We can not forgive the opening sentence of this almost interesting Seattle Times piece, “What’s with all the cawing? UW team eavesdrops on crows”:
“If a congregation of crows is called a murder, then the nightly gathering at North Creek Wetlands could be described as a massacre.”
Someone should have told the reporter to let go of that final word (which completes the idea of the sentence) after she too eagerly, too quickly, too joyously pounced on it. A major part of the development of a writer is the construction of mechanisms that alert him or her of the true artistic worth of an idea expressed by a sentence. These mechanisms understand that a sentence has its weaknesses, the main being that which also constitutes its strength: it wants to be the greatest thing in the recorded history of human language. The writer knows that this ambition must at once be policed and also not policed. (Detectives in fiction and films know of this kind of management. Your informant must be constrained sometimes, but also sometimes be given the freedom to get the real dirt from the streets.)
What separates a good writer from a bad one is found in this policing of sentences. Which is why the opening sentence of the piece reveals the writer is either bad or has yet to develop mechanisms that would have, after a moment’s thought, informed her to always, always, always leave that shamelessly quirky noun for a group of crows the hell alone. It’s bad enough that it exists. And any sentence that sees in it an opportunity for greatness must, like a sentence that wants to make a big deal out of the presence of “art” in the word “earth,” be punished with an execution.
That said, the story, which concerns the 16,000 or so crows that, at the end of the day, meet and make a lot of noise at North Creek Wetlands near UW Bothell, has a piece of information that’s astonishing—even mind-bending: that massive community of crows is not all that many, relatively speaking. There are “crow roosts in Oklahoma and Nebraska [that] attract as many as 75,000 birds.” As you are trying to picture that many crows in what Emily Dickinson once described as the sky of your brain, you soon learn that even that number is not all that. According to “crow specialist Kevin McGowan,” writes the science reporter, the biggest crow roosts on record is “about 2 million.”
This is the population of major American metropolises. Strangely enough, that most amazing detail in the story is not found in the first sentence or expanded by others. It’s left as is near the end of the piece. So—where in the world do two million crows meet at the end of the day and make their horrible noises?