When he was a kid, he told me, he killed crows by the hundreds, but as he got older he grew to like them so much he couldn’t bring himself to shoot. “They’re a lot like us,” he would say: “carrion eaters, group thinkers, too damned smart for their own good.”
– from the novel Blood Sport by Robert F. Jones (1934-2002)
A murder of crows
The wooded draw north of our house is not exactly a crow rookery because they do not nest and rear their young in that grove of trees, but it seems to be a popular meeting place for crows in the early fall, a neighborhood pub where 20 to 50 friends gather to discuss the weather, the prospects for scavenging in the immediate area, the progress of the corn and bean crops, and maybe the horrors of the dreaded West Nile Virus.
I know they talk. Before my hearing went south, I could identify more than a dozen different crow calls, their guttural and croaking language that includes a range of expressive noises from mutters to shrieks, alarms to enticements, scoldings to soothings, boasts to disclaimers, threats to pleadings. To the human ear, few of these sounds are sweet and dulcet. Many are harsh and clamoring, not the sort of voices that would beguile you or win you over to the fraternity of Corvus brachyrhynchos.
The common crow is a rather ugly bird, too, and often bad-mannered. Like humans, when they are alone or in small groups they are usually well-behaved, but in gangs they can be annoying and destructive pests. There is good reason that a flock of crows is called a “murder.”
A crow is the ultimate opportunist predator, an omnivore that will eat not just carrion and refuse but anything it can scavenge: plant life that includes corn, beans, grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, and berries; and animal life that includes other birds, mice, ground squirrels, frogs, insects – whatever it can catch and kill. Crows are notorious nest raiders, devouring every egg, hatchling or newborn they find.
Needless to say, the crow is not the preferred avian visitor for those of us trying to improve habitat for and increase populations of song bird and game bird species. But I try to keep crow depredations in proper perspective. The industrial agriculture industry’s tiling out of wetlands and waterways, bulldozing of meandering creeks into straight and featureless drainage ditches, and rampant application of pesticides and herbicides have destroyed more wildlife nests and nesting areas in the past decade than all the crows in the North Country could have raided in a hundred years.
And, not to be overly anthropomorphic, crows are a lot like us in many ways. Ornithologists believe the crow is among the most intelligent animals, smarter than many of the ape species. The observed behaviors of crows in the wild include tool-making, imitating the sounds or calls of other animals, counting (at least up to five objects), recognizing specific humans, detecting guns and traps, and predicting actions or behaviors. They may even be capable of “displacement”: communicating with one another about some event that has happened in a different place or at a different time than the here-and-now.
The conclusion I draw from all these crow aptitudes is that they use logic and reason in their decision making, rather than instinctive reaction. A crow is arguably more intelligent than some of the humans I deal with in day-to-day life.
Crows also play. If you have seen a gaggle of four or five of them dipping and diving in gale force winds, sometimes throwing themselves into near-collisions in an airborne game of “chicken,” you cannot help but think they do it for the simple joy of flight and contest. Play. No doubt you have noticed that a crow is never, ever hit by a speeding vehicle, even on the busiest roads, even though they frequently feed on the mangled bodies of less traffic-wary animals. As a car approaches a crow will wait until the last possible second, lift off, glide over the vehicle, and land to resume its feast. A game. Play.
Psychologists and behaviorists tell us that play, engaging in an activity for enjoyment rather than practical purpose, is what separates humans from lesser animals. Again, the crow is arguably more human than some humans I know.
Over my years of observing crows I have come to identify with these birds, especially after witnessing their rush as a community to defend their young, and their willingness to die in a battle with a nest-raising owl. So when West Nile Virus began to infect crows in 1999 and killed millions over the next several years, I was sad to see the flock that winters in the coulee on the south border of our farm dwindle from more than 200 birds to about a dozen. Crows are extremely susceptible to the virus, and once infected they are almost certain to die.
The population of our resident “murder” has slowly increased to about 40 in recent years. Female crows reach reproductive age at three years and males at five, and a typical nesting may have three or four eggs, so restoration of this depleted population has been slow.
Across the nation, the disappearance of flocks has not caused much stir in the wildlife conservation community. For every piece of information about restorative measures, there are a hundred about crow population control. Few people have any respect, or even tolerance, for crows.
The crow’s evil reputation was made clear during a wildlife habitat development meeting that I covered as a newspaper reporter in West Texas nearly 40 years ago. The local wildlife biologist and game warden, Bobby Goff, was responding to some questions about crows raiding quail nests. Leasing quail hunting rights is a big-dollar business for Texas ranchers, so every crow was a loathsome enemy, a bird to be gunned down on sight. The trouble, from the ranchers’ point of view, was that the damned crows had been listed as migratory birds, no longer varmints, and there was a restricted hunting season and bag limit.
“That’s true,” Bobby told the crowd. “But if an individual crow is causing damage or depredation to personal property, you can shoot him. And the only time a crow isn’t tearing up something is when he’s asleep. So I better not catch any of y’all shooting a sleeping crow.”
I don’t shoot any, not even the wide wake ones.
More stories about life in the North Country, hunting, bird dogs, and bird guns are published in my two collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.