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 is 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 such as this are celebrated across America—the swallows’ yearly return to the cliffs of San Juan Capistrano; the buzzards’ annual reappearance at Hinckley Ridge. They are greeted with sighs of relief that Mother Nature has kept her promise, kept her appointment; proving 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.
Naturalists can hazard guesses as to why the crows have chosen Mansfield for their winter resort; but, the truth is, no one really knows why. It can be supposed—because many other Midwestern cities and towns, roughly the size of Mansfield, also serve as wintering roosts for similar hoards of crows—that there is something about orderly, tree-lined streets that is attractive to these birds.
Alone, and out in the countryside, crows are more subject to predators in the winter without adequate cover from tree canopies. They are safer at night; together, in massive swarms. Our small city offers them an abundance of litter upon which to snack, and a modicum of residual warmth emanating from pavements.
It is 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 City Council show several instances when citizens—particularly car dealers who wanted to protect the expensive paint jobs in their sales lots— asked for variances in ordinances that would allow for serious crow-eradicating measures.
In the 1930s and ’40s, a local farmer and newspaper columnist named Calvin Byers, made note, several years running, of 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.
A diary excerpt from a Mansfield woman in 1899 has a notation on November 11, that says simply: crows are here.
(She didn’t mention how many crows.)
In the 1980s there were, reportedly, more than 30,000 crows in nightly roosts around town. That number dwindled in subsequent decades due to various bird diseases, but 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, 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 is 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— the fact that our city is host to them at this point in time may not have anything at all to do with crow-favorable conditions found within the municipal limits.
Maybe this is their old family homestead where they have always gathered 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 a brooding blue and violet, it is easy to spot the coalescing pattern of flight trails from small clusters of crows as they converge toward their roost for the night.
From all directions come the lines of winging birds, like threads tangling together into a snarling knot. You know 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 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 the Ohio State Reformatory, for example, 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, or over the roofs of people trying to ignore them.
Shortly after dark, they are mostly settled in for the night 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.