Eighty feet above Terry Jones’ modest manufactured home, men perched in high-lift buckets paint the legs of an orange and white checkered water tower.
Running rollers up and down the tower’s 10-story uprights, the painters look like mites tending to a daddy longlegs. Jones has grown to abhor the sight of them.
At the start of the project two weeks ago, the men dislodged a giant ravens’ nest on the tower’s crossbars, allegedly using a power washer. Young birds were killed in the process, and now Jones and her neighbors are squawking about it.
“Number one, they should have waited a week. All those birds were close to flying. In another week, the nest would have been empty,” Jones said. “Number two, nesting birds are not to be messed with. Ravens are a protected species.”
This is a story about how something so seemingly insignificant, even undesirable for some, can matter a whole bunch. The water tower near the intersection of Mission Avenue and Potomac Drive in north Greenacres sits in the center of a large retirement community, Arbor Grove Senior Park.
The park’s 100 or so manufactured homes flank the tower on three sides like a giant horseshoe. Neighbors, many of whom keep binoculars near their back doors so they can watch the birds, consider them part of the park. The birds even get written up in the Arbor Grove monthly newsletter.
“They’ve been around the park for years,” Jones said. “They leave in the winter and come back in the spring to the same nest to have their children. As soon as the babies can fly, they all leave. Only the adults come back the next March.”
Neighbors strain to see how many heads might be visible over the crown of the nest once the chicks hatch. They watch the parents flying back and forth with everything from rodents to cafeteria scraps to keep their clutch alive.
By May, the parents usually have their young teetering on the tower’s crossbars to get used to the breeze passing beneath their wings. By June, they’re shoving their young into a free-fall from eight stories up.
When the nest came down this month, at least one raven offspring came down with it. One flew away, and neighbors say perhaps a third bird died on the ground.
The water tower’s owner, Consolidated Irrigation District, insists the birds were not intentionally harmed, that at least one bird was injured because its legs were entangled in the nest’s construction. The other simply flew away.
“First of all, I don’t think that some of those people are ever going to believe us,” said Bob Ashcraft, district manager.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Department is investigating. Ashcraft has assured the agency that the next time Consolidated encounters a raven’s nest, the company won’t do anything until it calls Fish and Wildlife.
“You know, one of the main sources of their diet is small songbirds,” Ashcraft said, still not entirely clear how the birds became so well-liked in Arbor Grove.
This is a species slighted centuries ago by humans who decided that while gathering seagulls would be called “flocks” and congregating geese would be called “gaggles,” ravens en masse would be referred to as “an unkindness.”
Unkind either because of the way the birds treat one another or because their presence for centuries has been considered a harbinger of death.
There’s been a chicken-egg debate about ravens and death at least since their slick black wings fluttered over Cicero, allegedly warning the Roman statesman of his demise.
A love for roadkill is one thing, but show up early for a wake repeatedly and people start to talk, or write. Authors from Shakespeare to Edgar Allen Poe have given permanence to the notion that the raven is no Toucan Sam.
It’s a songbird, but in a symphony of songbirds the raven’s call seems reserved only for the foreboding stanzas, when the mood turns dark and what’s really needed is a good “rrronk.”
“Oh yeah, they squawk. And when they’re upset they really squawk,” said Mary Hart, who keeps a deep bird bath in her backyard for the water tower’s occupants.
A raven, more than a foot long with wingspan of nearly 4 feet, is no robin standing at your backyard watering hole. Its long, slightly curved bill and manelike throat feathers look fairly menacing.
A fan, Hart still describes the birds as “pretty spooky.”
Had the birds been left alone another week, she suspects they would have migrated down the street to a dilapidated house surrounded by old stock cars. The ravens seem to like it there. They should have had the chance to go.
“The whole thing with me is we have got to start taking care of our environment, not just the water and the air, but the bird population and our animal population,” Hart said. “And that’s why we’re squawking so loud.”