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Sunday, November 24, 2013


After a balmy Saturday with temperatures in the sixties, a front came through overnight, and when it was time for my early morning walk, the thermostat was flirting with 32 -- zero degrees centigrade for those of you not living in fragments of the old British Empire.  When it gets that cold, I haul out my thermal underwear and warm-up pants and load up with sweaters, scarves, and gloves.  To take my mind off the fingers of cold reaching under my hoodie, I keep an eye out for wildlife, hoping to see something I can relate to Susie when I get home.  [In an earlier post, I compared myself to the little boy in the first Dr. Seuss book, And To Think that I Saw It On Mulberry Street.  A reader more knowledgeable than I pointed out that the Mulberry Street of the story is in Philadelphia, not Manhattan, as I had always assumed.]

As I hurried along this morning, shivering each time a blast of wind dropped the wind chill into the low twenties, I found myself reflecting on my odd prejudices against certain forms of wildlife.  There really is no rationale for the privileged status I ascribe to some critters and withhold from others.  Highest on my list are the deer who appear from time to time, sometimes far off in the woods but at other times dashing across the road just ahead of me.  On those days, I feel that I have something important to report to Susie.  Rabbits are always welcome, and on one occasion a red fox burst out of the brush and ran across the road.  A very big day, that.  But far and away the most frequent sightings are of squirrels, scurrying through the grass or running up the trunks of trees.  They are not even worth turning my head to see, and I would certainly never come home, call out to Susie, and report breathlessly that I had seen a squirrel.

The same pecking order, if I may out it that way, obtains among birds.  Blue Herons are always worth a mention, and the three occasions on which I have seen two or even three herons together have been true "To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street" days.  The very occasional hawk, spotted high in a tree, is certainly worth a mention and I take note of, though I rarely report, sightings of cardinals.  But crows, which are seen in  abundance in and around the condominium project where I live, are no more noteworthy than cars.

Now none of this makes any sense whatsoever.  Consider crows, for example.  A gathering of fifteen or twenty crows [what used to be called a Parliament of Crows] is an impressive sight.  Crows are big, rather menacing birds, as Alfred Hitchcock had the wit to recognize.  Surely twenty crows perched on the roof of a building are more worthy of mention than one lone heron plodding about in a pond looking for frogs.  And yet Susie would think I was mad if I rushed in from my walk and called out, "I just saw twenty crows."

When it comes to birds, you might imagine that big or colorful would be the measures of importance.  Now, a good sized pigeon is almost as big as a small hawk, and a Blur Jay is far more colorful than a Black Capped Sparrow.  Why do we dismiss pigeons and Blue Jays as beneath notice, while chattering excitedly about spotting a Tit?

The late and much lamented Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay thirty-four years ago called "Mickey Mouse Meets Konrad Lorenz"  in which he explained that the "aww, isn't that cute" response that we have to dolphins and pandas and Mickey Mouse is a result of the arrangement and relative size of their facial features, which mimic those of a little baby -- eyes big relative to size of face, head big relative to body.  Our response, Gould speculates, has developed evolutionarily to favor hungry and harried primates that care for their young.  I often think that something similar is at work in our response to certain film stars.  First Audrey Hepburn, then Julia Roberts, and now Anne Hathaway have those big eyes, set wide apart, and a too-large mouth that bursts into a face-splitting smile that is simply irresistible, much as the smile of a little baby captivates us.

All of which no doubt explains but does not justify my privileging of deer over squirrels and herons over crows.  It really does not seem fair.  Perhaps tomorrow I shall come in from my walk and cry excitedly, "Susie, I saw a squirrel!"  I wonder what she will say.



David Auerbach said...

Wolff nods.
It's owls who parliament.
It's 'a murder of crows'

(and 'a quibble of philosophers'). Somewhere on my shelf is a collection of these venereal terms, both classic and modern snark. ('a rash of dermatologists)

David Auerbach said...

I think there are additional factors that, uhmmm, factor into "importance".
In addition to striking (to us) appearance, there's rarity. Squirrels are just damn ubiquitous. There may also be a cognitive component; we know what magnificent (to us) creatures hawks are. Buzzards, not so much. Crows are also rather amazing and if you went and read a book about corvids you might want to report on them. Though perhaps only if they were exhibiting some hallmark behavior, like harassing the hell out of some poor hawk. Deer, I fear, I find loathesome because of their ubiquity and its consequalia.

Jerry Fresia said...

I've been feeding birds quite regularly here in northern Italy. Very disappointing. All I get are sparrows. But I've grown accustomed to them and enjoy watching the way they hop around.

Now, I'm sure your audience, as I, is awaiting THE report: so whatever happened in the Adagio?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I bow to David Auerbach's superior grasp of the collective terms for birds [though I do hope he meant "venerable" and not "venereal."] I myself am partial to "an exaltation of larks."

Jerry, the Adagio was a triumph [in amateur quintet terms]. It turns out that when one is playing with everyone else, the syncopations are easy! Now I am trying to put together my own quartet. At this point, I have a violinist, with whom I shall try to play Mozart violin-violas duets, and the promise of a cellist. One more violinist and we shall be off to the races.

Back to the birds and animals. I know that anyone trying to raise vegetables finds deer and rabbits to be just pests, but as a typical city boy, I rather like deer. This may of course just be a consequence of the fact that when I was very little I was much taken with Bambi.

decessero said...

Lovely editorial in the New York Times on November 19, 2013, written by VERLYN KLINKENBORG. Enjoy!
Sounds from the Sky:
Among the phrases I have never trusted are the collective nouns associated with animals — a murder of crows, a scurry of squirrels, that sort of thing. They turn up mostly when people are making lists of collective nouns associated with animals, and their roots — if they have roots — are usually never mentioned. All in all, they reek of a kind of linguistic cleverness I find far too cute. Plus, they’re all too easy to make: a puddle of poodles, a terrine of terriers, a rumpus of reptiles, etc.

The other morning I heard what sounded like the rattling of geese in the sky. I looked overhead and then scanned the horizon. In the north, above the trees shading a dry creek bed, there were a lot of crows. A bunch of them. I’d go so far as to say that it was even a crowd of crows. Dozens, in any event. They settled into the trees and then roiled upward, like ash and cinders from a fierce fire. The sounds they were making were too sharp and staccato to be called cawing. They no longer sounded like geese to me. They sounded like timbers snapping in a fire that seemed to be heaving them skyward.

I have no idea what brought them together there. They weren’t about to migrate, and they didn’t look as though they were scavenging. I felt as if I were looking in on a corvine colloquium to which I had not been invited.

When I go outside, all too often I hear what I expect to hear, only to find it was something else. Those crows didn’t really sound like geese, but coming from skyward, I thought I should be seeing geese. Lately, the wind has been roaring through the bare trees in the night — always a disquieting sound. The other night it seemed to be roaring again. And then I realized it was a freight train, one of the oldest and most settling sounds I know, wheels clacking, rails ringing as a boredom of boxcars rolled down the valley.

Nick said...

If you like "an exaltation of larks", you would appreciate James Lipton's An Exaltation of Larks or the Veneral Game, which I imagine is the book David Auerbach is referring to.

Magpie said...

Not surprisingly, my favourite animals are corvids and related birds: Australian magpies (Cracticus tibicen), crows and ravens.

Spring is the magpie season in Australia: males become very territorial and brazen.

7News : Magpies attack in swooping season

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I wondered about the internet name. The marvelous thing about a blog is that no matter what you choose to write about, someone out there will turn out to be a specialist on it!

Magpie said...


You just need to visit Canberra (a.k.a. "Crow Town", as a friend used to say) once for a few days to know all about the little devils.

Incidentally, my avatar (the picture of the two birds), shows a magpie chasing an imprudent kite.

Superfluous Man said...

Squirrels chewed up the wiring on my riding lawnmower. Twice. They don't like me riding around in the yard so now I push. I'm not a fan.