On my first evening of three in Alice Springs I stepped out for a smoke and a look at the sunset. An eruption of hundreds of Little Crows Corvus bennetti, spooked – maybe by a passing Peregrine Falcon, maybe a back-firing truck – rises into a red-velvet sky. I watched as they wheeled and cawed their way about the sky and settled back into their roost trees.
From my own perch I see the Crows in the tops of two large Ghost Gums immediately before me. In the trees to my left and right more.
Up early next morning with coffee and camera in hand I waited for the birds to rise from their slumber and set off for their day. A fat yellow full moon dropped slowly into the west. Sulphorous street lights cast their hepatic glow across the town. Six miles higher, red wingtip lights dragged a veil-grey vapour trail across a black sky.
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Thrumming chiller units – it is thirty plus even at this hour – lay like an acoustic blanket over the sleeping town. Rail yards on the edge of town make train-loading-noises. Clanks, thumps and grindings filter into the middle ground on the soft westerly. No Afghans in this town now but in name.
Here an early Pied Butcher Bird throws out a cautious mellifluous call, there the whining me-me-me-me of the Yellow Throated Miner. Above all the Crows, clustered like black grapes in the massive gums, muted sentinels over this mall of misery. The Crows, Black Kings of all they survey give their early grumblings to the day.
Now a small, drawn-out groan, echoed by a creaking-door cackle hither and a full-throated caaarkkk yon.
The Crows tune up in the soft light. “We are just awake, but not ready yet” some say. “Go back to sleep” say others. The inevitable. Silence. A small croooaak. A waaaark. Crack!. Then ten and more giving full voice. Silence. Once more chuurrppp. Kwaaaark – kwaaaak. Much more now of the rattling, raucous corvid morning symphony.
I’ve been watching for the Little Crow Kings of the Alice since I got into town and at the airport spotted a pair raising their bastard Channel-billed Cuckoo parasite at their nest in the centre of the traffic roundabout.
As I sat in meetings my eyes wandered – I have long had no choice in these things – to the singleton Torresian Crows – bigger and all beak than their Little cousins – outside. On the street I lift my head to see those lurking in trees, perched on antennae or pole or floating across the sky on the hot breeze. Were there more Crows in town than usual? Unsure.
That question was answered at dusk that evening as hundreds if not more rose, spooked from their roost trees. A black screaming panic. No mere murder of Crows here but a massacre.
Now in the morning they state their case in full and massed and cracked choir. This town is ours. Soon we will scatter for the day’s business and again lay claim to all that we survey.
We are the Black Crow Kings of Alice Springs.
I am the black crow king
Keeper of the forgotten corn
The King! The King!
I’m the king of nuthin’ at all
The hammers are a-talking
The nails are a-singing
The thorns are a-crowning him
The spears are a-sailing
The crows are a-mocking
The Arrernte traditional owners of Alice Springs, say of the Crows – “Angepe” – that:
Angeper urrperle akurne,
ilwekarle arlkwentye akngerre.”
“The Crow is bad, it hangs around to eat the dead.” *
Now the sun threatens to creep over the eastern hills as the moon slides over the edge of the West McDonnell ranges that split the town.
Something – a slammed door, a shot – startles the birds and hundreds rush into the sky.
No sound other than a thousand long caaaaws and messed panic. A Grey Teal rushes past at arms length – it’s red eye betraying that both of us are as startled as the other.
The Crows settle back to their roosts but the morning and their rest is broken now.
As the sun’s first light kisses the tops of their trees they scatter in twos and threes to all quarters of the town to gather again that evening.
The Black Crow Kings of the Alice.
* From “Thipele arle ileme akerte” “Things that birds let you know about” a series of posters about bird knowledge in four central Australian languages.