The other night in North Baltimore, a swarm of crows — hundreds of them — filled the canyon of high-rise apartment buildings along University Parkway, between Calvert and Charles streets, and for a moment I thought I had been transported to a surreal moment in a Harry Potter movie, all gold and black and macabre.
It was about 7 o'clock, the third day of daylight-saving time, so there was just enough orange in the western sky to provide contrast to the large, black birds as they raced to the left and right, soaring and darting, twisting and diving — an aerial dance spasmodic. I couldn't tell what this was all about; no one was selling a program. But it looked like dangerous and juvenile fun, a massive game of avian quidditch. It was cosmic.
People of Charles Village and Oakenshawe, who live near the Johns Hopkins University campus and the high-rises along University, are familiar with this phenomenon, and I'm told every March the crows gather at dusk and perform this big dance number.
Everyone has seen flocks of starlings, but crows, being larger and far more playful, put on a much better show. About 100 of them landed in the crown of a tree on St. Paul, while twice as many flew straight up, then dropped into a dive — a high-speed, amusement park dive — toward University. Another 300 or so funneled into a flight down Calvert, then circled back and landed on the flat roof of one of the apartment buildings. Some of it looked synchronized; most of it looked improvised and random.
I'm guessing there were 1,000 birds in my gaze at any given time, but, of course, wise men have noted through history the utter pointlessness of counting crows.
Below all this was life familiar: students with backpacks strolling back to their quarters from class, steady traffic on the city's main north-south thoroughfares, and the never-sleep atmosphere around Union Memorial Hospital. A swarm of crows in Upperco, or in places such as Snydersburg, Woodbine, Pylesville or Deale might catch your eye, but it wouldn't play on your mind the way this one did. In those still-rural settings, the spectacle of swarming cornfield birds makes sense. In the city, it looks like a plague, or the consequence of a curse.
Maybe there was a disturbance of an ancient relic at the Walters.
Maybe a Hopkins student messed up a lab experiment.
Or maybe the crows got into some homemade sour mash and were thrown off course.
"They basically act like a bunch of bikers pulling into town to pillage," is how a blogger named Quixo described a swarm of crows in his Los Angeles neighborhood. "I've come to really enjoy it, but it is still fun to raise my fist and shout obscenities at them like a cranky downstairs neighbor during a kegger."
An ornithological expert told Quixo that, throughout North America, crows are known to be social animals. They roost and forage in groups, team up to ward off predators, and they have what amounts to avian chat sessions at various times of day. Wintering crows tend to gather in large groups; they play, they talk. Juveniles, in particular, work on their flying and maneuvering skills.
As I watched them the other night, I saw yearning in the first degree — for friendship and for fellowship, and for this long winter to be finished and for spring to come.
I thought, as I watched the crazy crows, about the people of Japan. It's hard not to think about them and the nightmare that has decimated the northeastern coast of their country. As night fell on Baltimore, I stood on a city sidewalk and regarded swirling crows; I applauded a fantastic display of nature's power. But, at the same hour, as the sun rose on Japan, the survivors of earthquake and tsunami must have been cursing it.
We should feel lucky to live in a place where there are more natural delights than natural disasters, and where counting blessings is always easier than counting crows.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DanRodricks.