My father died when I was 8 and the next few years were a bit lean. Until I was much older and looked back on it, the only thing I really noticed was that I outgrew my school clothes. When I complained about kids making fun of my “high water” pants, Gramp said if I did not like it, I should do something about it, not whine for someone else to solve my problems.
My response was to get a job helping with haying and feeding calves. I worked every day of my ninth summer and was paid on September 1st the princely sum of $10 and a young game rooster. This was enough to buy three shirts, three pairs of pants, and some socks. That rooster lived for 16 years and began a stretch of poultry ownership that has been unbroken for the past six decades. That string will be broken in a couple of weeks — partially due to a crow.
The current flock is a result of about 15 years of selective breeding of some heritage breeds (and some questionable importing of a few hatching eggs in my dirty underwear bag), doing our part to maintain genetic diversity. We get dark chocolate brown, tan, speckled, white, green and blue eggs, all of which go to New York City. This is not particularly financially lucrative but has remained in the black until recently when production dropped precipitously. I fussed about disease, photoperiod, feed quality and all the traditional worries. Then I found the eggshells in the driveway. Surveillance determined a particular crow figured out how to go in the hen door, root the hens out of the nests and make good his escape with an egg before the rooster noticed and put the run to him.
In the past I would have resorted to lethal action but nowadays I am loathe to shoot things I do not intend to use. This leaves a dilemma because the crow, in the manner of all wild predators, will not stop as long as there is any resource left, but getting six eggs a day from 35 hens is hardly a decent business plan, so we have decided to surrender and sell the flock. Giving up six generations of selective breeding for egg color is sad, as is not having a rooster crowing at dawn, but times change and perhaps someone else will appreciate them as much as I do.
This is not the first time I have been plagued by a crow but I appreciate being able to observe them and make up my own mind regarding the folk knowledge about them.
As a wildlife rehabilitator, Dr. Wifey once got in a tiny, featherless crow with a broken wing and leg. Against all odds, she managed to keep the baby alive but it was nearly the next spring before he was healed and strong enough to fly. During these months, the crow demonstrated some antipathy for me, taking every opportunity to give me a peck if I did not pay attention. I reciprocated by calling him Dummy. Here I learned the traditional knowledge that you could teach a crow to talk if you “split his tongue” was utterly wrong. This crow talked just fine — greeting everyone just as I greeted him, with a cheerful, “Hello Dummy.”
Another bit of folk wisdom about crows relates to their affinity for shiny objects. I felt this was untrue because I could see no survival advantage to the practice. My belief was supported by corvid researchers who also unanimously rejected the idea as well. When we released Dummy, he refused to leave, plaguing us all summer. The kids were little and would come howling back to the house because the crow, picking at the shiny ends of their laces, repeatedly untied their shoes.
It was, however, not until he swooped down and grabbed my car keys that I discovered the extent of this trait in this particular crow. I followed him off into the woods where he stopped in the crotch of an ancient maple tree. Returning with a ladder, I climbed up to find not only my keys but several sockets I had been missing, a drill bit and a very nice lady’s bracelet. There were unshiny objects too — a handful of acorns, a hunk of snakeskin and several clumps of sand-encrusted cat poo from the roadside.
Another trait, debated among the scientific community but firmly believed by others relates to the fact that crows teach things to their offspring and flock mates. Dummy would follow Dr. Wifey as she walked the garden rows. He seemed especially fond of the fat green worms on the broccoli. Janice would turn the leaves and heads back and forth allowing Dummy to nab the caterpillars.
In the fall, a big flock of crows flew over and Dummy arrowed up to join them. We saw him for several more years, recognizable by the white feather on his right wing and gimpy gait, but he was standoffish and never spoke. However, it turns out this aspect of crow behavior is also quite true for, sure enough, the next summer Dummy was back with a couple of friends, walking down our broccoli and cabbage rows, picking off worms. After a couple of years, we would see crows working at the cabbage worms without Dummy in the lead.
So, overall, I guess I have to applaud the crows’ ingenuity and intelligence and to thank them for furthering my education regarding wildlife behavior. Perhaps the current nuisance is a descendant of Dummy, come back to plague me some more for giving him that name.