News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mike Lunsford

March 16, 2014

MIKE LUNSFORD: Something to crow about, as our neighbors return

It is in the spring, I think, that I notice crows the most. They are noisy neighbors year-round, but they come calling (I resisted saying “cawing”) in early March in earnest, and they do so before the frogs on our pond and the buds on our trees make the new season official.

I noticed quite a congregation of crows a few days ago as I clomped from bedroom to kitchen in house slippers.

I passed the trio of tall windows in our living room and saw more than a dozen just wandering around in the back yard as if they’d lost a wallet or dropped a set of car keys.

They were remarkable birds, all about the same size, with the demeanors of morticians on burial day, appearing very solemn and grim, although I know from personal experience that they are no such thing.

I saw even more just an hour or two later as I backed out of my drive to head to my son’s place.

There, just down the road, a good quarter-acre of my neighbor-farmer’s barn lot was a sea of undulating black as a whole school reunion of crows bumped and ground themselves together as they gleaned spilled corn from the ground around the grain bins there.

I can’t imagine a single kernel being left behind and would have hated to have been the cop trying to manage the riot.

Farther down the road I saw yet another cliquish bunch milling about in the stubble of a soybean field, most not bothering to flap themselves even a few feet farther away at the sound of my truck.

Since the deer have given that field a pretty good going over all winter, I can’t imagine what they were finding of interest there.

The American Crow — Corvus brachyrhynchos to ornithologists and bird watchers — is found from British Columbia to Florida.

Crows are a hardy bunch that have adapted themselves to the human condition quite well; every continent, save South America, has at least one variety of crow to call its own. They are omnivorous, eating anything from leftover fast food to road kill to aquatic plants, and they are smart birds — among the smartest — that gather in roosts that may have over a quarter-million members, and can, if caught early enough, make entertaining pets.

There are more crows now than at any time in history, primarily because there are more of us.

As mightily as we may want to rid ourselves of them from time to time, for they have done more for power washer sales than just about anything else alive (perhaps starlings trump them all), crows have come to live near live us because humanity’s very nature is to leave things around for them to eat, and to build places in which they like to stay.

We create the roadside carrion on which they feed, leave our garbage out as free buffets, and have, over centuries, killed so many of the raptors and other predators that curtailed exploding crow populations that we are quite responsible for helping their progress.

Crows, like the ones I saw that day in my yard, are big birds. They can be nearly 20 inches long, and they are prolific when it comes to reproducing. It is interesting to note that some unmated crows serve as “helpers,” devoting some of their time to raising other birds in the roost — adoptive or foster parents of sorts.

Large, extended families of crows spend their nights together, then head out in smaller groups to search for food. They’ve been known to cover 50 miles or more on these foraging parties.

I have spent some time with crows myself. I remember when I found a crow in the middle of the road on the way back from a trip to the creek for a swim; I was about 12 years old. He’d apparently been knocked silly by a passing car, and I asked my dad if I could take him home.

After a few weeks in a cage that we’d built first for our pet raccoon, and with me nearly force-feeding him bugs and berries, he finally took off for places unknown, but not before I’d come to admire his stately deportment and cold, black eyes.  

Crows, ravens and jackdaws are related; as “corvids” they share considerable talents, as well as looks.

Crows like to collect and hide shiny objects, particularly aluminum foil and soda can pop tops, even jewelry. I know the latter is true, for a friend of my dad, a local tavern keeper, kept a crow that once brought a quite decent wristwatch into the bar to show off. I could just see its owner searching below the window sill where’d he’d left it, perhaps even pointing an accusatory finger at a neighbor.

One of the very best sources I could find about crows is “In the Company of Crows and Ravens,” by John Marzluff and Tony Angell. Marzluff, a professor of Wildlife Science at the University of Washington, loves crows — finds them fascinating and entertaining creatures — and has spent considerable time observing and studying them.  

Just last week, Marzluff told me that crows “…are important ecosystem engineers: recycling waste to enrich the soil and providing nests for other species (for example, small owls make themselves at home in old crow nests).

Second, they are emissaries from nature that because of their brash actions remind us we are just one of many species… .” He went on to add that crows are “…very much like us [humans], and therefore, as sentient beings, they simply deserve our respect and compassion. … In my lab, we’ve learned that they use their complex brains to store and recall a lifetime’s worth of knowledge gained from personal experience, and from the observation of other crows.”

Marzluff, of course, isn’t the only admirer of crows. There is little doubt that they can be pests, and we test them to seek the spread of West Nile disease, but they have undoubtedly become part of our culture, as well.

We often “eat crow,” have “something to crow about,” use “scarecrows” in our gardens, use “crowbars,” look long distances from “crow’s nests,” develop “crow’s feet” as we age, and measure distances “as the crow flies.”

Marzluff’s book tells me that the earliest artists painted crows on cave walls, while other peoples carved them into totems; Noah counted crows to find land in the midst of the Great Flood, while other peoples yearned for their wisdom.

Shakespeare mentioned crows in his plays, and Schubert depicted them in his music; Alexander the Great ignored the crows at the gates of Babylon and was warned of his doom for doing it; Van Gogh painted them.

Surely, it is well known that a flock of crows is called a “murder,” but why is very much debated.

One explanation comes from an old belief that crows would congregate to decide the fate of an unruly or thieving member; another belief originates with the fact that crows can be found among the dead of battlefields.

It is a warm evening as I put this piece to bed; my window is open, and I hear the last honks of the geese on the pond below our hill. But tonight, I sing the praises of the clever crow, who despite our best efforts at scaring him off, is here to stay.  

In his “The Art of Seeing Things,” the old naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “I venture to say that no one has ever heard the crow utter a complaining or disconsolate note. He is always cheery, he is always self-possessed, he is quite a success.”

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his website at www.mike lunsford.com to learn more about his books. He will be speaking and signing on March 26 at Westminster Village as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

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