Mansfield Homecoming

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was originally published on Richland Source in 2013.

It is one of those annual rituals of nature, coming around in the autumn as the Richland County Earth makes its yearly bow toward the polar north; inexorable as Daylight Savings Time, and bound into the fabric of tradition like the gathering of family clans for Thanksgiving.

It's that phenomenon that takes place in Mansfield every year in November right around Election Day: all the leaves fall out of the branches of our city’s trees, and are replaced in the topmost limbs for the next four months by an endless playground of crows.

Tides of nature are celebrated across America, like the swallows who yearly return to the cliffs of San Juan Capistrano, or the buzzards whose annual reappearance at Hinckley Ridge is greeted with sighs of relief that Mother Nature has kept her promise, kept her appointment, to prove again that this crazy world is, behind it all, predicated upon an underlying and comforting reason and logic, stability and predictability.

Yet the massive homecoming that takes place every fall in Mansfield goes largely unremarked, except for a few choice words from people whose cars are parked outdoors, under trees.

Roosting evidence

illustration 4 for Native Son: A Mansfield Homecoming

Why Mansfield

Naturalists can hazard guesses as to why the crows have chosen Mansfield for their winter resort, but the truth is that no one really knows.

It can be supposed, because many other cities and towns — roughly the size of Mansfield — all over the Midwest serve similarly as wintering roosts for similar hoards of crows, that there is something about orderly tree-lined streets that is attractive to the birds who gather.

Alone, and out in the countryside, crows are more subject to predators in the winter without adequate cover from tree canopies. Together, in massive swarms, they are safer at night. And the small city offers them an abundance of litter upon which to snack, and even a modicum of residual warmth emanating from pavements.

It's also quite possible that they are amused and entertained by our wary skyward glances, and by the feeble attempts people make to scare them out of our neighborhoods.

While ornithologists struggle to find biological logic behind the roosting habits of Mansfield crows, it’s possible that the larger picture might better be found through a different scholarly discipline: history.

Within Our Memory

Within the recent memory of one or two generations, there is plenty of documentation about the interaction between crows and Mansfielders. The records of Mansfield City Council show several instances when citizens asked for variances in ordinances to allow for serious measures that scare off crows in order to protect expensive paint jobs in the sales lots of car dealers.

In the 1930s and '40s there was a local farmer/author named Calvin Byers who wrote a column for the paper. Byers e made note, several years running, about the cacophonous party the crows were throwing in the Mansfield cemetery.

In 1917, a news reporter commented about the alarming number of crows overhead in the mornings. In 1899, a diary from a Mansfield woman has the notation on Nov. 11 that says simply: crows are here. She didn’t mention how many crows. 

In the 1980s, there were upwards of 30,000 crows in nightly roosts around town, and that number dwindled through the decades owing to various bird flus and Nile diseases. Today the numbers are growing once again.

The Long Memory of American Fauna

I know a woman whose home has been in its place for more than 60 years, but it was built directly upon the migratory route where spotted salamanders make their way to a vernal pool for mating season every year. They have been following this path for untold thousands of years, and consequently, the spotted salamanders walk right through her basement. To them, with their primal memory, her house is just a temporary hindrance in their ancient routine.

This example of nature’s ancient designs underlying our current, and relatively transient, map of Richland County, offers a more expansive point of view regarding the crows in Mansfield. It's quite possible that they have been gathering at this place on the globe for many thousands of years, for whatever arcane reason of their own, and the fact that our city is host to them at this point in time may not have anything at all to do with any crow-favorable conditions within the municipal limits.

Maybe this is their old family homestead where they gather for the holidays, and it is we who are the uninvited guests.

Mansfield: City of Crows

Every evening when twilight settles in from the edges of the city, and the sky goes to brooding blue and violet, if you watch the sky you won’t have to go far to find a pattern coalescing where the flight trails of small clusters of crows converge toward their roost for the night.

From all directions come the lines of winging birds, like threads tangling together into a snarling knot, and you know when you’ve found the epicenter of tonight’s congress of crows by the mass of wild activity: a cyclone of black wings blowing through their chosen canopy of oaks and buckeyes with a frenzied racket.

There are some couple dozen places in town where, on different nights, the trees are likely to blacken with jostling shadows as the sky darkens. Many of these sites are situated such that the raucous clamoring of the gathering tribe will go on with little notice or concern: at OSR, or down by the tracks, or in the cemetery.

But sometimes they will settle in those tall maples on Summit Street, or in naked walnut and beech trees above neighborhoods old and new, over the roofs of people trying to ignore them.

They are mostly settled in for the night shortly after dark, and have stopped their calling. If you go out at midnight, the noises that come out of the overhead are softer and inscrutable: rustlings of wings and guttural mumblings like they might be talking quietly among themselves, or perhaps dreaming.

When the crows fill the trees over your home at night there is a presence they bring of awe and timeless mystery. Surrounded in an aura of wings, it is not difficult to imagine why the Greeks regarded them as auguring messages from the gods.

Certainly the ancients would understand that Mansfield is blessed by the crows. We are, in fact to many, branded as the City of Crows.

Perhaps not so much branded, as whitewashed.

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