By Greg Clark, March 30, 1935
“This morning,” said Jimmie Frise, “I was waked by a flock of crows.”
“Spring!” I cried.
“A whole flock of them in the tree beside the house. And the racket they made,” said Jim.
“Why,” I said, “you poor sap, they were serenading you. Honoring you. I wish it had been me they’d chivareed.”
“So do I,” growled Jim. “I hate crows.”
“One of the first, and therefore, the sweetest of the sounds of spring,” I said. “Jimmie, it is good luck to have crows come and wake you in the morning. It means a good year.”
“Crows,” said Jim, pointing an imaginary shotgun into the office air, “are vermin.”
“They are fellow creatures,” I pointed out. “Fellow creatures, Jim, filled with life like you and me, and just as eager as we are to live it.”
“Crows,” declared Jimmie, like a crown attorney, “are villainous vermin. They are crafty, clever and destructive. They are as wicked and cruel as they look, with their black coat, the color of the devil himself, and their beady jet black eyes. They rob nests of eggs and tear the young nestlings of good birds of all kinds, useful and gentle birds, worm-eating and weed-seed eating birds, right out of the nests amidst the despairing cries of the parents.”
“After all,” I said, “God made them.”
“And God made them a good black color, so that they would be an easy target for a shotgun,” cried Jim.
“The birds we like,” I said, “are the birds that put money in our pockets, like the insect eaters in our fields of crops and the worm eaters in our orchards. The birds we love so tenderly are the ones that sing for us and make us feel good.”
“Why not?” demanded Jim.
“Isn’t it rather presumptuous of us,” I replied, “to decide what birds we shall spare and what birds we shall kill? Are we the masters of all life? Are we the kings, the emperors of creation? Or are we savages. And what we like, we let live. And what we don’t like, we ruthlessly destroy.”
“Well, what would you have us do?” hotly demanded Jim. “Just lie down and let the enemy walk over us?”
“Listen, Jim,” I said. “When the last man on this earth falls to the ground, when all our topless civilization is wasted and rotted and gone, when we are exhausted and worn out and vanished, and that last man on earth staggers and falls to the good earth, a crow will be there to peck his bones.”
“Not if I can help it,” assured Jim.
“What can you do?” I asked.
“I can do what a million sportsmen in the United States are doing,” announced Jimmie. “I can do what Jack Miner and all the thousands of people he influences are doing. I can go out now, in the spring, with a crow call and a stuffed owl, and I can kill a few dozen crows before they have time to nest. I can reduce considerably the number of crows in this neighborhood.”
They’ll Always Come Back
“But,” I said, “up in Patricia Land and Rupert’s Land and in the Rocky Mountains, there will still be a crow or two to carry on his race. I don’t think you’ll do much here, by shooting crows, even if you shot them all, except make this part of the country particularly good pickings for the crows when they do come back. For, of course, they will come back.”
“I hate that remark you made about a crow picking my bones,” muttered Jim.
“Are crows increasing?” I asked.
“Sure they are,” said Jim. “The more the land is cultivated, the more the crows multiply. Before the white man came to America, there were only a few crows scattered here and there in the wilderness. But since the white man came and cleared the forests and planted the prairies, the crows have found wonderful pickings and have flourished beyond all dreaming.”
“It is a battle then,” I said, “between men and crows as to who shall conquer America?”
“Don’t be so smart,” said Jim. “We men have helped the crows to multiply. Now they are an ever-growing menace not only to men’s crops but to men’s numerous friends, the little song and insectivorous birds, see?”
“So we have to do something to reduce those unnatural numbers?” I asked.
“Now you’ve got it,” said Jim. “I don’t want to destroy all crows. All I want to do is keep them within bounds. A few crows are a useful part of the economy of nature. They clean up dead carcases of animals. They eat quantities of large grubs. But I can show you, out in western Canada, crows’ nests with fifty or a hundred wild duck egg shells underneath the tree.”
“The only thing I don’t like,” I said, “is the way duck eggs and corn crops and things keep popping up in this discussion. Is it because crows interfere with our sport and our bank accounts that we hate them?”
“They’re just a vermin,” stated Jim.
“And,” I said, “not only do they eat our corn and kill our little worm-eating birds and do their share of duck hunting — in the egg, not on the wing — but they employ thousands of men in the ammunition factories, and in the hardware business, selling guns and shells. In one way, the crow is a menace to man. In another way, he is a big employer of labor.”
“If,” said Jim, rising. “you wish to come with me on a crow hunt, say so. I’m tired of arguing about crows. I just hate them. That’s all.”
“How do you hunt them?” I asked.
“A crow hunt,” said Jim, happily, “is more fun than a picnic. We take a stuffed owl. You know, a great big stuffed owl. We set it up in a dead tree near the corner of a woodlot. Then we make a few little hides out of brush and cedar nearby for us to hide in.”
“Cowards,” I said.
“Then we take a crow call,” said Jim. “It’s a little sort of wooden horn that makes a sound like a crow–caw, caw, caw. After we are all hidden, we start calling with the crow call. We make it excited and high, like a crow that has found something. Pretty soon, a crow comes along, silently, anxiously, to see what all the excitement is about. He spots the owl, sitting up in the dead tree. Then he starts yelling bloody murder, and we keep it up, too, and away goes the crow, to rally the forces of crowdom. We still keep up our excited cawing, and in a few minutes, the crows come, not a couple, but in dozens, to mob the owl.”
Practising the Call
“A dirty trick,” I assured him.
“They are so excited,” went on Jim, “diving at the stuffed owl, and cawing at the top of their lungs, that they come right down over the blinds and you blaze away. In an afternoon, you can get several potato bags full of them.”
“What do you do with them?” I asked.
Jim looked at me coldly.
“Bury them,” said he.
“Tch, tch,” said I.
“After each fusillade of gunfire” went on Jim, “they fly away to a little distance. But you start calling wildly again, leaving the dead ones propped around the fences and on the ground and wedged in the crotches of trees. And in answer to your frantic calling, back they come again. I imagine you can call half the crows in a township. And get them.”
“Beautiful, beautiful,” I assured him. “You imitate the distress cry of a noble creature. Impelled by the grandest of motives, the brave and instantaneous answer to the distress cry of their fellow creature, the crows come at full speed to help their comrade. And even in the face of death, when hidden guns blaze at them, they still come on, droves of them, to answer that cry.”
“It sure is swell shooting,” said Jim.
“And good, too.” I pointed out, “for industry. Think how soon good times would come again if everybody went crow shooting and all the idle factories were equipped to turn out guns and ammunition for crow hunters.”
“Wait till you’ve been on your first crow shoot,” said Jim.
“When will that be?” I asked.
“Saturday,” said Jim.
With three of Jim’s shooting friends, I shared the car with a large stuffed owl. It was borrowed from the dining room of one of those small town hotels we passed through on our way to the Orangeville district where the crow shoot was staged. Jim drove and all the way up, we took turns at practising crow-calling with the crow call, a small wooden thing like a clothes peg, with a thin piece of metal stuck in it to make the caw.
“Just blow in it as hard as you can,” explained Jim. “It is supposed to sound like an excited crow, a crow in danger, a crow set upon by enemies.”
So we blew and cawed and made loud dying sounds with the caller, which Jim said were perfect.
At this time of year, with the roads the way they are, you have to do quite a lot of walking to get to a likely spot for crow shooting. We left Jim’s car at a crossroads and walked northeast of Orangeville until we came to a farm with a big woodlot and a swamp side by side.
“We got fifty here last year,” said Jim. “I wasn’t along that time, but the boys said it was wonderful shooting for a couple of hours.”
They let me carry the owl because I was the shortest. They said it wouldn’t be noticed so much by any stray crows if I carried it. But we saw no crows, nor heard any.
Over a few fields we plodded, and after studying the woodlot, we selected the southwest corner of it. We wired the stuffed owl on to a dead branch of a tree about twenty feet from the ground and there it sat, very life-like, staring with large yellow glass eyes, at space. Then we rigged up half a dozen hides, or clusters of brush and cedar boughs, with a good space in the middle for one man to hide, and with a look-out hole for him to shoot through.
“I’ll call,” said Jim. “Now boys, get into your hides. And no shooting until I shoot. Understand? We let the first couple of crows come and look, they go away and bring the main body back. So no shooting until I shoot.”
The Heavens Ring With Tumult
We all agreed. I got into a hide next to Jim, from which I could see out a hole and command a good view of the stuffed owl and the surrounding air soon to be filled with black devils.
No sooner were we hidden than Jim started the music. He let go a few frightened and started caws. Louder and louder. Then the sharp barking caws changed into long and agonized caws, as if the crow who was making the sound was a lady crow and she saw her only child being swallowed inch by inch by the owl.
It was beautiful. Across the afternoon landscape of late wintry fields, with streaks of mud and furrow showing through, the music rang and echoed. Caw, caw, caw-wah, caw-wah!
I listened for the far reply, and got my shotgun ready for action. I selected the sections of air where I could shoot without hitting the owl. Let others blow the stuffed owl to bits. I would not.
Jim got tired cawing and rested for a moment, and we all strained our ears to hear the first replies from the surrounding hills. But only a dog barked from a farmhouse back of the woodlot.
So Jim tuned up again.
“Caw, caw, CAW! Caw-wah, caw-waaaah!”
The gray heaven rang with the tumult of this poor anguished crow. It sounded as if it had its toe caught in a wringer.
A flight of little birds flitted anxiously down the field and scuttled into the woodlot below. A rabbit got up and hopped leisurely away from the furrows clown the field. But as we scanned the heavens and the far horizons, no battalions of crows hove in view.
“Caw, caw-wah,” went Jimmie, warming to his work.
But it was like crying in a wilderness. The immense peace of early spring was over the earth, the country peace. No farmers moved behind plow or seeder. No cattle stirred across the hungering and eager fields. It was the season of the yearning for the spring. The brown earth seemed to beg upwards, the staggered fences seemed naked and ashamed in their great need of weedy garments to hide them. There was a faint yellowness, like the nimbus around the heads of saints, around all the woodlots in the distance, and yellow is the true color of spring. Here at sunset would sing the first small birds that had flung themselves, day and night, northward a thousand miles to be here. How terrible, I thought, to blast their waiting stillness, this bleak dawn before the glorious day of spring, with guns. To salute with death those poor black villains of the mardi gras of spring. Villains? Did God make villains so that sportsmen might see how straight they could fling a thimbleful of shot? Or would God deal with the crows in due time as He would with the sportsmen? But across the empty sky rang Jim’s enchanting squawks and wails and through the hole in the cedar boughs I watched for little frantic specks to come waving above the yellow nimbus of the far-off woodlots.
“Caw-wah, caw-wah, caw-WAH!”
And presently we heard a little sound. A distant, multitudinous sound. It was gabbling and a clucking, a crying and quacking sound. It seemed to come from out along the edge of the woodlot which we could not see.
Jim put on the steam. His caws grew louder and more excited, anguished and agonized.
We clutched our guns and stuck the muzzles just outside the edges of the peep holes.
And around the corner of the woodlot, into our view, scrambling and galloping on their silly short legs, beeping and squawking and quacking for all their worth, their necks stretched out and their absurd bodies thrust forward like marathon runners, came whole herd, a flock, a host of ducks.
“Quaaaack, qua-haaack, quk-quk,” they screamed. “Beep, beeep, wank, wank, quaaaack!”
Jim was first out of the blind. The ducks raced and surrounded him, rushing to peer inside the blind, scampering eagerly all over the muddy ground.
“Well,” we said, also coming out of our blinds.
But before we could get into conversation with Jim, a farmer came tearing around the edge of the woodlot, waving his arms.
“Hey,” he said. “What is this?
“We were calling crows.” said Jim.
“What with?” said the farmer, eyeing our guns suspiciously.
“With this crow call,” said Jim, showing him.
“That’s a duck call,” said the farmer, grimly.
“It is also used for calling crows,” said Jim. “I’ve often called crows with it.”
“Did any ever come?” asked the farmer.
“Sure, lots of times,” said Jim.
“It’s funny,” said the farmer. “I got one of those duck calls I use hunting, but I also use it to call these ducks at feeding time That’s why they came to you. I seen them vanishing around the woodlot just in time.”
“We wouldn’t have shot them,” said Jim indignantly.
“Maybe not,” said the farmer.
And he walked away, saying quack, quack, and taking his ducks off with him.
“I guess,” said Jim, “we’ve shot off the crows in this district. Some day we’ll have to pick out a new part of the country.”
So we went into Orangeville and ate crow at the restaurant.
Editor’s Note: “Chivareed” is past tense of “chivaree”, which is defined as “Any loud cacophonous noise”.