So here we are, beginning of March. Right around the time that all those perkily-made New Year’s resolutions crash in shards at our feet. Right?
I am a master of magical thinking. I begin every shiny new January 1 in exuberant certainty that this will be the year in which I get everything I want! All my children will be happy. Everyone will be healthy. There will be no conflicts, no wardrobe malfunctions and no flight delays. And the Cubs are going to win the World Series, I can feel it!
I greeted 2014 by finishing my first book of the year in those chill gray pre-dawn hours that insistently and inexplicably tap insomniacs like myself on the shoulder, chortling “Good Morning!” in the middle of the night. I am not generally amused by my 3:00 and 4:00 am wake-up calls, but I waited for light on January 1 the way a child does on Christmas morning. I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up!
The book I had just finished is called Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. Now, I am not a birder. I don’t really know very much about birds, other than chickens. (And knowing too much about chickens is not necessarily a good thing, as I’ve discovered that conversations about feather mites and bumblefoot seem to go absolutely nowhere at dinner parties).
But I had found this book during the holidays, pushed to the back of a closet where I store Christmas gifts. I must have bought it years ago to give to someone, but instead it had languished, for who knows how long, forgotten on a shelf. I couldn’t think of a soul who would want to read it. It was a reject, an unwanted stray, which, of course, instantly stirred my overdeveloped sense of responsibility. I sighed and placed it on my nightstand. It was under 200 pages. Not a big commitment to read.
It turned out to be a delight for many reasons, but especially for introducing me to a particular tradition of the birding world, which is this: the first bird you encounter on the first day of the year becomes your bird for that year. Like a riff on the Chinese New Year, I guess, but instead of facing up to the Year of the Horse (which, by the way, somewhat ominously entails a prediction for “a fast year full of conflicts”), serious birders will travel to far-flung destinations in the waning days of December in the hopes of snagging a glimpse of a Tibetan bunting or a Kakapo and proudly claiming it as “their” bird for the year.
As a raw beginner, my aspirations were modest, but as the night sky skimmed to a milky-blue, I hurriedly threw a jacket over my sleeping clothes and devised a plan. I would task the CE with liberating the hens from their coop – as much as I adore them, I didn’t want to embarrass myself by having a chicken as my bird of the year. And I deftly averted my eyes so I wouldnt see Birdie on my way out the door – love him dearly, but that bossy little cockatiel has already been my bird of the year for sixteen years now. I wanted to begin this new day of this new year with a new bird.
So of course, I made it just about twenty feet out the door before a large, black scolding crow flew right in front of me. “No!” I wailed, not a crow! Anything but a crow! I had been secretly hoping to make it back to the oceanside bluffs where I knew a Great Blue Heron can often be sighted surveying his kingdom from the top of a eucalyptus tree. But no, for me, 2014 was destined to be the Year of the Crow.
Not even anything as exotic as a raven. Just a ragged black crow, from the same flock that has noisily reminded us for two decades now that our property belongs not to us, but to them. They curse at us from the oak trees; they clatter on our roof so loudly and clumsily that I expect at any moment one will tumble down our bedroom fireplace chimney.
The crow flapped over to a low branch of a pepper tree and regarded me as sullenly as I did him. We both seemed to be thinking the same thing: of all the creatures that could step into my path on this New Year’s Day, why must it be you?
It seems I have spent an inordinate portion of my life wanting things I can’t have, so it may have been cosmic wisdom that shattered my New Year’s hopes well before noon on January 1. Resolving to make the best of this Year of the Crow, I ordered a copy of In the Company of Crows and Ravens and spent a few days learning more about my dubious companion for the year.
You know, of course, that a group is a “murder” of crows. But did you know that a flock of ravens is known as an “unkindness”? That there are 46 species of crows worldwide? That if you annoy or harass crows they will internalize a flock-wide grudge against you that will be remembered for years and perhaps even decades? Extremely social and impressively smart, crows are known to fashion tools and have learned to purposefully drop walnuts onto highways, and then lay in wait for passing cars to crack open their snack.
I learned enough about crows to regard my unbidden “spirit animal” with more curiosity than scorn. I’ve paid more attention to the comings and goings of the crows that unremittingly surveil our property. One morning I even witnessed a meeting of the minds, or at least beaks, between a crow and my little Silkie hen, Luna. The jaunty crow swaggered up to Luna as she pecked amid some begonias and for a brief, quizzical moment, the two birds touched beaks in greeting or curiosity. I held my breath, worried that the crow might have mayhem on his mind, but no, his interest satisfied, he peacefully took his leave and Luna went back to her flower bed.
Life sometimes seems so rife with petty annoyances and dashed hopes, all of which that January 1 crow sighting threatened to portend for my new year. The universe seemed to be whispering (as it so often does) lower your expectations, a skill that has never really been one of my finer points. “No majestic heron for you,” was the message, “learn to love the crow”.
And you know what? I have. The heron would have been like those fleeting moments of happiness, a rare sighting, here and then gone. But the crows are there every day, swooping from the trees in all their ridiculous cacophony. Ordinary as they are, I’ve come to feel an affection for them, a sense of ownership.
A few weeks back, I heard a confounding racket late one afternoon and stepped out on the bedroom balcony to see what was happening, There was an enormous flock – well, murder, I guess – of crows swirling wildly against the backdrop of a spectacular winter sunset. Nearly a hundred of them, roiling the sunlit sky in a startling funnel cloud of flapping and cawing. They were – dare I say – beautiful, even, yes, majestic. Those commonplace, ragtag crows put on a spectacular show for me and I realized that what the universe had really been whispering to me on January 1 was not a penance, but a nudge in the right direction. My new New Year’s resolution: celebrate the ordinary, for therein I may hope to find the extraordinary. Learn to love the crow.