THE SECRET LIFE OF CROWS

Blue jays swoop down around our bird feeders, their raucous cries preceding them while robins tend to sweep into the branches of our dogwood trees, from there to descend upon the lawn in search of earthworms. The individual members of these flocks pay little attention to each other while crows act like a family, well, perhaps more like a gang, in which each member is dependent upon the other to fulfill its role within the group.

As far back as the fifteenth century a group of crows was referred to as a murder. Some say it is because they could be found on the battlefield scavenging the bodies of the dead while others maintain that they were harbingers of death.

One such murder of crows inhabits a tract of hardwood trees that extends more than one hundred acres beyond our eight-or-so-acre woodlot, which lies adjacent to the pond separating this extensive woodland from another four acres of fields and gardens that surround the house where Trish and I have lived for nearly thirty years.

I’m told that crows mate for life. I don’t know if this is true, but on more than one occasion, I’ve watched the head of this particular clan feed his better half, the two standing side by side on a limb of a maple or oak tree. There are seven birds in this extended family, although there are times when only two, three or four show up.

When on the ground, they waddle with authority, and always with purpose. They enjoy tossing leaves and other debris, curious to discover what may lie underneath. The other morning I watched two of them do just that while patrolling the earthen dam behind our pond. Over and over again, the two birds inspected every leaf they came upon, tossing each aside before stalking toward the next.

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They tend to fly into our yard sometime after dawn. We find them under the bird feeders and suet cages, pecking at the seed or bits of suet dropped from above, taking flight when they sense us looking out at them from our bedroom window. For crows do not suffer people gladly. Invariably, one or two of their members will act as sentries standing guard while perched in a nearby tree ready to sound the alarm should it become necessary.

Most afternoons, crows return soon after we replenish the feeders. They eat whole corn kernels with long teeth, preferring cracked corn, although their favorite food is the sunflower hearts that songbirds drop from the feeders and the chunks of suet pecked out by woodpeckers. In addition to these staples, Trish and I collect stale bread, putting it out on the dam after it’s hardened. More than once I’ve found bread hidden under rocks and other debris throughout the four corners of our property. I always assumed this to be the work of squirrels, until spying a crow in the far corner of Trish’s garden scratching among the leaves. Inspecting the site, I discovered a piece of bread. Examining the ground further, I found two other pieces cached under garden debris.

Although known to rob nests of eggs and even nestlings, songbirds do not appear to mind them. Gray squirrels also ignore these members of family Corvidae, although I’ve seen them turn tail when a crow advanced with its wings spread open. I once saw a deer back down in the same way. But for the most part crows seem to get along with the rest of the creatures that inhabit our property with the exception of snakes and hawks.

Their cries are quite varied, ranging from croaks and whines to the harsh signal that alert any crow within in hearing distance that one of their number may be in danger. A few years back, these cries rose to a fever pitch, with crows descending upon a cedar tree beside the lean-to where I store my stove wood. Crows flew around the tree while others stood in a nearby dogwood, their bodies bobbing up and down as they screamed the alarm. At first I was unable to see what was causing so much distress, but staring upward I discovered a six-foot-long black snake entwined in the arborvitae’s branches. Crows truly mistrust humans, and perhaps with good reason, as we have been known to shoot them out of the sky. But whatever the reason, they have little use for us, and on that afternoon, they retreated at my approach, eventually flying off, allowing the black snake to wind its way down the tree, where it slithered under a boulder.

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A crow’s favorite pastime is to harass hawks. On more than one occasion, I’ve watched them mob a hawk to distraction. Driving to the stream one day, I stopped to watch a number of crows that had encircled a red-tailed hawk in a field alongside a country road. Outnumbered by its opponents, the raptor stood like a samurai, shifting its gaze from one antagonist to the other, waiting for the right moment to strike. But the moment never came, the hawk flying off with the crows following, pecking at the larger bird’s tail and wings. I watched for sometime as the bird of prey spiraled higher and higher, the crows taking turns to harass it. At no time did the hawk appear to be in danger, and eventually its tormentors tired of the game, the larger bird flying toward a set of hills and out of sight.

This morning, while stacking next winter’s wood in the lean-to I noticed that the songbirds had abandoned the feeders, their chatter suddenly muted. Earlier, I heard the high-pitched screams of a hawk, but it had glided over the woodland beyond our property. Now, as a sudden quiet fell over our yard, I slid a piece of white oak into the growing wall of cordwood and walked out into the open to discover a red-shouldered hawk standing in the crook of a tree a few feet away from the feeders. As it stared down at me with a cold amber eye, a crow cried from the other side of our house. A moment later a second bird joined in, and within seconds three crows were flying around the hawk. It didn’t take long for the entire mob to arrive, screaming their displeasure while flying round and round until the raptor had enough, flying off with the crows in hot pursuit, taking turns pecking and nipping at the larger bird’s wings and tail, their cries growing fainter as the hawk spiraled higher and higher.

While I began once again stacking wood, songbirds resumed their chatter — gold finches, titmice and juncos gathering around the feeders, a chipmunk stuffing its cheeks with seed before scampering toward the stone foundation of the lean-to.

2 Responses to “THE SECRET LIFE OF CROWS”

  1. Robyn Hill-Stitson Says:

    Love your writing. Do you have any new books coming out?

  2. forgottentrout Says:

    Robyn, Glad you enjoy my blog, and thanks for asking. BROOK TROUT BLUES came out this spring and the tenth anniversary edition of SHADOWS IN THE STREAM, a little book of essays is due out later this year. Email me at magalloway@mac.com if interested in an autograph copy. I write a column for Skylands Magazine Spring, Summer and Fall similar in style and tone to the posts on the blog. (I believe they have a website.) I also have an essay in the latest edition of Tenkara Magazine (they have a website) and another coming out in Maine Boating Magazine in May.

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