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Essay: Counting Crows

Crows flock on a tree in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Tamar Charney
Crows flock to a tree in Ann Arbor, Michigan

One of the silver linings to staying home more has been learning to appreciate the simple joys: like a familiar face…or beak. 

So, when some feathered folks stopped showing up to her Ann Arbor house, writer Tamar Charney was determined to track them down. 

Around sunset, on cold, gloomy gray days I’d often sit on my living room sofa and stare out the window at the sky. That’s when the crows would fly by. Sometimes they’d swoop and swirl with the breeze. Other nights they’d make a beeline for their overnight roost. And there was often a lot of them. Thousands and thousands and thousands of them. Some years they’d roost at night in one of the big wooded city parks near my house. For a lot of years, they were across town in a cemetery near the University of Michigan. This year the sky outside my window has been crowless. I missed seeing them. I missed hearing them. And guess I’d just had enough of missing and losing people, places, and things over these two years of pandemic living. I decided to find the crows.

I mentioned to a friend that I was headed out to look for crows and he admitted they creep him out. Crows and ravens have frequently symbolized death and dark omens. Or sometimes transformation and change. In the Icelandic Edda there are two ravens Huginn - thought - and Munin - memory - who fly across the world each day collecting information for the god Odin. Odin worries Huginn and Muninn will not return to him. I get it. Metaphorically the prospect of losing thoughts and memories is wrenching. But more literally I needed the big glossy black corvids to return.

A crow takes flight in winter
Tamar Charney
A crow takes flight in winter

At a time when it still feels fraught for us to gather, I longed to know the crows were still getting together in huge numbers, doing whatever it is crows do together. I checked their normal haunts - the cemetery, the UofM diag, the parks. They weren’t there.  I checked in with the city ornithologist. I was referred to crow enthusiasts. A map showing their new roosting spot was emailed to me. They weren’t there. The guy in charge of counting crows went out searching too. He found them. But the next night when I went to see them, they weren’t there either. The crows had moved on. After 5 evenings of driving around Ann Arbor scanning the sky, something unexpected happened. I went out for my morning walk and there they were. A stream of crows in the sky above my home. 
I hadn’t found them. They found me. As the ravens return to Odin, the crows returned to me. I stood in the street on an icy morning smiling up at the crows. 

That night I found their gathering spot. The airport. I doubt they’ll stay there. This winter they seem to be on the move, sampling new places in town to come together on a cold night to share tales of where there’s food… and perhaps even the tale of the woman searching for their flock in an effort to find a little normalcy in the midst of a pandemic that is tearing people apart.

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