Behind the Veil

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I pulled into the parking spot at the Floyd Library yesterday, and the crows in the walnut tree stayed put.

City crows, I thought, with the notion that our Goose Creek crows spook at the slightest hint of human activity. From two hundred yards into the pasture they will take flight when I crack the front door open. But these City Birds are used to commotion and noise–maybe even follow it, since where there’s city life, there might be the scraps of a tossed hamburger. Or road kill.

I reached reflexively for my camera, even at the time thinking “common crows: not much of a picture.”

And yet, I’m rarely this close for so long, so I trained the lens on the nearest one of three, and hoped I’d see something image-worthy. But the one I focused on wouldn’t even face me. All I could shoot was bird booty, and I was about to put the camera back in the bag and go check out a book.

Then, this bird turned his head over his shoulder and looked directly at me, with some apparent disdain, I might add.

And as if to say “I ain’t puttin’ on a show here, bubba” he fanned out his primaries like a cape, spread his tail feathers, and disappeared from view behind a screen of blue-black. And the show was over. And this was the show!

What wonderful control for each individual feather had this common blackbird–moving each independently as he preened feather by feather. I’d never before thought of feathers as anything but passive, and yet here was a dexterity of control not unlike the way I move my own fingers just so, mind over matter.

But then, it should come as no great surprise that to perform the aerobatic maneuvers we see in our distant crows against the sky takes precise adjustment second by second in the spread, pitch and camber of individual feathers. But this was the first time I’d really watched it happen in this crow so uncommonly close out my window, perfectly at rest, and disappearing briefly from view behind a living fan of feathers.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I can’t help but think “God in the whisper” kind of thoughts with this one. Glad you (and the crow) didn’t give up on the shot.

  2. fred- what a treat to click over and see this shot! wonderful!

    i’ve been trying to get photos of all the birds that are back in town, but they haven’t been willing participants. and i don’t have a zoom lens… i’ll have to just enjoy them by myself.

  3. Oh, but he did put on a show – a wonderful one. The design of his wings and their relation to one another in this pose is just terrific! So glad you had your camera.

  4. Gorgeous photo and what a treat it must have been to see in person. Glad you had the camera in hand.

  5. The photo is fabulous and so is your writing. The imagery of a “living fan of feathers” is awesome with or without the picture. Good Job!