As I sat in the car at Negley and Stanton avenues recently, waiting while my husband, David, ran an errand, crows flew by overhead one or two or three at a time -- some perching in a tree briefly, then joining the flow.
I started counting -- roughly 150 crows passed in 10 minutes. People flowed by, too, but not one looked up and saw the stream of birds or seemed to hear the piercing caws. I wondered where the birds were going. I'm told that Pittsburgh crows in winter often head for Homewood Cemetery; perhaps that was it.
Our grandsons have been interested in birds since they were little, thanks to their science teacher dad. One day when they were visiting, they went out to play ball but dashed back and announced: "There's a hawk in your tree."
We hurried out and, sure enough, on the locust tree in the front yard was a small hawk. He didn't seem put off by the attention and gave us plenty of time to bring out the binoculars and bird book. With the help of the grandchildren, we identified our visitor as a Cooper's hawk. We learned that the breed is flourishing after nearly becoming extinct. (Thank you, Rachel Carson!)
We've seen the Cooper's hawk from time to time in our Highland Park neighborhood. The hawk provided even more excitement last winter. I was reading in my recliner when I glanced up to see a bird flying pell-mell into the window opposite me.
After the collision, I jumped up to see what bird it was and if it had broken its neck. By the time I reached the window, the bird was winging away and its mate had joined it. I knew from the light underparts that it wasn't a crow, but the Cooper's hawk and its mate.
I sat down and thought. I have a tremor, and it was severe in one foot that day. Did the hawk think my foot was a small edible creature? That was scary. I called Beechwood Farms Audubon Center and asked for the bird life expert. I explained what happened and my theory as to why it occurred.
"Not likely," the expert said. "Your hawk was probably reacting to its own reflection in the glass." Whew! I had envisioned nightmares of hawk attacks.
On one cold, clear day in December, David and I decided to walk around the Highland Park reservoir, our favorite place to get exercise and to people-watch. Many times one sees a few mallards swimming, but not on this frigid day.
We were enjoying our walk when my husband exclaimed, "Look!" In the distance a flock of Canada geese approached. To my surprise, they began to drop down and glide to soft splashes in the reservoir. The walkers all rushed to the railing to take in the unusual sight. I counted some 60 geese. What a privilege to have witnessed the arrival of these magnificent birds.
The next day, working at my computer, I heard raucous caws and wondered if I was hallucinating. I went to the window and counted 15 crows, all in the tall tree across the alley behind our house. One by one, they swooped down, sounding very irate.
Were the crows protesting the presence of our Cooper's hawk? They certainly could have been. Its prey is smaller birds, and it often hangs out in this alley. I went back to work. Soon the cawing stopped. When I went to the window, there was no sight of the crows. I wonder what they're doing now.
I'm not what they call a birder -- an expert at locating and identifying birds. Those enthusiasts build a "life list," and for many their travel plans are shaped by where they are most likely to find the birds they need to extend their list. Many of them volunteer for the yearly Christmas bird count to help tell us which birds are thriving and which need protection to survive.
My deep fascination with the birds I've seen this winter stems, I think, from this: We share a city and neighborhood, yet we live in different worlds. Knowing that there is another reality proceeding with little attention to us humans makes life more interesting and somehow deeper.
When I recall that the large flights of crows in winter are thought to be headed for Homewood Cemetery, it pleases me. David and I will be headed that way, too, one day, and we welcome the company of crows.
Elizabeth Segel of Highland Park, the retired director of the Beginning With Books early literacy program, can be reached at email@example.comThe PG Portfolio welcomes "Animal Tales" submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein: 412-263-1255.