he wheels 90 degrees to make a wide circle around me before resuming his intended path. When I am in the woods, they pass overhead not seeing me, close enough that I can hear the hard-feathered stroke of their wings.

There is a nobility and intelligence about ravens that earns my respect. I was very near one only once, when out driving around the back roads with an older neighbor. We found it on the side of the road, injured, and brought it home to nurse back to health. My first impression was the amazing size of the thing...standing about 24 inches tall, with a heavy 4" beak and a regal bearing. This one looked me straight in the eye with intent, unlike anything I have ever known from a lesser creature than a dog. That was my only close encounter with ravens until one fogbound freezing winter day a few years back.

A dozen or more had flocked in a dense stand of mature trees not 100 feet from our cabin. This was not their usual rookery, but the fog probably made them bed down early and right where they found themselves late one afternoon, when the fog settled in so thick that you could barely see your hand at the end of your arm. I read in a National Geographic later that more than 50 raven calls, or vocalizations had been identified; not random squawks but meaningful messages indicating mood or purpose. Like many birds, ravens make different sounds from a roost than when single or in pairs, and marauding for food. That winter afternoon, I heard so many and varied and bizarre sounds from that accidental rookery...I won't even attempt to describe this...that I will never see or hear a raven again without remembering that incredible day.

When our ravens pass over the valley here, we hear only two calls. One is a hoarse rasping "RAUWK". I have a theory that the other name for the raven, "ROOK", is onomatopoeia, imitating this sound; I haven't been able to confirm that, so I preach it as gospel. The second call is my favorite, and I associate it with the pleasure of flight. It has been called their "TONK" call, described as a "metallic thunk". To me, it is more fluid, like a smooth pebble dropped down a deep well. I watched a raven last fall flying high over the pasture. Every little bit, it would make the 'water sound', then fold its wings and plummet like a stone, rise high and then repeat it. Pardon my anthropomorphic interpretation, but that call was saying "Life is good. Wings are wonderful. Watch this!"

The crows are good for mobbing hawks and owls. You can often see a dark shape silhouetted against the sky up on the ridge, sitting there in disgust while 40 crows swoop and caw, passing in rapid arcs down in front of the raptor, purely out of a stong need to harrass. They do the same thing in flight, and seeing a redtailed hawk wheel over so its talons face the approaching crow is always worth craning your neck to see.

And Buzzards: you can most always see two or three making lazy circles high overhead, riding the thermals that boil up out of the valley. Unlike the ravens, the black and turkey buzzards do not speak to me of intelligence. They are carrion-feeding opportunists, and necessary in the economy of nature, but I am content to watch them from a great distance, so they appear graceful and merely black. Up close, well, some things you just want to leave to your imagination.

Posted by fred1st at August 24, 2002 12:51 AM

My wife and I were on vacation in June out in Wyoming, we saw several larger black head and back, white on belly and wings and a white stripe across a very long tail birds. Could you please send us any information you might have on these birds.
Sincerely, Paul West

Posted by: Paul West at November 5, 2003 01:19 PM

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