Once you see a murder, you can’t unsee it

Ken Sikes is one of six News Tribune reader columnists for 2018.
Ken Sikes is one of six News Tribune reader columnists for 2018. dperine@thenewstribune.com

It was winter when I first encountered the murder. We passed by as I drove my daughter down South 74th Street to Mount Tahoma High School. It was quite a shocking sight.

Bodies were everywhere, scattered across the gravel parking lot of the seasonal fruit stand, stacked on the branches of the surrounding Gerry Oaks, and perched perfectly on the power lines.

They were moving, pecking, prancing, hopping and flapping. Had our windows been down, we’d have heard a cacophony of caws and crackles.

There was no actual homicide here, as you’ve likely guessed, but a murder of corvus brachyrhynchos, commonly known as the American crow.

Let’s just call it a ubiquity of crows. I think I like that better than “murder,” the official name when referring to a group of these birds.

What are they doing here? Why so many and where do they go after the sun fully rises? I’m no crow expert, but such people do exist and would say that we’d driven through a regional roosting site.

Each evening, hundreds or even thousands of crows gather for warmth, protection, to share information and to mate. Each roost is what ornithologist Ellen Blackstone calls “a giant avian slumber party.”

As amazing as this sight was (and is, if you can catch them before sunrise), even more amazing is the number of times I didn’t see it.

Mid-December wasn’t the first time I’d driven my daughter to school in the dark. I had passed through this tunnel of feathers, this great avian huddle, many times, yet failed to notice. How could I be so blind, so deaf?

I could blame this inhibited vision on my decision to switch from coffee to tea, or say my mind was fixated on the mental list of daily tasks, or fault the talk-radio hosts for their daily Seahawks diatribe.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter, because my eyes are now opened. Once you’ve seen a murder, you can’t unsee it. Even more, I don’t just see these messengers when I drive my daughter to school. I see them everywhere.

They strut in the morning sun beneath the great firs of Manitou Park and swirl down from the Mulberry tree into my neighbor’s yard. I saw one boldly perch on the carcass of a squirrel that didn’t make it across Puget Sound Avenue.

Even when not seen, I can hear them. Cawing, yes, but also cackling, clicking and what I’ve decided to call garckaling because it sounds like they’re gargling a box of gravel.

I dare you to find one corner of this community where crows don’t go. One day I decided to count, and saw no less than 76.

Ubiquity is a dangerous thing. That which appears everywhere soon ceases to get noticed anywhere: The evergreens, park bench, power lines and blue skies. How often do we see but not notice these things?

But now that the crows have arrived, they’re changing my vision. As they cross my path, I’ve not only started to see them, but also the path. I notice my neighbor’s chain-link fence, the cottonwood tree near 56th and Tyler, and the relatively new playground near the STAR Center where a gaggle of kids chase each other.

The crows, in a way, have become my neighborhood tour guides helping me pay attention to that which I usually miss. Their objects of attention are almost always ordinary, but once in a while they point their beaks at something unique.

“Hey, dad,” my daughter said, peering out the windshield as we drove through the bird tunnel, “have you ever noticed the Christmas tree on top of that power pole?”

“What? Is this some riddle?”

“No,” she pointed up, past the power lines, above the oaks into the Tacoma Power substation. My eyes followed her finger up the tallest pole where sure enough, there it was, a Christmas tree.

“Huh? Wow. How do you think the crows got it up there?”

She rolled her eyes loud enough for me to hear them, louder almost than the call of the crows.

Ken Sikes is a South Tacoma resident and pastor of Manitou Park Presbyterian Church. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. He can be reached at kwsikes@gmail.com