In our yard, every season is announced by black birds. Come fall, the grackles, who had been in small families through the summer, converge in a flock of hundreds, picking over the lawn in a rusty screeching. Before long, they’re all gone. It won’t be until spring when we see such numbers again, and by then, the more conspicuous criers will be red-winged blackbirds come back to the maple swamp.
I used to go to school out near Worcester, and my evening commute brought me up 495 and home to Amesbury. There was a short time, in the short-dayed part of the year, when my passage through Lawrence coincided with a massive flock of crows headed west over the highway from the river toward the city. My drive was fixed to a clock hour, but theirs was to the sun, so I could only expect to see them for a week or so as I drove through, knowing them as fellow commuters headed home to roost after the day’s work.
Now, years later, I work in Lawrence. My schedule shifts on the academic timescale, different depending on the day of the week, and semester to semester. My drive in takes me south on 495 and then down Canal Street. On the rise just before the Spicket River, the Stone Mill’s mottled hull is broadside to my view, its windows dark blanks.
It isn’t far from the mill that the crows roost on most winter nights. Though their exact location shifts from the north side of the river to the trees by the New Balance factory on the south side. As the crow flies, rivers are no obstacle, but their earthbound human observers may find themselves driving the roads and bridges back and forth of a winter evening, following the birds to whatever spot they finally settle on. I told my friend, who lives in Lawrence, about the crow roost. Her eyes widened, and she said, “I’ve seen them! I was on my front steps one day and they all just started pouring in; it was like a sign of the apocalypse!”
She’s not far off. Compared to my garden grackles, the scale of the crow roost is massive. Thousands at least, 10,000 and more at their peak numbers. The birds flow in an aerial river, cross-grained to the canals below them. They often gather first in staging areas, leafing the trees in black, shuffling, rearranging, gathering density as bird after bird arrives. Then, when they decide to lift again for their ultimate destination, the dark nucleus explodes into a thousand pieces, like a firework in reverse exposure, black against a lighter evening sky.
If you read about crow roosts, you’ll generally find plenty of unknowns, and plenty of questions. Why such consistency of habit? Why do they congregate in the first place? I ponder these questions as I sit in a line of cars, all congregated on the same street in the same city, because it’s work-going or home-going time for all of us and we are gathering or dispersing in our own vast numbers. On just two, maybe three mornings in the year, driving in to work, the sun’s angle is low and parallel to the road enough to illuminate the side of the mill. By that time of morning, most of the roost has dispersed, but a few crows row across the sky, late starting, on their way to meet the day’s demands. Their feathers swallow the light as they pass by the mill, whose windows, lit briefly in yellow and orange, are black eyes shining.