“It’s like, why the blank did they come to downtown Hartford, you know?” Wildlife biologist Chris Vann searches the trees along the fence line; he begins to clap and squawk wildly. Vann often replaces expletives with words like “blank” as he stands in the coolness of the December dusk. The substation in Hartford, where a mass of American Crows was formulating above Chris’s head, and where a terrible chorus was shaking the air around him, sits wedged between Interstate 84 and a Mr. Sparkle car wash. His clapping becomes louder until finally there is a rustling in the yellowing maples. Dozens of birds take off at Chris’s final slam and he watches, proudly, as a flock of crows disappears into the darkness.
Why the blank, indeed? Chris doesn’t have a single answer. He stood on the gravel driveway of the substation with only the tips of his fingers in his fading jean pockets, rocking back and forth on the balls of his Merrell shoes with a set of binoculars swinging around his neck. In over twenty-five years as a biologist for the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection he has come up with theories, but as to the exact reason why the American Crows have made Hartford their home during this and every fall and winter since the ‘80s, his answer is at most a substitution for an expletive and an appropriate solution—just a “blank” where an answer should be. What he knows for sure is that throughout the day the skies become shrouded in black as tens of thousands of crows hop from one Hartford neighborhood to another, only to end up here, at the substation, at night.
This phenomenon isn’t a sudden invasion that has innocent bystanders sprinting for shelter, frantically waving their arms above their heads like Tippi Hedren. These American Crows have made the city their home and it seems that most people have adapted to them—a static fixture among weathered two-family homes, sporadic tree groves, and an abundance of insurance companies. Although some, less acclimated to the invasion, might admit that the birds have overstayed their welcome.
Chris thrust his hand out as if to wave away the sound of buzzing cars, the spraying of water from the car wash, and the uproar of the thousands of crows hidden in the dark sky above him. “Is that a bald eagle?” Chris exclaimed, raising his head toward the sky at the prospect that our nation’s bird might be consorting with creatures largely regarded as vile and ominous, but this eagle’s call was nothing more than a recording being played at a desperate volume from the rooftop of the Mr. Sparkle car wash.
Mr. Sparkle points speakers at the crows in the substation trees and plays a futile composition that resembles a playlist of birds from around the world in an attempt to scare them away from the property. Chris laughs at this and claims that those calls will never work because they aren’t even of a crow’s natural predator; he animates a better way to get rid of the birds by pulling back on a pretend mortar tube, called a “bird-banger,” in order to launch a pretend mortar at the tree line one hundred yards in front of him so it can pretend explode (insert Chris’s explosion sound effects) over the crows to pretend scare them off. Even if the birds did disperse at the bang, there’s a good chance that they would soon come back. Chris continues to laugh.
American Crows are resilient. They adapt quickly to humans’ attempts at exterminating them with hunting or dynamite attacks on their roosts. Still, several businesses in the Hartford area, like Aetna, Travelers, St. Francis Hospital, and smaller ones like Mr. Sparkle car wash have tried to figure out how to prevent them from defecating on their property, but are ill-equipped to handle the American Crow phenomenon. Chris becomes very serious when explaining that the substation has attributed at least one black-out to the birds landing and swarming around the station’s equipment. He suggests that American Crow defecation is the greatest underlying issue these birds present to the urban community, but becomes immobilized by laughter at the irony of bird feces being problematic at a place like a car wash.
It is that type of damage and defecation that drives businesses and citizens mad, but don’t forget that Poe played to human’s fears by knitting them all together in a bird perched on a bust. Just ask Aleece, a student in Dr. Sylvia Halkin’s Central Connecticut State University biology class. She claims to have a legitimate phobia of birds—something about being attacked by ducks when she was young—but that the distance she observes them from on the class field trip is safe, just as long as they stay on the sidewalk. The purpose of the class trip is to examine the crows, their movements, and their habits, but Aleece, among the other students, might have figured it is an act of torture.
They met at a Hartford school, where Dr. Halkin found the crows beginning their pre-roosting aggregation for the night. She is a lot like Chris Vann, with the curiosity and energy of a child. She is short, has curly, frizzy hair, wears glasses that make her eyes bright and beady, and wears a smile that she reserves for things like birds and squirrels and turtles. Like Chris, she is animated when she explains nature, like it is a great friend of hers, and occasionally throws her arms out in mid-speech as if to receive it.
While Dr. Halkin addresses her class, the crows pour into the area from all angles. They amass in the trees overhead until they swoop down to join the rest of the roost at the center of the field, causing Aleece to simultaneously crouch, jump, and yelp as the birds swarm around her. Dr. Halkin, while fumbling with a clipboard, tote bag, binoculars, and a backpack all at once, muse at the crows’ tendency to rise and fall in the air. “I love it when they do that!” Dr. Halkin yells. Meanwhile, her students struggled to fill out a data sheet with their findings. “What’s the answer to this one?” They plead.
Aleece and Joel, another student, huddle together against a December wind, neglecting their assignment, while Dr. Halkin bounces from one group of students to another, like the crows from one tree to another. She and Chris both agree that defecation is the worst the crows are capable of, but also that their fascination is more than just a blank on an unfinished assignment sheet. But did the students find any of this bird stuff as interesting as their professor? Aleece, Joel, and a couple of the other students turn and chuckle as if the question was also the punch line to a joke. They admit if there weren’t a chance the birds would be on a test they wouldn’t think twice about them. It is as if they could walk past that school without the slightest inkling that a field blacked out by a blanket of crows in the middle of a city is out of the ordinary.
As Dr. Halkin is packing her car to leave, the ground of the field exploded into a cloud of crows. All at once, in an earth-shattering chorus, the birds shot into the air and bubble in and out of themselves, like an expanding and contracting universe over a single point on the ground. They swirl around the field, eclipsing the sky behind them, but it is the speck underneath that caught the attention of Dr. Halkin. She’s beaming. She jumps into the trunk of her car and thrust binoculars into the chests of her students so they can see what she saw: a crow in distress, immobile, trapped underfoot by a Red-tailed Hawk, who stood stoically amidst the cacophony ensuing above.
Dr. Halkin and Joel sprint across the road to get a better look. Aleece and another student jump into a car for safety. Through the binoculars, the hawk pins down its victim and begin shredding feathers from the dying crow’s body. Joel drops his binoculars and watches some of the crows stand silently close by to watch the hawk. Others flutter passed, hoping to scare the hawk away. The rest scream while at the safety of altitude. Dr. Halkin had never seen anything like this before and suggests she might never again. The girls in the car watch, probably fearful for their teacher’s and friend’s life. Joel, smiling ear-to-ear, turns with the binoculars swinging around his neck and says, “That was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”