At lunchtime three crows stood around one of the mushrooms growing in the grass in front of the house. Like partygoers circa 1973, stabbing forks in the fondue pot, the birds took turns pecking at the cap of the mushroom. On the outside, the fungus is brown, about the color of a walnut shell, but as the crows picked it apart they exposed the white, tofu-like meat inside. After several minutes, they knocked over the mushroom and tore into the stalk and the underside of the cap. I had to pick up the boys from school and the crows flew to a power line across the street when I walked to my car. As I drove off I saw them return to the fungus buffet.
A few hours later I picked up the mushroom remains to get a closer look, Attached to the base of the stem was a clump of moss that looked like green dreadlocks. Viewed from above the cap resembled a slightly overbaked Kaiser roll. This species – Can anyone identify it, based on my description? -- doesn’t have the usual vented gills on the underside of the cap. Rather, it looks like a sponge with tiny holes, like a brain with spongiform disease. It’s quite beautiful and almost invites you to take a bite, though I’ve never been mistaken for John Cage.
I like the idea of one scorned organism, the crow, enjoying another, the mushroom.
Crows, like us, crows are omnivores. Mushrooms, too, feed off their close-at-hand surroundings. I once saw mushrooms growing on the head and inside the abdomen of a cow that had wandered off and died in a forest. Come to think of it, we associate crows and mushrooms with death. Both, in a sense, are carrion-eaters. Not surprisingly, Thoreau was fond of them. Of mushrooms he wrote in his journal for Sept. 1, 1856:
“We go admiring the pure and delicate tints of fungi on the surface of the damp swamp there, following up along the north side of the brook. There are many, very beautiful lemon-yellow ones of various forms, some shaped like buttons, some becomingly scalloped on the edges, some club-shaped and hollow, of the most delicate and rare but decided tints, contrasting well with the decaying leaves around them. There are others, also, pure white, others a wholesome red, others brown, and some even a light indigo-blue above, and beneath and throughout. When colors come to be taught in the schools, as they should be, both the prism (or the rainbow) and these fungi should be used by way of illustration and if the pupil does not learn colors, he may learn fungi which is perhaps better. You almost envy the wood frogs and toads that hop amid such gems, -- some pure and bright enough for a breast pin. Out of every crevice between the dead leaves oozes some vehicle of color, the unspent wealth of the year which Nature is now casting forth as if it were to empty herself.”
That’s Thoreau at his most fancifully exacting – a mushroom breast pin. He also couldn’t get enough of crows. They show up often in his journal. He was a close observer of their food-gathering and dealings with other species. Here he records their “buffeting” of a hawk, from the journal entry for April 6, 1856:
“As I am going along the Corner road by the meadow mouse brook, hear and see, a quarter of a mile northwest, on those conspicuous white oaks near the river in Hubbard’s second grove, the crows buffeting some intruder. The crows had betrayed to me some large bird of the hawk kind which they were buffeting. I suspected it before I looked carefully. I saw several crows on the oaks, and also what looked to my naked eye like a cluster of the palest and most withered oak leaves with a black base about as big as a crow. Looking with my glass, I saw that it was a great bird. The crows sat about a rod off, higher up, while another crow was occasionally diving at him, and all were cawing. The great bird was just starting. It was chiefly a dirty white with great broad wings with black tips and black on other parts, giving it the appearance of dirty white, barred with black. I am not sure whether it was a white-headed eagle or a fish hawk. There appeared much more white than belongs to either, and more black than the fish hawk has. It rose and wheeled, flapping several times, till it got under way; then, with its rear to me, presenting the least surface, it moved off steadily in its orbit over the woods northwest, with the slightest possible undulation of its wings, -- a noble planetary motion, like Saturn with its ring seen edgewise. It is so rare that we see a large body self-sustained in the air. While crows sat still and silent and confessed their lord. Through my glass I saw the outlines of this sphere against the sky, trembling with life and power as it skimmed the topmost twigs of the wood toward some more solitary oak amid the meadows.”
One of the great charms of Thoreau’s journal is his chronicling of obscure, otherwise unrecorded events like this, more than 150 years ago. I’m reminded of J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine. Without their close observation and meticulous fitting of word to event or object, these moments might as well never have happened. Crows are probably eating mushrooms all over the world, though I’ve never seen it before and perhaps you haven’t either, but now we can remember their meal.