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Ways of Wood Folk by 

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CROW-WAYS

[101]

T HE crow is very much of a rascal—that is, if any creature can be called a rascal for following out natural and rascally inclinations. I first came to this conclusion one early morning, several years ago, as I watched an old crow diligently exploring a fringe of bushes that grew along the wall of a deserted pasture. He had eaten a clutch of thrush's eggs, and carried off three young sparrows to feed his own young, before I found out what he was about. Since then I have surprised him often at the same depredations.

An old farmer has assured me that he has also caught him tormenting his sheep, lighting on their backs and pulling the wool out by the roots to get fleece for lining his nest. This is a much more serious charge than that of pulling up corn, though the latter makes almost every farmer his enemy.

Yet with all his rascality he has many curious and interesting ways. In fact, I hardly know another bird that so well repays a season's study; only one must [102] be very patient, and put up with frequent disappointments if he would learn much of a crow's peculiarities by personal observation. How shy he is! How cunning and quick to learn wisdom! Yet he is very easily fooled; and some experiences that ought to teach him wisdom he seems to forget within an hour. Almost every time I went shooting, in the old barbarian days before I learned better, I used to get one or two crows from a flock that ranged over my hunting ground by simply hiding among the pines and calling like a young crow. If the flock was within hearing, it was astonishing to hear the loud chorus of haw-haws, and to see them come rushing over the same grove where a week before they had been fooled in the same way. Sometimes, indeed, they seemed to remember; and. when the pseudo young crow began his racket at the bottom of some thick grove they would collect on a distant pine tree and haw-haws in vigorous answer. But curiosity always got the better of them, and they generally compromised by sending over some swift, long-winged old flier, only to see him go tumbling down at the report of a gun; and away they would go, screaming at the top of their voices, and never stopping till they were miles away. Next week they would do exactly the same thing.

Crows, more than any other birds, are fond of excitement and great crowds; the slightest unusual object [103] furnishes an occasion for an assembly. A wounded bird will create as much stir in a flock of crows as a railroad accident does in a village. But when some prowling old crow discovers an owl sleeping away the sunlight in the top of a great hemlock, his delight and excitement know no bounds. There is a suppressed frenzy in his very call that every crow in the neighborhood understands. Come! come! everybody come! he seems to be screaming as he circles over the treetop; and within two minutes there are more crows gathered about that old hemlock than one would believe existed within miles of the place. I counted over seventy one day, immediately about a tree in which one of them had found an owl; and I think there must have been as many more flying about the outskirts that I could not count.

At such times one can approach very near with a little caution, and attend, as it were, a crow caucus. Though I have attended a great many, I have never been able to find any real cause for the excitement. Those nearest the owl sit about in the trees cawing vociferously; not a crow is silent. Those on the outskirts are flying rapidly about and making, if possible, more noise than the inner ring. The owl meanwhile sits blinking and staring, out of sight in the green top. Every moment two or three crows leave the ring to fly up close and peep in, and then go [104] screaming back again, hopping about on their perches, cawing at every breath, nodding their heads, striking the branches, and acting for all the world like excited stump speakers.

The din grows louder and louder; fresh voices are coming in every minute; and the owl, wondering in some vague way if he is the cause of it all, flies off to some other tree where he can be quiet and go to sleep. Then, with a great rush and clatter, the crows follow, some swift old scout keeping close to the owl and screaming all the way to guide the whole cawing rabble. When the owl stops they gather round again and go through the same performance more excitedly than before. So it continues till the owl finds some hollow tree and goes in out of sight, leaving them to caw themselves tired; or else he finds some dense pine grove, and doubles about here and there, with that shadowy noiseless flight of his, till he has thrown them off the track. Then he flies into the thickest tree he can find, generally outside the grove where the crows are looking, and sitting close up against the trunk blinks his great yellow eyes and listens to the racket that goes sweeping through the grove, peering curiously into every thick pine, searching everywhere for the lost excitement.

The crows give him up reluctantly. They circle for a few minutes over the grove, rising and falling [105] with that beautiful, regular motion that seems like the practice drill of all gregarious birds, and generally end by collecting in some tree at a distance and hawing about it for hours, till some new excitement calls them elsewhere.

Just why they grow so excited over an owl is an open question. I have never seen them molest him, nor show any tendency other than to stare at him occasionally and make a great noise about it. That they recognize him as a thief and cannibal I have no doubt. But he thieves by night when other birds are abed, and as they practise their own thieving by open daylight, it may be that they are denouncing him as an impostor. Or it may be that the owl in his nightly prowlings sometimes snatches a young crow off the roost. The great horned owl would hardly hesitate to eat an old crow if he could catch him napping; and so they grow excited, as all birds do in the presence of their natural enemies. They make much the same kind of a fuss over a hawk, though the latter easily escapes the annoyance by flying swiftly away, or by circling slowly upward to a height so dizzy that the crows dare not follow.

In the early spring I have utilized this habit of the crows in my search for owls' nests. The crows are much more apt to discover its whereabouts than the most careful ornithologist, and they gather about it [106] frequently for a little excitement. Once I utilized the habit for getting a good look at the crows themselves. I carried out an old stuffed owl, and set it up on a pole close against a great pine tree on the edge of a grove. Then I lay down in a thick clump of bushes near by and cawed excitedly. The first messenger from the flock flew straight over without making any discoveries. The second one found the owl, and I had no need for further calling. Haw! haw! he cried deep down in his throat—here he is! here's the rascal! In a moment he had the whole flock there; and for nearly ten minutes they kept coming in from every direction. A more frenzied lot I never saw. The hawing was tremendous, and I hoped to settle at last the real cause and outcome of the excitement, when an old crow flying close over my hiding place caught sight of me looking out through the bushes. How he made himself heard or understood in the din I do not know; but the crow is never too excited to heed a danger note. The next moment the whole flock were streaming away across the woods, giving the scatter-cry at every flap.

There is another way in which the crows' love of variety is. manifest, though in a much more dignified way. Occasionally a flock may be surprised sitting about in the trees, deeply absorbed in watching a performance—generally operatic—by one of their num- [107] ber. The crow's chief note is the hoarse haw, haw with which everybody is familiar, and which seems capable of expressing everything, from the soft chatter of going to bed in the pine tops to the loud derision with which he detects all ordinary attempts to surprise him. Certain crows, however, have unusual vocal abilities, and at times they seem to use them for the entertainment of the others. Yet I suspect that these vocal gifts are seldom used, or even discovered, until lack of amusement throws them upon their own resources. Certain it is that, whenever a crow makes any unusual sounds, there are always several more about, hawing vigorously, yet seeming to listen attentively. I have caught them at this a score of times.

One September afternoon, while walking quietly through the woods, my attention was attracted by an unusual sound coming from an oak grove, a favorite haunt of gray squirrels. The crows were cawing in the same direction; but every few minutes would come a strange cracking sound—c-r-r-rack-a-rack-rack, as if some one had a giant nutcracker and were snapping it rapidly. I stole forward through the low woods till I could see perhaps fifty crows perched about in the oaks, all very attentive to something going on below them that I could not see.

Not till I had crawled up to the brush fence, on the [108] very edge of the grove, and peeked through did I see the performer. Out on the end of a long delicate branch, a few feet above the ground, a small crow was clinging, swaying up and down like a bobolink on a cardinal flower, balancing himself gracefully by spreading his wings, and every few minutes giving the strange cracking sound, accompanied by a flirt of his wings and tail as the branch swayed upward. At every repetition the crows hawed in applause. I watched them fully ten minutes before they saw me and flew away.

Several times since, I have been attracted by unusual sounds, and have surprised a flock of crows which were evidently watching a performance by one of their number. Once it was a deep musical whistle, much, like the too-loo-loo of the blue jay (who is the crow's cousin, for all his bright colors), but deeper and fuller, and without the trill that always marks the blue jay's whistle. Once, in some big woods in Maine, it was a hoarse bark, utterly unlike a bird call, which made me slip heavy shells into my gun and creep forward, expecting some strange beast that I had never before met.

The same love of variety and excitement leads the crow to investigate any unusual sight or sound that catches his attention. Hide anywhere in the woods, and make any queer sound you will—play a jews'-harp, [109] or pull a devil's fiddle, or just call softly—and first comes a blue jay, all agog to find out all about it. Next a red squirrel steals down and barks just over your head, to make you start if possible. Then, if your eyes are sharp, you will see a crow gliding from thicket to thicket, keeping out of sight as much as possible, but drawing nearer and nearer to investigate the unusual sound. And if he is suspicious or unsatisfied, he will hide and wait patiently for you to come out and show yourself.

Not only is he curious about you, and watches you as you go about the woods, but he watches his neighbors as well. When a fox is started you can often trace his course, far ahead of your dogs, by the crows circling over him and calling rascal, rascal, whenever he shows himself. He watches the ducks and plover, the deer and bear; he knows where they are, and what they are doing; and he will go far out of his way to warn them, as well as his own kind, at the approach of danger. When birds nest, or foxes den, or beasts fight in the woods, he is there to see it. When other things fail he will even play jokes, as upon one occasion when I saw a young crow hide in a hole in a pine tree, and for two hours keep a whole flock in a frenzy of excitement by his distressed cawing. He would venture out when they were at a distance, peek all about cautiously to see that no one [110] saw him, then set up a heart-rending appeal, only to dodge back out of sight when the flock came rushing in with a clamor that was deafening.

Only one of two explanations can account for his action in this case; either he was a young crow who did not appreciate the gravity of crying wolf, wolf! when there was no wolf, or else it was a plain game of hide-and-seek. When the crows at length found him they chased him out of sight, either to chastise him, or, as I am inclined now to think, each one sought to catch him for the privilege of being the next to hide.

In fact, whenever one hears a flock of crows hawing away in the woods, he may be sure that some excitement is afoot that will well repay his time and patience to investigate.


* * * * * *

Since the above article was written, some more curious crow-ways have come to light. Here is one which seems to throw light on the question of their playing games. I found it out one afternoon last September, when a vigorous cawing over in the woods induced me to leave the orchard, where I was picking apples, for the more exciting occupation of spying on my dark neighbors.

The clamor came from an old deserted pasture, [111] bounded on three sides by pine woods, and on the fourth by half wild fields that straggled away to the dusty road beyond. Once, long ago, there was a farm there; but even the cellars have disappeared, and the crows no longer fear the place.

It was an easy task to creep unobserved through the nearest pine grove, and gain a safe hiding place under some junipers on the edge of the old pasture. The cawing meanwhile was intermittent; at times it broke out in a perfect babel, as if every crow were doing his best to outcaw all the others; again' there was silence save for an occasional short note, the all's well of the sentinel on guard. The crows are never so busy or so interested that they neglect this precaution.

When I reached the junipers, the crows— half a hundred of them— were ranged in the pine tops along one edge of the open. They were quiet enough, save for an occasional scramble for position, evidently waiting for something to happen. Down on my right, on the fourth or open side of the pasture, a solitary old crow was perched in the top of a tall hickory. I might have taken him for a sentry but for a bright object which he held in his beak. It was too far to make out what the object was; but whenever he turned his head it flashed in the sunlight like a bit of glass.

[112] As I watched him curiously he launched himself into the air and came speeding down the center of the field, making for the pines at the opposite end. Instantly every crow was on the wing; they shot out from both sides, many that I had not seen before, all cawing like mad. They rushed upon the old fellow from the hickory, and for a few moments it was impossible to make out anything except a whirling, diving rush of black wings. The din meanwhile was deafening.


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Something bright dropped from the excited flock, and a single crow swooped after it; but I was too much interested in the rush to note what became of him. The clamor ceased abruptly. The crows, after a short practice in rising, falling, and wheeling to command, settled in the pines on both sides of the field, where they had been before. And there in the hickory was another crow with the same bright, flashing thing in his beak.

There was a long wait this time, as if for a breathing spell. Then the solitary crow came skimming down the field again without warning. The flock surrounded him on the moment, with the evident intention of hindering his flight as much as possible. They flapped their wings in his face; they zig-zagged in front of him; they attempted to light on his back. In vain he twisted and dodged and dropped like [113] a stone. Wherever he turned he found fluttering wings to oppose his flight. The first object of the game was apparent: he was trying to reach the goal of pines opposite the hickory, and the others were trying to prevent it. Again and again the leader was lost to sight; but whenever the sunlight flashed from the bright thing he carried, he was certain to be found in the very midst of a clamoring crowd. Then the second object was clear: the crows were trying to confuse him and make him drop the talisman.

[114] They circled rapidly down the field and back again, near the watcher. Suddenly the bright thing dropped, reaching the ground before it was discovered. Three or four crows swooped upon it, and a lively scrimmage began for its possession. In the midst of the struggle a small crow shot under the contestants, and before they knew what was up he was scurrying away to the hickory with the coveted trinket held as high as he could carry it, as if in triumph at his sharp trick.

The flock settled slowly into the pines again with much hawing. There was evidently a question whether the play ought to be allowed or not. Everybody had something to say about it; and there was no end of objection. At last it was settled good-naturedly, and they took places to watch till the new leader should give them opportunity for another chase.

There was no doubt left in the watcher's mind by this time as to what the crows were doing. They were just playing a game, like so many schoolboys, enjoying to the full the long bright hours of the September afternoon. Did they find the bright object as they crossed the pasture on the way from Farmer B's corn-field, and the game so suggest itself? Or was the game first suggested, and the talisman brought afterwards? Every crow has a secret storehouse, where he hides every bright thing he finds. Sometimes it [115] is a crevice in the rocks under moss and ferns; sometimes the splintered end of a broken branch; sometimes a deserted owl's nest in a hollow tree; often a crotch in a big pine, covered carefully by brown needles; but wherever it is, it is full of bright things—glass, and china, and beads, and tin. and an old spoon, and a silvered buckle— and nobody but the crow himself knows how to find it. Did some crow fetch his best trinket for the occasion, or was this a special thing for games, and kept by the flock where any crow could get it?

These were some of the interesting things that were puzzling the watcher when he noticed that the hickory was empty. A flash over against the dark green revealed the leader. There he was, stealing along in the shadow, trying to reach the goal before they saw him. A derisive haw announced his discovery. Then the fun began again, as noisy, as confusing, as thoroughly enjoyable as ever.

When the bright object dropped this time, curiosity to get possession of it was stronger than my interest in the game. Besides, the apples were waiting I jumped up, scattering the crows in wild confusion; but as they streamed away I fancied that there was still more of the excitement of play than of alarm in their flight and clamor.

The bright object which the leader carried proved [116] to be the handle of a glass cup or pitcher. A fragment of the vessel itself had broken off with the handle, so that the ring was complete. Altogether it was just the thing for the purpose— bright, and not too heavy, and most convenient for a crow to seize and carry. Once well gripped, it would take a good deal of worrying to make him drop it.

Who first was "it," as children say in games? Was it a special privilege of the crow who first found the talisman, or do the crows have some way of counting out for the first leader? There is a school-house down that same old dusty road. Sometimes, when at play there, I used to notice the crows stealing silently from tree to tree in the woods beyond, watching our play, I have no doubt, as I now had watched theirs. Only we have grown older, and forgotten how to play and they are as much boys as ever. Did they learn their game from watching us at tag, I wonder? And do they know coram, and leave-stocks, and prisoners' base, and bull-in-the-ring as well? One could easily believe their wise little black heads to be capable of any imitation, especially if one had watched them a few times, at work and play, when they had no idea they were being spied upon.


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