One of the moths, Nov. 30, 2008.

Note: I wrote this on December 1, 2008, after that year’s first winter weather event. In the wake of this October’s snow, it seems worth
revisiting now.


Usually it’s baseball that tells me winter is winning. This year seemed like it’d be the same.

On that first morning after, the frost on my windshield was thick and the suddenly empty trees made the sky seem huge. The world felt like a fist closing in on itself, fingertips digging into a palm for warmth.

Then, on the second day, in a downtown but out-of-the-way corner of Springfield, I came across two ragged men on a bench singing the chorus to Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” Their melody turned ghost-white in the morning air.

By Wednesday the cold stuck to you like cockleburs. Walking through a downtown park, I saw a man and a woman sitting on a bench. The man, wearing a big parka, was slumping over. I walked toward them. The woman was tugging the man’s sleeve as he slid off the bench, onto his knees, drooling. The woman said to me, “I think he needs help.”

Looking around, amazed at the silence of the city, there seemed to be no doubt: winter was winning.

It wasn’t until the last day of November, though — the day I finally got around to raking the leaves in the front yard — that I found what seemed to be the surest sign.

“Good day for it,” my neighbor said, on his way to church. “It’s going to snow later.”

Once I had the leaves in neat piles I took a break. I went into town to get a coffee. By the time I got home, sleet stung my face. I dragged the tarp out from the back yard, unfurled it on the lawn, and pulled the first pile of leaves into my truck. I spread the tarp out again. That’s when I saw the moth.

It must have been curled up in one of the folds of the tarp; it would’ve disappeared into the brown material if it weren’t for its wings — veined mahogany, then a band of black with cobalt dots, then a ribbon of yellow at the fringe. The moth twitched its legs, shaking off a long, cold sleep. Sleet crackled on the tarp. The moth pulsed its wings.

I forgot about my chore and knelt down and watched the moth for a long time. Did moths migrate? Or did they just die when the cold came? I couldn’t remember. Either way, I thought, this late in the year a moth must feel like the last moth on Earth. But I had hope for the moth. Every few minutes it would pump its wings a little more vigorously. If it took flight now — well, that would seem like something.

But it didn’t take flight. And then the sleet came harder, mixing with snowflakes the size of dandelion parachutes. I had to get the rest of the leaves into the truck. I slid the dead stem of a balloon flower under the moth’s fat, furry body and moved it over to the wiry grass.

I pulled the tarp over to the final pile of leaves, turned around, noticed a little flurry of movement. There, in the grass, was a second moth.

Like the first, this one beat its wings — slowly, but purposefully. Flecks of sleet gathered around the moth’s shoulders and in the small of its back. I went inside, got the camera, snapped a few pictures. The first moth hadn’t moved from its spot. The second moth never did. All around the neighborhood smoke floated from chimneys.

Late in the afternoon I went out to check on the moths. It was raining. Straight, cold rain. One moth — the first one I’d found — was laying on its side right where I’d last seen it. It was laying like it had just stood there, wings folded neatly, until one drop of rain proved too much and it just flopped over. The moth was still. Rain mixed with the dust of its wings, covering them in a milky film. Later in the night, maybe, the rain would turn to snow and bury the moth along with all the other leaves I missed.

But the morning — the first day of December — was warmer. The rain had drained almost all of the color from the yard. Both moths were still in the grass, lying still on their sides. I picked up the gray stem of a zinnia and tapped the first moth’s belly. One leg twitched, then grasped the stalk. I twirled the stem in my fingertips and set the moth upright in the grass. The moth opened its bright wings.

Rain drops had beaded up on the second moth, but it, too, twitched and fiddled with the stem of a dead flower and eventually opened and closed its wings a few times.

A pair of crows chased a raven through the trees. The moths sat like two sloops in the yard.

If winter was winning, it seemed, its victory would come slow — and maybe its reign would be short.

Crows gather in Springfield's Brightwood neighborhood, February 2011. (c) Greg Saulmon

Crows like Terre Haute, Indiana, but the feeling isn’t mutual.

In winter the crow-to-human ratio approaches 1:1, with about 50,0001 of the loud, smart birds descending upon on the city. Last year, The New York Times reported Wednesday, the city formed a “crow committee” — which in term created a “Crow Patrol” whose members were trained to shoot fireworks and flares near common roosting areas.

“The intent was not to kill the birds but to launch a varied disruption so sustained that the they would move to dedicated zones: an empty field, say, at city’s edge,” Dan Barry writes, noting: “All last winter, the boom of evening fireworks echoed through Terre Haute, with modest results. It turns out that crows don’t believe in zoning.”

The Terre Haute Crow Response Committee officially released its winter 2010-2011 crow control plan [PDF] in August, 2010. The plan — converted to the PDF format from a PowerPoint presentation — runs 19 pages and calls for a first-year budget of $15,000. Two staff members, a planning director and a field director, received salaries of $6,000 each. The remainder went to supplies, equipment, mileage and postage.

The crux of the plan, as mentioned in the Times article, involved designating zero-, moderate-, and full-tolerance zones, with volunteer patrol members working with the planning and field directors to “encourage” the birds to congregate in full-tolerance areas. “Believe it or not, Vigo County contains plenty of places that crows can roost in large numbers without bothering anyone,” the plan reads. “The trick is getting them to go there when they don’t choose those spots on their own.” The plan also argues the necessity of the full-tolerance zones: “Otherwise, you’re not giving the crows you move out of zero tolerance zones anywhere to go.”

A call for volunteers issued shortly after the rollout of the plan identified two primary positions: “Observer/Data Collector” and “Pyrotechnics Launcher”. The latter position was charged with using fireworks to keep crows out of the zero-tolerance zone.

Terre Haute based its plan heavily on strategies developed by Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County Crow Coalition. The Lancaster coalition advocates for a “humane, non-lethal, and environmentally sound approach” to the crow issue, and uses CafePress to sell hoodies, tote bags and coffee mugs bearing the organization’s logo. Slogan: “Crows are Cool.”

While the coalition champions its success in moving most of the roosts out of the city, the group’s website reminds residents that “[c]rows aren’t pests” and offers a somewhat resigned take on the effort: “Crow management will continue, each year, probably forever.”

This year, Terre Haute held a Crow Committee volunteer training session on October 11. Volunteers met for an hour in the City Hall court room to review the plan and receive hands-on training for the upcoming crow season.

But like Lancaster County, Terre Haute, too, encourages its citizens to exercise tolerance for their sometimes noisy neighbors. In its crow-management plan, the first bulleted item on the slide titled “The Public’s Role” reads: “Accept that there will always be crows here.”

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1The New York Times cites a winter crow population of 100,000, but Terre Haute’s crow control plan offers the 50,000-crow figure. The city’s population, according to the 2010 Census, is 60,785.