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home : features : science and nature July 22, 2014

Birds In November
Photo by Tom BerrimanAmerican Crow, determined, social, and smart.
+ click to enlarge

Photo by Tom Berriman

American Crow, determined, social, and smart.

Light thickens, and the crow Makes wing to th' rooky wood. - William Shakespeare

Watching the Passumpsic's waters being swept into the dusk and then the darkness at an ever earlier time each day, I have the sense that a grand gathering-in is taking hold, right over the north country.

November's early dark brings wild creatures to scratch at house foundations or barn slats for a way in, and now is the time souls have always drawn together for comfort and storytelling. Is it any wonder, then, that the birds, too, gather together as the hours of daylight wane?

Intense instincts are at work as birds knit themselves into winter flocking patterns. Protection from predators, and food-finding, have been suggested as the reasons these small tribes of avian survivalists form, putting up with each other, sounding warnings, sharing information about our suet and seed feeders.

In my riverside neighborhood, only the crows display a gathering behavior that hints at something more than keeping body and soul together. There's a quality to their cawing in the cold first light, as they leave a night roost further south and pass overhead and along the river in waves of dozens. It's a cacophony that may be called irrepressible, or defiant, or maybe it just serves to get their kids up and motivated!

Research on animal intelligence gives rock star status to a couple of tool-using and tool-making crow species, but they're all noted for a brightly curious approach to life. I suspect they just like noise, and use it to maintain family communication as the roost disperses at morning. The summer has been given over to raising young, their own or perhaps a sister's. Crows live in extended families and share responsibility in traditional, 'It takes a village' fashion!

Just lately I've received a hint about where those early crows may be heading when they leave their 'rooky Wood': to a pond.


This year I started putting out a water tray, and to my astonishment have noted it is the birds' first stop.

Not the suet. Not the seeds. The water.

I felt a bit like the Chicago official described on Bill McKibben's reportedly favorite environmental website,, who'd overseen the greening of an industrial roadway, and, spotting a nest in a young tree, shouted, "I've created habitat!"

So go ahead and create some habitat, even if it's just a water dish hanging from a nail on the porch this winter. If water appears at a regular hour, ingenious and adaptive birds will notice.

November is the season when we share with other species a deepening dark, in a Kingdom often wakened from its night by shrill black birds on a mission for food and drink, cawing the daunted and disheartened among them on, perhaps, until the sun rises.

? A great holiday outing with the kids! Give them a close-up view of the plumage and coloration of the Northeast Kingdom birds commonly seen in our backyards. Visit the Fairbanks Museum, 2nd floor, to find this special nature photography exhibit by NEK Audubon President Tom Berriman.

The author of Bird Notes, Veer Frost, is a board member of NEK Audubon Society, a non-profit organization that encourages the appreciation of birds, wildlife, and our natural habitat. Affiliated with the National Audubon, NEK Audubon is one of 8 chapters of Audubon Vermont. For information about meetings, field trips, publications, and special events, visit Facebook/NEKAudubon. Peregrine Falcon drawing by Robin Rothman.

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