By Doug Pifer
I was flattening out used cardboard moving boxes and throwing them into the bed of our truck to recycle. A commotion of crows made me look up. About sixty of them circled our upper field and then flew towards the sycamore trees beyond it. Among them I noticed one crow had distinctive white markings showing in the flight feathers of both wings.
Crows are among the most respected birds in Native American culture. In his 2013 book, “Bird Medicine,” Evan T. Pritchard says members of Eastern tribes watch crows very carefully to show them when and where to hold council. Pritchard is a director of Native American Studies at the Center for Algonquian Culture in New York and a descendant of the Mi’kmaq people. In a series of personal testimonies of Natives from different tribes, he presents evidence that crows traditionally gather at certain places each year, and that these places are often sites of historic or traditional Native American gatherings.
Of further interest is that Native American gatherings usually occur around the autumn equinox and winter solstice, which is when American crows are migrating and gathering in great numbers at their communal roosts. Such roosts are dramatic and often contain thousands of birds.
My wife and I used to watch American and fish crows gather at a roost in a cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland. On late winter afternoons we would notice flocks of crows headed towards the spot from many directions. The crows would first gather at several sites nearby, and then just before dark they descended upon their roosting
spot in the cemetery. The din of their voices was deafening.
Native American tradition also regards crows as messengers from the spirit world. For example an individual bird might bring a message from a deceased loved one. Such messages are deeply personal and only visible to those who understand them. According to Pritchard, Natives traditionally believe all animals are equal to us, and that it is a mistake to play God with animals and to consider ourselves superior to them. This is because not only have we been animals in our past lives, but we may also reincarnate as an animal in the future.
As I continued flattening and loading up empty boxes, a solitary crow came winging back from the woods where the flock was gathered. As it wheeled overhead, I noticed it looked like the same individual I had seen before with white in its wings.
In light of what I’ve just been reading about crows, I wondered for a moment whether this unusually marked bird had something to say to me.