When I was a young man in my 20s, I loved to hunt small game. Sometimes I killed squirrels and doves, but mostly I hunted rabbits and quail. Lacking dogs, we usually hunted rabbits in a group. Spread out across a field, or walking down some railroad tracks, a group flushed out more game than a solitary hunter.
Sometimes we would see a crow, and sadly, someone in the group would shoot it. They did not retrieve it; they shot it just for fun. It might or might not have been crow-hunting season.
I always scolded the crow killer and urged them, “Please, do not shoot crows.” The hunter I scolded always thought I was nutsy. But then and now, I really like crows.
According to “The Magic of Crows and Ravens” by Patti Wigington: “Both crows and ravens have appeared in a number of different mythologies throughout the ages. In some cases, these black-feathered birds are considered an omen of bad tidings, but in others, they may represent a message from the Divine.
“In Native American folklore, the intelligence of crows is usually portrayed as their most important feature. In some tribes, the crow is conflated with the raven, a larger cousin of the crow that shares many of the same characteristics. In other tribes, Crow and Raven are distinct mythological characters. Crows are also used as clan animals in some Native American cultures.
“In parts of the Appalachian mountains, a low-flying group of crows means that illness is coming—but if a crow flies over a house and calls three times, that means an impending death in the family. If the crows call in the morning before the other birds get a chance to sing, it’s going to rain.
“Even within the Christian religion, ravens hold a special significance. While they are referred to as ‘unclean’ within the Bible, Genesis tells us that after the flood waters receded, the raven was the first bird Noah sent out from the ark to find land. Also, in the Hebrew Talmud, ravens are credited with teaching mankind how to deal with death; when Cain slew Abel, a raven showed Adam and Eve how to bury the body, because they had never done so before.”
The Chicago Tribune‘s William Hageman reports on the uncanny intelligence of crows in his story, “Wicked smart: Crows are so intelligent it’s scary.”
“Crows have been intertwined with mankind for thousands of years. They exhibit humanlike characteristics: They play, communicate, and have the capacity to deceive. They’re smarter than any cat and most children. Despite their charms, crows have been maligned for centuries.”
“There are a couple of reasons for this [malignment],” says Kevin J. McGowan, an ornithologist working at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., who has studied crows for 25 years. “One is that they’re black, and in our western European ethos, that’s bad. They also got associated with carrion and death because in Europe, there are no vultures. So somebody died, lying on the side of the road or after a battle, and the crows and ravens came in and picked at stuff because there it was, free food.”
Crows also get a bad rap from gardeners and farmers. But it’s undeserved, says John Marzluff, professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington and author of “In the Company of Crows and Ravens.” He says crows do more good than harm in a garden. “They eat a great variety of crop pest insects. They do seem to have a penchant for pulling up some plants that are sprouting, famously corn. They also eat fruits and nuts, which can be a problem in orchards. But in the family garden, they are good natural insecticide.”
Hageman’s report continues: “Most male crows live to age 10, females to 8, not a bad lifespan in the bird world, where a year or two is the norm. Three male crows that McGowan banded in 1993 are going strong at age 17 and could live to 20, he says. The oldest known captive crow was 57 when it died.
“They have strong family values. McGowan equates it with our society, saying crows come closer to man than any other species studied, including primates. Crow society is family-based. There’s a single breeding pair that has offspring that don’t leave right away and help raise the next batch of offspring, just like people. Relationships are maintained and individuals can join up with each other years later. Like us, crows have territories and they gather in communal places. When you see a number of crows gathering, he said, ‘those aren’t gangs of crows, they’re typically family groups that are helping each other make a living.’
“A crow’s vocabulary is extensive, with 30 or so unique calls, each with a distinct meaning. Each call is also shaded to indicate the intensity of a situation, and each has an individual signature unique to that bird. That way, crows can distinguish between family members, mates, neighbors and strangers.
“There are several scientific studies that document tool use by crows. The best tool user is the New Caledonia crow, which make tools from plant materials to probe into crevices for insects. In captivity, these crows will bend a piece of wire to make a hook, then use it to pull a bucket of food closer.
“Crows seem to express emotions, something Marzluff and co-author Tony Angell are examining in their next book, “Gift of the Crow.”
“Crows are very intelligent, among the most intelligent of all animals,” Marzluff wrote. “They live a long time and they live in social settings where expressing emotions is an important part of life. They clearly let others know when they are meek, aggressive, fearful, playful and deceptive. The fact that they look you in the eye, crouch, erect their feathers and the like, using postures and positions much like a dog, makes reading their emotions tractable.
“Some crow emotions and behaviors are amazing, such as leaving goodies—candy, pieces of bracelets, keys or shiny glass—for people who feed them, or pooping on the cars of people who harass them.”
For at least a few years now, I have fed a family of crows on top of an old wooden fence post in our backyard. (We save old grease and fat scraps in a “crow cup” in the freezer.) Sometimes a crow or two is watching and waiting for me and the food. If not, I crow “caw-haw,” and they begin to arrive within minutes.
They gather in a nearby tree and don’t make a move for the food until the entire family has assembled. Then they alight on the fence post one bird at a time, and each claims just one piece of frozen grease or fat. (I’ve seen far less courtesy and decorum in the buffet line at Golden Corral.)
Every so often, I find a small gift from a crow on the fence post—usually a little plastic scrap or doodad. It’s amazing to think that the common crow has a sense of gratitude, of reciprocity, and maybe generosity. That’s more than I can say about some people.
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.