By Greg Clark, March 13, 1948
Jim and Greg discover that the wily crow is getting wise to the tricks of the hunter
“Hist! A crow!” exulted Jimmie Frise.
We ran to the office window. And there, on a roof across the street, perched a crow, his back humped, his beak extended as he yelled derision down to the swarming traffic below.
Like a ragged old black hat, he leaped into the air and flapped away onward on his journey north.
“Man! The first harbinger of spring!” gloated Jim. “In a week, we can go crow-shooting. The bush lots out in the country will be alive with them.”
“What a thought!” I expostulated. “See your first messenger of spring, and immediately decide to shoot him.”
“They’re rascals,” declared Jim. “They’re murderers. They are the enemies of everything from mankind down to the smallest little infant song bird. Crows are the pariahs of the bird kingdom.”
“They are also,” I stated firmly, “the first glad heralds of spring. Hardy, bold, cunning, undefeated, they beat their way back to us weeks ahead of the robins and the bluebirds. Not like little soft birds do they wait for the balmy winds of spring to ride on. No: the crow braves the sleet and the …”
“Don’t let them fool you,” cut in Jim, grimly. “The reason they get back here early isn’t to squawk the good news to us. It’s so they can spy on the farmer and see where he plants his corn. It’s to get their nests made and their eggs hatched in good time so that their horrible infants can be fed birds’ eggs. They come early, so they can hide in the pines and watch the tender little birds building their nests.”
“Nonetheless, the farmer’s heart lifts when he hears the first crow,” I soliloquized, as we stood gazing out the office window. “The crow may have a harsh and discordant voice, but it’s music in the empty air of March. It has the note of a trumpet in it; a note of ardent and excited signal. It sounds as though the crow, from above, can spy something coming, far to the south. It’s spring!”
“Look!” interrupted Jim. “We’ve got this afternoon off. Why not let’s go crow-shooting this afternoon? We haven’t been out in the country for months. We…”
“I could do more…” I cried.
“Look!” insisted Jim. “I’ve got Doc Secord’s stuffed owl down in my cellar right now! The one on a pole, you know? We just take it out to some woodlot outside the city and set it up.”
“What a welcome,” I grated, “to a joyous creature homing from exile! To set up a stuffed enemy. And when the poor crow comes shouting, we, hiding like cowards, blast him from the skies.”
“We’ll leave,” announced Jim, returning to his drawing board, “right after lunch. We’ll get away by 1 o’clock. We’ll pick up our shotguns and old clothes and that stuffed owl.”
“The roads,” I protested, “the back roads will be in an awful mess a day like this, Jim. There’s a thaw.”
“We’ll stick,” advised Jim, “to the paved roads. Lots of good crow-shooting right along the highways.”
Thus you see how the noblest sentiment is brushed aside by the brutal authority of material considerations. Such as an afternoon’s sport.
In the first place, I must confess that this sport of crow-shooting around a decoy stuffed owl is something out of this world. Doe Secord’s stuffed owl is the handiest contraption I ever saw. The owl is fastened to the top of a pole, about an inch thick and four feet long. Three other four-foot lengths of pole, each fitted with a ferrule of galvanized tin, allow the sportsman to joint the pole together, like a fishing rod. And thus the stuffed owl is set up, on a 16-foot pole, cleverly hidden in a cedar or spruce tree in a nice open glade or swamp. The owl appears to be sitting perched on the top of the tree.
The sportsmen then conceal themselves in the underbrush nearby, and the most musically gifted member of the party starts cawing on his crow call, a sort of squawker that very closely imitates the excited yelling of a crow.
If there is crow within a mile, he immediately, and silently, comes hot-winging it over to see what all the excitement is about.
And when he sees the owl on the cedar, he just about goes crazy. His wild calling rings far and wide over the fields; and crows for miles, taking up the hue and call, come flying at top speed to mob the owl.
Of course, March is too early for the best crow-shooting. The first week of June, when the young crows are out of the nests and the parents are busy teaching the young’uns all the tricks and perils of their trade, is the peak of the crow-shooting season. Scores, sometimes hundreds of crows can be attracted by skillful calls. They circle and dive at the owl, oblivious of the barking from the concealment of the bushes. Teaching a young crow what an owl is appears to drive the normally suspicious and crafty crow right off his rocker.
“There’s a crow!” cried Jim, slackening the speed the car. “Over there …”
Against the skyline, above a distant woodlot, I could see the ragged figure of a crow flying slowly and aimlessly. A tired crow, I thought, home from a long journey south.
“Too far off the highway, Jim,” I assured. “We don’t want to risk driving in that far. And it’s too far to walk, carrying the guns and the owl.”
“They’re back!” gloated Jim. “There’ll be more.”
And sure enough, only a mile or so farther, we saw another crow. He was feeding on a bare patch of earth extruded from the frowsy March snow. As we slackened the car, he jumped and flapped away.
“How about it?” demanded Jim. “Let’s set the owl up in the next woodlot we come to. There’s enough crows right in the district to start on.”
“I kind of …” I muttered, gazing back at the figure of the crow hastening away toward a distant clump of bush.
“You’ll feel different,” assured Jim, “once the shooting starts!”
So Jim drove on another mile or so until we came to a good gravel side-road. It was one of those first-class second-class roads, if you know what I mean, that the county authorities keep in good shape even at this time of year. About half a mile down this side-road stood a fine bush with cedars and pines among its woods – a perfect spot for crows.
Jim turned the car and we followed the good gravel into the woodlot, where we selected a nice wide spot to park the car. Filled with the usual exaltation that comes over a man when he steps out of a car with a shotgun, we loaded up with the stuffed owl and the jointed pole and our guns, and walked 300 yards farther down the road to a meadow with cedars of the right height clustered around it.
Working quietly, and in the hope that no prowling crow would come by and see us, we jointed the poles together and hoisted the owl on high. Then we set the pole, well concealed, deep into the foliage of a cedar. The stuffed owl, with his glaring yellow glass eyes, perched beautifully just on the tip of the tree.
We retreated a few yards and took refuge, kneeling under other cedars. And Jimmie unlimbered his crow call.
Four, five short, sharp barks on the crow call, as if a crow had just suddenly stumbled right on top of an owl.
Then two or three long-drawn caws of alarm, followed immediately by another series of the short, yelping notes of excitement
But no crow answered; no crow came.
“Maybe …” I murmured.
“Sshh!” hissed Jimmie, going into the second movement of the symphony.
Suddenly, off to one side, a black shape hurtled past, ragged as an old umbrella, flurried as though blown on a gale. It was the first crow. He landed, teetering, on the tip of an elm 100 yards away, and gave a few hoarse caws.
Jim redoubled his clamor. He put an agony of excitement into it; and a few low, cursing sounds, as though a crow were just about to dive.
The crow, with a sharp bark, lifted and flew away west.
“Well!” gasped Jim, pausing to puff for his wind.
In the distance, we heard the crow start to call. Jim answered. The crow increased his tempo. Jim joined. Presently, we heard another crow join in. Then another, and another.
But they didn’t come any nearer. They must have been a good quarter of a mile away.
“Maybe,” whuffed Jim, resting from his labors, “maybe they got ANOTHER Owl; a real one…”
He tried again, throwing real volume into his calls. But all that happened was that the clamor in the distance seemed to multiply and increase.
“By gum, that’s it!” cried Jim, coming out of concealment. “We’ll go on down and see.”
So we disjointed our owl off his pole and hurried out to the gravel road and back to the car. Driving very slowly, with both our heads stuck out of the windows we cautiously advanced down the side road. Ahead, slightly to the south, we saw another woodlot.
“They’ve got it in there,” diagnosed Jim excitedly. “An owl, by the sound of them. We’ll sneak as close as we can in the car.”
The new woodlot stood a few hundred yards down a really bad side road running off the gravel. And as we drew near it, suddenly out of the bush nine or 10 crows exploded. And uttering wild cries, flew a couple of hundred yards farther south.
“Jim!” I protested.
But Jim had turned the car, and we were jouncing and slithering into the side-road.
“It’s only a lane…” I warned, “a mud road…”
But the call of the wild was on Jimmie. He hunched over the wheel. In second gear, he plunged the car 100 yards through mud and slush and rib-jagging ruts and pitch holes before we went into the ditch for the first time.
“Jim, not another yard,” I shouted, as he gave the engine the gun and, by a miracle, lurched us back onto the narrow miry crown.
He stopped the car, and we got out and harkened.
Three hundred yards away, not nine or 10 but 20 or 30 crows were screaming their heads off, at the bottom end of the woodlot.
“They’ve got an owl, all right!” gasped Jim. “A great horned owl!”
We scrambled back into the car. Jim-put her in low; and we scrunched 50 yards before we slewed off the road for the second ditching. He was not so lucky this time, and we both had to get out and wade through mud to get fence rails, pine branches and other debris with which to set a footing under the back wheels of the mired car. Meanwhile, the tumult down the road gathered fury and frenzy.
When Jim had keel-hauled the car back on the road, I said:
“We can walk from here, Jim. It’s only a couple of hundred yards.”
“We can drive nearer,” commanded Jim. “In their excitement, they’ll notice a car far less than us on foot.”
One hundred yards farther the car did a couple of slews, a slide and a dive, and went down to her running boards in a solid mass of porridge mud.
“There!” I declared hotly.
“Come on!” hissed Jim, seizing his musket and leading out the door.
But we had not gone 100 yards on foot through the muck and slush until a sudden silence fell on the community of crows. One instant they were all yelling. The next, not one! And, furtively, we could see their black shapes diving and ducking and vanishing into the woodlot, across the fields and over the hills. In a moment, a great hush settled on the countryside; all you could hear was our heavy breathing.
“Well…!” said Jim.
Well, we walked back to the car. And it did not take much of a glance to see that this was a job for a strong farmer with a stronger team of horses.
It was quite a walk and quite a long time on the party line telephone before we found a farmer able and willing to come to our aid. In fact, it was dusk by the time he got us hauled back out onto the gravel.
“Crows?” he said, as we handed him $5 for his hire. “Ah, crows are wily! They’re getting educated. Sometimes, I figure crows are developing an almost human Intelligence. Why, I could tell you tricks crows have played on me…”
“So can we,” said Jimmie and I both.
Editor’s Note: A ferrule can be any of a number of types of objects, generally used for fastening.