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Corvids or COVIDs? A brief meditation on a misinterpretation.

It’s rare—maybe even unprecedented—that I have created an article based almost completely on a social media conversation.  This probably has something to do with the fact that I’m not a heavy social media user.  But I’m relenting this one time because I want to churn out a quickie article as I prep for a longer one.  And, while I was already previously contemplating using this photo, the social media convo that inspired this particular spin on the subject is a lot cuter than what I had in mind.

A good old friend had posted an elegant monochrome photo of crows in trees: “Surrounded by corvids this morning.”  Here’s the pic itself, courtesy of Jessica Alter:

She’s probably more accurate than I am by saying corvids, since I’m not enough of an ornithophile to distinguish crows from rooks or ravens.  I am, however, sharp enough to know that all three of those birds belong to the family Corvidae, hence the label “corvids”.  And I know that corvids, which include magpies, jays, and jackdaws—while rooks additionally share the genus Corvus with crows and ravens—are among the most intelligent of birds.  Heck, they’re among the most intelligent of animals in general.  This intelligence may in turn explain the tendency for cultural depictions of corvids to lean toward the sinister side, not the least because of their frequent pitch-black coloring amidst other birds whose plumage is far more gregarious.  It’s no doubt disconcerting to encounter a bird that understands water displacement, can (potentially) pass the “mirror test”, and understand the rudimentary use of tools.  But such are corvids.  Then there’s the observable fact that jays and magpies tend to attack domesticated pets like cats and dogs (no doubt perceiving them as threats to their nests), of which they may intimidating physically but are superior intellectually.  But the way these birds congregate in huge numbers in trees, particularly when the they’re barren in the winter, only amplifies the terror (even if, for humans, the biggest fear is bird turd on a nice shirt).  The fact that a group of crows is a “murder” doesn’t help.  And I recently learned that a similar grouping of ravens is an “unkindness” or “conspiracy”.  The birders of yesteryear sure had it out for the corvids.  And let’s not get started with Edgar Allan Poe.

But corvids are only an accessory for the primary photo in this article.  The friend who featured the “corvids in trees” prompted a misreading from another friend, who saw “COVIDs in trees”.  Yes, this second friend is a doctor.  But that misreading impelled me to submit this photo:

Not corvids in trees but COVIDs in trees!

Yes, these are recreations of the telltale spheroid that has become the widely recognized stand-in for coronavirus.  And they’re essentially ornaments, dangling from the branches of the tree in the tiny front yard of this home in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington DC.  I counted five of them.  Not enough to be all that decorative, which made me wonder if they were meant to represent something specific.  Perhaps this is the number of people this household knows who contracted COVID?  Number of deaths?  Hopefully not the latter.  I’m not in this area that often but might convince myself to swing by again sometime soon to see if the COVID ornaments have grown in number since the time of this photo about a month ago.

Elsewhere, on the same property, I encountered a sign that is in most respects a non-sequitur, except for the fact that it admonishes an animal frequently dogged by corvids.  And “dog” is an unapologetic pun.

I’ve always wondered about these signs, which I see more often than in the past.  It’s one thing to rebuke passers-by who don’t pick up after their dog does number two.  But number one?  Do the people in this home even own a dog?  Anyone who has ever walked a dog can tell that we get very little warning when a dog is ready to relieve his or her bladder.  And it goes without saying that we can’t pick up after it.  The best one can hope for is that the dog pees somewhere that the landowner tolerates it, so there’s less of a need when passing by a yard with a sign like this.  But that’s not much of a safeguard: dogs routinely reserve a little extra squirt of two for marking their territory, and giving a tug on the leash to discourage them isn’t necessarily going to prevent them from peeing in the lawn they wish to mark.  The process from contemplation to urination usually takes about two seconds.  These are dogs, after all.  Not magpies.

So I’ll applaud this DC household for its clever representation of the pandemic, while scolding them for their poor understanding of our canine friends.  While pet ownership isn’t necessarily lower in highly urbanized areas, it does tend to be more specialized and often more eccentric.  It remains to be seen how these folks might handle corvids in their trees.  But there’s still plenty of time to test.  Based on the weather we’ve been having the last few days, we’re in for a long winter.

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