The Natural Enquirer: As the crow flies
In the 1960s, a nestling crow was brought into our nature/rehab center, The Little Red Schoolhouse near Willow Springs, Ill. It was only about five or six days old. Crows are among the easiest birds to raise; they have a voracious appetite, and don’t seem to be to upset with people. When Whiskey, as we named it, was about a month to six weeks old, we determined that he was too tame to release and we brought him into the nature center to become an exhibit animal.
We kept Whiskey until the center closed in late October, and then one of the naturalists took him home to “over winter.” The following spring he was returned to the nature center, and again placed on exhibit. He did great, a favorite of the thousands of visitors, until about mid June, when one of the summer aids left the cage door open and Whiskey was out the door.
He seemed to enjoy people so much he stayed nearby, and visitors would offer him bits of food. He was photographed often, to the delight of children especially. Then a problem arose. Whiskey, it seemed, had a propensity for shiny objects, and would swipe them and carry them away. Things like coins, bits of foil paper, pop top can tabs and car keys.
The big problem was the car keys. The usual progression of events went something like this; usually a mom would approach her car with her child, open the car and place the keys on top of the car while she arranged the child in the seat. Whiskey would swoop down and grab the keys and fly away, and there was the poor mom stranded with no keys. For some reason, the nature center staff did not hear about this for a week or two. The stranded motorist would call home, and someone would have to come out with more keys. Finally a mom came to us with the problem, and left us with a dilemma. Where was Whiskey putting the keys?
After pensively, pondering the problem, we formed a plan of action. I stationed staff all around the center, and took some old keys and had a visitor go to a car and place the keys on the roof. Sure enough Whiskey came down and grabbed them, the theft was communicated to the staff and we watched that old crow fly up to the roof and deposit the keys in the rain gutter.
We brought out a ladder and climbed up to where Whiskey had put the keys, and the cache was interesting, to say the least. We recovered nine sets of keys, if I remember right, almost $4 in change (no pennies, as apparently they weren’t shiny enough), and a large collection of miscellaneous pieces of shiny things.
We put an announcement up in the nature center about the stolen car keys, and we finally returned all the keys, though it took about two months. I thought it best to apprehend the thieving crow, so I set out a trap and caught the villain. Back in the cage he went. That bird lived, happily (I hope) for another 14 years. We posted a tale similar to this narrative on his cage, and for years we would occasionally have a visitor stop by and tell us of their experience with our feathered thief “Whiskey the Crow”.
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Crows come to a call for help, made by a single crow, like roused highlanders to do battle. They come to jeer and to catcall, to strut and to swagger, to mock to harass and to swashbuckle-but not to fight. And they hate owls.
In a hopeless attempt to get away from the noise, one owl moved to another limb, to another tree, and even, eventually, to another woods, but every time it stirred, the encircling mob whipped itself into a new frenzy of ringing insults, protest and anti-owl opinion.
After an hour or more of clangorous excitement, the crows began to tire of the game and went off, one by one, to their private pursuits. The owl flew, unmolested, back to the pines to take up its interrupted nap where it had left it. With the probable exception of the barred owl’s sensibilities and the sensitive ears of a few of his neighbors, no one had been hurt, and the crows seemed to have had a great afternoon of blustering fun.
On still another day in November, when high gray clouds streamed across the sky on a steady, almost violent wind from the west, I saw six crows above our woods battling upward against that wind; climbing it, being tossed over on their sides, being pushed back 20 feet at a time, but still climbing. They climbed until they were about three city blocks away, and there, as at a signal, they all let go, let themselves be whirled about, went slipping, sliding, sailing down the long wild hill of the wind, back across the dark woods, the frozen marshes, the winter’s dun colored fields-and dropped precariously to shelter among a grove of spruce and fir more than a mile away.
Six times that afternoon I saw those same six crows repeat the strenuous climb, for no reason at all except a wild, exciting slide down an invisible, mile-long hill of wind.
But crows are always having fun. They are crafty, blatant, ebullient clowns, always enjoying themselves, whether they are building a nest, chasing a fox, stealing an egg, cawing from a treetop or flying reconnaissance across the countryside. And it is precisely this outright, loud mouthed quality of having a ball, plus their apparent intelligence, plus their casual, shoulder-shrugging disregard for man, that brings fiery revenge and thundering warfare upon their little feathered heads.
Hawks and owls and eagles may be hunted and killed by certain angry people, but not usually with such personal animosity.
Peter Dring is a retired nature biologist and phenologist who lives in the Land ‘O Lakes area. Questions or comments for Dring can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.