Driving home at dusk, I notice a long line of crows flying in groups of three, their flight patterns resembling air force cadets in formation returning to base. I watch them heading for one white pine tree hovering over Calvary Cemetery in South Portland where they land gracefully on branches bouncing rhythmically in the wind.

Crows have always fascinated me. They are part of the corvid family, which also includes ravens, magpies, jackdaws, rooks, treepies, choughs, nutcrackers and jays; however, crows are considered more advanced in their overall intelligence than the other birds within the corvid species. Their tenacious and raucous behavior, problem-solving ability, distinctive memories and potential to feel compassion are considered extraordinary by research scientists.

Once, during a visit to the Jewish Museum in Prague, my husband and I had a close encounter with a family of ravens. We toured the synagogues and visited exhibitions filled with artifacts and news clippings describing the horrors of the Holocaust and life in the concentration camps. One exhibit made a distinct impression on me and related how Nazi soldiers removed large gravestones from Jewish cemeteries to later use as building material. After completing a tour of the synagogue, we decided to explore the adjacent cemetery with others who were also perusing the city’s historical sites.

The graveyard we entered was enshrouded with overhanging trees, their thick heavy branches almost eliminating all sunlight. As we walked through the cemetery and chatted with some other tourists, large black ravens suddenly appeared and flew overhead, several of them landing on the upright tombstones directly in front of us. Their spirited squawks were startling and silenced us and other tourists, as though they demanded reverence for the tortured souls buried there. On the tombstones, notes from relatives, friends and well-meaning strangers were folded and secured by small stones to ensure the deceased had received visitors and would never be forgotten.

The cemetery and the presence of ravens created an awakening for us and others to remember a horrifying event in history. Walking on the paths among the graves, we were careful not to engage the scolding ravens who flapped around us. After the tour, we emerged from the cemetery into brilliant sunshine. Throughout the rest of our stay in Prague, no other ravens appeared anywhere else in the city.

In Calvary Cemetery, veterans and military personnel are laid to rest; and on Memorial Day, families and friends place flowers on the gravesites to honor all individuals who have given their lives in foreign wars. Were these congregating crows I observed today commemorating those brave soldiers who died overseas? Authors frequently use the appearance of corvid birds, especially ravens, in their novels to convey important messages, as they are often considered harbingers of death. Could the appearance of these crows on the overhanging branches in Calvary Cemetery reveal a compassionate memory? I believe that they, like the bold and vocal ravens who appeared in the Jewish Cemetery of Prague, are demanding reverence for the dead.

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