Peter Shelton

Must there always be an answer?

Posted in Animal Dreams, Watch columns by pshelton on April 26, 2010

Two pairs of crows wheel deliriously across the sky about a quarter mile from my window. I get the binoculars and lean in against the sill.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think twice about the birds, but these four are flying in such tight formation, two leading and the two others apparently following behind, that I can’t take my eyes off them. They are not traveling anywhere. They climb and circle then plummet as one, so close at times their wings overlap. A few feet above the ground, they pull out exactly together, like side-by-side roller coasters, only to skim the tops of the junipers and begin the climb again.

Crows are a common sight in our little side valley east of the river. But they are almost always solitary or else bunched in noisy, purposeful gangs heading downhill toward the river in the morning and then again, armada-like, winging back up to roost in the afternoon. On windy days, we’ll sometimes see a couple of them riding updrafts in front of the house, but they never appear to acknowledge one another or to be on any kind of linked agenda.

This is different. These two sets of twins flap and bank and tumble so precisely together, there appears to be no time for one to react to the other. There is no action and reaction; it’s as if they are dancing a pattern deep in their genes. Or I am seeing double.

Symmetry like this is thrilling. Watching the Blue Angels is inevitably a rush, but compared to these birds, the Navy’s are hobbled by their fixed wings and (despite elaborate choreography) all but devoid of imagination. I have seen the Rockettes perform their famous high kicks at Radio City Music Hall. But those girls, as close to perfection as they are, would never dream of attempting anything this complex. Synchronized skiing is fun to watch (and extremely difficult to perform well). But at its best, it can do no better than propose a kind of on-snow engine, pistons pumping up and down while the camshaft darts right and left down the hill.

No, these birds are up to something extraordinary. Harassment? We have seen crows harassing one another in the air and, most dramatically, hounding big hawks and even eagles. But those were clearly aerial dogfights, flailing confabs of feathers and noise. These two pairs move in mirror-like harmony, wing beats identical, two creatures seemingly with one mind.

Maybe they are courting, or performing a post-vow nuptial dance. If this is true, it is the most egalitarian seduction I’ve ever seen. No one leads. No one follows. Any hint of sexual politics, of advantage or wariness, if there is any, is too subtle for my eye. Maybe they are not mixed pairs. Maybe they are all the same sex, competing somehow, though their mutual virtuosity would seem to cancel any difference between them.

Perhaps, there is teaching going on. The lead pair are definitely tighter than the pair following. The second pair are definitely sloppier, like understudies, or ice dancers who miss clasping hands now and then and rocket off briefly on separate tangents. Maybe I am watching parents teaching their young. Teaching them what? I can’t imagine, if not the minutiae of flying itself. Why then wouldn’t one parent fly with one fledgling in a game of aerial osmosis?

Kayaking eluded me for a while, the interplay of the fiberglass hull with competing currents and eddies. That is, until a wise master paddler barked at me one late afternoon on the river: “Follow me. Stay with me, exactly on my stern. Don’t think. Become my double.” My kids learned to ski the same way.

It’s been almost ten minutes now; they’re still at it. I’ve moved outside to stand on a rock and watch. I’m beginning to wonder if the birds aren’t getting tired. They’ve been weaving variations on more or less the same loop without cease: up two or three hundred vertical feet, climbing, circling, twisting in perfect unison—never more than a few inches separating them—whipping onto their backs and sides, then folding wings and dropping like cannon balls for the treetops. Off over the fields they go on a strafing run, then turn to race straight at me before pulling back on the stick and soaring upward again.

I confess, early on I wanted to link their maneuvers with an unrelated incident. A few days before this, before sunrise, I was making coffee and happened to spy a hunter poach a young buck in the sagebrush right below where the crows now performed. I watched him drag the animal to his pickup, pull the limp body into the bed and speed away before the school bus came, before there was enough light to see a license plate.

I wondered—part of me wanted to imagine—that the crows were performing over this spot on purpose, that their achingly beautiful flights were a kind of cross species ritual, a funeral salute, if you will.

Such thinking is, of course, absurd. Why insist on finding a reason for their behavior? Must there always be an answer? Probably the crows are just playing. They’re smart animals. What could be more fun than tearing around together at the pinnacle of your skills, the very air your invisible terrain park?

I remember a Canadian ski guide I spent some time with. We were watching mountain goats work their way up a corniced ridgeline, their long-haired blocky frames as white as the snow. “That’s a good sign,” he said. “When the goats come out you know the snow is pretty stable. We shouldn’t see much in the way of avalanches today.”

After a moment, I couldn’t help asking the guide, “But why are they up here?  They’re thousands of feet above any food or water. Not even any lichen to lick.”

He waited a beat to let the silliness of my question settle. “They’re just like us, eh?  They like to get up high and have a look around.”

6 Responses

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  1. Spring sounds… « CB Design said, on April 27, 2010 at 2:15 am

    […] second life it would be as a bird. I initially thought, no way! But now, I think I would too. This column by Peter Shelton, my father, is one of my favs. He describes the dance of the crows just […]

  2. mary ann dismant said, on April 30, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    I read this one aloud to my husband, Carl. He said, Boy, he is really a good writer. Who is that? Peter Shelson?

  3. mary ann dismant said, on May 2, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    It seems to me one needs to apologize for a typo when it involves the author’s last name. I Googled Peter Shelson and was confronted with a page on George Sheldon. Hope that didn’t lead anyone astray.
    For the record, Carl knows indeed your name is Peter Shelton–that’s Shelton with a T.

    Mary Ann,

  4. Jock said, on May 2, 2010 at 10:14 pm

    Maybe they were Powderhorn crows off on a lark. Yeah, a ski-area crow is on my short list for the next life. Incredible aerobatics on cornice updrafts, darting through trees, easy pickings from tourist left-overs, getting back in shape in summer.

    • pshelton said, on May 5, 2010 at 7:40 pm

      Jocko, “they BOTH turned into crows. . .”

  5. Karen Cain said, on May 9, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Ah, Peter, these crows…the crows in Tamil Nadu which I watched from the rooftop every evening had their favorite trees where they would pause, always on the same branch, near the top of the tamarind tree. One would arrive first and then 3,4, 5 minutes later, a friend. I knew they were friends, the way they were spaced, faced and groomed each other. Ten-fifteen minutes later two more companions would arrive. Stayed a while…watching the light change, the colors flame in the sky and then when near-darkness set in…very silently for crows…they would wing their way home. Every evening for three weeks, I watched them, but not as an outside observer…in the end I felt the companionship which they shared…not excluded from this world of living beings.

    It is such a pleasure to read your work after all these years. My love you the four of you. Karen

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