by Ross Trudeau
I started working on this puzzle a couple of years ago, but set it aside when I gave up hope that the center was a realistic goal. But (spoiler in link) one of the New York Times puzzles from last week inspired to me to keep pecking away it, and–fueled by nervous World Cup energy–the grid fell into place.
Drawing inspiration from lovely gridwork is a regular occurrence for me. When I started making puzzles, I most regularly found myself riffing on the work of C.C. Burnikel, Will Nediger, and BEQ. And nowadays, from time to time I’ll get emails from folks who’ve tinkered with a theme concept of mine and produced creative and satisfying, what, companion pieces? This is always a joy for me.
After I finished this grid, I noted to my unreserved delight that the grid contained exactly (ahem) Four-and-Twenty Stacked Birds(TM). Which, big win. (Noted artist and activist Parker Higgins looked at an early version using just CROWS and noted that I was on my way to a (ahem) Corvid-19.)
Obviously the middle stack is the centerpiece of this puzzle, but I also generated 15/16x grids for various of the flocks just to see how much was possible. The constraints I set were to include only one answer that actually used an example of the bird in question, while hiding the rest in valid crossword answers. I maxed out at 10 hidden OWLs, and 7 hidden CROWs:
When these two test cases fell, I moved on to the RAVENs. Building out a massive open swath in the middle of the grid took for frickin’ ever, but the end result feels both clean and fun. I hope you thought so too!
Happy solving, friends!