Thursday, February 01, 2007

On Crows in Winter: Lawrence Kilham (1910-2000)

I read field guides and books on nature, and though I don't know a great deal about birds, I pay attention to them; they are recurring figures in many of my poems. I particularly like crows. A common sight (and sound) in all seasons, they are an especially striking presence during the Michigan winter.

One of my favorite books is The American Crow and the Common Raven (Texas A&M University Press, 1989) by the late Lawrence Kilham (1910-2000). The book is beautifully printed and profusely illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings by Joan Waltermire. According to Amazon, it is still readily available.

Lawrence Kilham was a Harvard-educated physician who taught for many years at Dartmouth Medical School. I've read that his interest in birds was "recreational" but he can only be called an amateur ornithologist in the root-sense of the word--"to love." Kilham loved birds and wrote well about their lives and habits. He published several books and more than 90 scientific papers on ornithology and bird behavior. His books include On Watching Birds (1979) reissued as A Naturalist's Field Guide (Stackpole Books, 1981), for which he received The John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing in 1988.

I was driving to work this morning and as I headed down through the blueberry fields, saw a crow fluttering back and forth from the roadway. The crow was feeding on a road-kill carcass--perhaps a rabbit--and though the crow was attentive to traffic it was otherwise intent on its work, indifferent to the snow that swirled up from the cane of the fields and across the icy surface of the road. I remembered Kilham's book on crows, and when I opened it tonight, found an entry for an occurence at a feeding station the author kept in New Hampshire.

Kilham writes:

"About forty crows were on the snow feeding on the morning of February 1, with possibly twelve to fifteen more in the woods directly behind. After a half hour of undisturbed feeding, the crows suddenly flew into the air, cawing. I saw no cause for the disturbance and the crows quickly returned to feed as before. But within seconds they whirled up again, and it was then that I saw the Goshawk carrying a crow at snow level out onto the field. With the crow pinned under it, the Goshawk held its head up as the crows, with much cawing, passed 8 to 12 meters above in what appeared to be a panic flight that took them beyond the horizon in seconds...The Goshawk flew as the crows passed and, surprisingly, so did its victim, seemingly uninjured.

"When I inspected the site, I found that the hawk had carried its crow ten meters, so low that the tips of the hawk's primaries and the body of the crow left marks on the snow for the last five meters before the two birds, captor and victim, came to rest, There were no feathers, blood, or signs of struggle. I looked out at the feeding station several times in the next two hours but could not find a single crow. Attempting to reconstruct events, I surmised that the Goshawk had come out of the woods low and fast, caught a crow that flew up after feeding, and continued straight on. The sudden fly-up of the forty to fifty crows that circled without swooping or stopping to mob had, possibly, frightened the Goshawk enough to make it leave. Its victim, seemingly no more than stunned, then flew off."

5 Comments:

Blogger Bryan Newbury said...

Now, that is captivating reading!

I have a feeling I know what my next book purchase is. Thanks.

11:33 AM  
Blogger Diane K. Martin said...

Crows/ravens also thrive in the city, here in San Francisco. Out at Fort Funston, a large ocean-bordered park that is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the crows taunt the dogs, and the dogs chase the crows (to no avail, of course).

This is also a prime hanglider spot, because of the air currents from the ocean. And the crows like to glide and slide on those same currents. Really, they play. You can't call it anything else.

1:32 PM  
Blogger maeve63 said...

I am very fond of birds. Crows hold a special place in my heart; I adore them. It's a bit ironic really that I viewed your post today. I have very recently started blogging and have very few entries on my site (that will change of course), anyway, my post from the 31st "Of Sparrows, Hawks, and Crows" actually has some similarity to the post you've written. Just thought I'd mention it because I thought that was kind of neat. If your interested, the site is http://extroversionofintrospective.blogspot.com
I look forward to reading your blog now that I've been enlightened to its existence.

3:12 PM  
Blogger rams said...

Chuck Jones's ghost is at my elbow, even as I type. I can't help seeing that goshawk (they're LITTLE) as the little chickenhawk trying to drag off Foghorn Leghorn by his big toe.

I'll leave now...

5:52 PM  
Blogger periphron said...

Just a small correction: it was not "On Watching Birds" that was reissued as "A Naturalist's Field Guide," but rather, "Never Enough of Nature." I, too, am a great admirer of Dr. Kilham. I stumbled upon his "On Watching Birds" quite by accident through a library sale; the book had been withdrawn, sadly--the public's loss, but my fortunate gain.

8:12 PM  

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