THE STORY OF A CROW
OW many of us have ever got to know a wild animal? I do not
mean merely to meet with one once or twice, or to have one in a
cage, but to really know it for a long time while it is wild, and to
get an insight into its life and history. The trouble usually is to
know one creature from his fellow. One fox or crow is so much
like another that we cannot be sure that it really is the same next
time we meet. But once in awhile there arises an animal who is
stronger or wiser than his fellow, who becomes a great leader, who
is, as we would say, a genius, and if he is bigger,
 or has some mark
by which men can know him, he soon becomes famous in his
country, and shows us that the life of a wild animal may be far
more interesting and exciting than that of many human beings.
Of this class were Courtant, the bob-tailed wolf that terrorized the
whole city of Paris for about ten years in the beginning of the
fourteenth century; Clubfoot, the lame grizzly bear that left such a
terrific record in the San Joaquin Valley of California; Lobo, the
king-wolf of New Mexico, that killed a cow every day for five
years, and the Seonee panther that in less than two years killed
nearly three hundred human beings—and such also was Silverspot,
whose history, so far as I could learn it, I shall now briefly tell.
Silverspot was simply a wise old crow; his name was given
because of the silvery white spot that was like a nickel, stuck on
his right side, between the eye and the bill, and it was owing to this
spot that I was able to know him from the other crows, and put
together the parts of his history that came to my knowledge.
 Crows are, as you must know, our most intelligent birds.—'Wise as
an old crow' did not become a saying without good reason. Crows
know the value of organization, and are as well drilled as
soldiers—very much better than some soldiers, in fact, for crows
are always on duty, always at war, and always dependent on each
other for life and safety. Their leaders not only are the oldest and
wisest of the band, but also the strongest and bravest, for they must
be ready at any time with sheer force to put down an upstart or a
rebel. The rank and file are the youngsters and the crows without
Old Silverspot was the leader of a large band of crows that made
their headquarters near Toronto, Canada, in Castle Frank, which is
a pine-clad hill on the northeast edge of the city. This band
numbered about two hundred, and for reasons that I never
understood did not increase. In mild winters they stayed along the
Niagara River; in cold winters they went much farther south. But
each year in the last week of February, Old Silverspot would
muster his followers and boldly cross the forty miles of
 open water
that lies between Toronto and Niagara; not, however, in a straight
line would he go, but always in a curve to the west, whereby he
kept in sight of the familiar landmark of Dundas Mountain, until
the pine-clad hill itself came in view. Each year he came with his
troop, and for about six weeks took up his abode on the hill. Each
morning thereafter the crows set out in three bands to forage. One
band went southeast to Ashbridge's Bay. One went north up the
Don, and one, the largest, went northwestward up the ravine. The
last Silverspot led in person. Who led the others I never found out.
On calm mornings they flew high and straight away. But when it
was windy the band flew low, and followed the ravine for shelter.
My windows overlooked the ravine, and it was thus that in 1885 I
first noticed this old crow. I was a new-comer in the neighborhood,
but an old resident said to me then "that there old crow has been
a-flying up and down this ravine for more than twenty years." My
chances to watch were in the ravine, and Silverspot doggedly
clinging to the old route, though now it
 was edged with houses and
spanned by bridges, became a very familiar acquaintance. Twice
each day in March and part of April, then again in the late summer
and the fall, he passed and repassed, and gave me chances to see
his movements, and hear his orders to his bands, and so, little by
little, opened my eyes to the fact that the crows, though a little
people, are of great wit, a race of birds with a language and a
social system that is wonderfully human in many of its chief
points, and in some is better carried out than our own.
One windy day I stood on the high bridge across the ravine, as the
old crow, heading his long, straggling troop, came flying down
homeward. Half a mile away I could hear the contented 'All's well,
come right along!'
as we should say, or as he put it, and as also his
lieutenant echoed it at the rear of the band. They were flying very
low to be out of the wind, and
 would have to rise a little to clear
the bridge on which I was. Silverspot saw me standing there, and
as I was closely watching him he didn't like it. He checked his
flight and called out, 'Be on your guard,' or
and rose much higher in
the air. Then seeing that I was not armed he flew over my head
about twenty feet, and his followers in turn did the same, dipping
again to the old level when past the bridge.
Next day I was at the same place, and as the crows came near I
raised my walking stick and pointed it at them. The old fellow at
once cried out 'Danger,'
and rose fifty feet higher than before.
Seeing that it was not a gun, he ventured to fly over. But on the
third day I
 took with me a gun, and at once he cried out, 'Great
His lieutenant repeated the cry, and every crow in
the troop began to tower and scatter from the rest, till they were far
above gun shot, and so passed safely over, coming down again to
the shelter of the valley when well beyond reach. Another time, as
the long, straggling troop came down the valley, a red-tailed hawk
alighted on a tree close by their intended route. The leader cried
out, 'Hawk, hawk,'
and stayed his flight, as did each crow on
nearing him, until all were massed in a solid body. Then, no longer
fearing the hawk, they passed on. But a quarter of a mile farther on
a man with a gun appeared below, and the cry, 'Great
gun, a—gun; scatter for your lives,'
at once caused them to scatter
widely and tower till far beyond range.
Many others of his words of command I learned in the course of
my long acquaintance, and found that sometimes a very little
difference in the sound makes a very great difference in meaning.
Thus while No. 5 means hawk, or any large, dangerous bird, this
means 'wheel around,'
evidently a combination of No. 5, whose
root idea is danger, and of No. 4, whose root idea is retreat, and
this again is a mere 'good day,'
to a far away
 comrade. This is
usually addressed to the ranks and means 'attention.'
Early in April there began to be great doings among the crows.
Some new cause of excitement seemed to have come on them.
They spent half the day among the pines, instead of foraging from
dawn till dark. Pairs and trios might be seen chasing each other,
and from time to time they showed off in various feats of flight. A
favorite sport was to dart down suddenly from a great height
toward some perching crow, and just before touching it to turn at a
hairbreadth and rebound in the air so fast that the wings of the
swooper whirred with a sound like distant thunder. Sometimes one
crow would lower his head, raise every feather, and coming close
to another would gurgle out a long note like
 What did it all mean?
I soon learned. They were making love and pairing off. The males
were showing off their wing powers and their voices to the lady
crows. And they must have been highly appreciated, for by the
middle of April all had mated and had scattered over the country
for their honeymoon, leaving the sombre old pines of Castle Frank
deserted and silent.
The Sugar Loaf hill stands alone in the Don Valley. It is still
covered with woods that join with those of Castle Frank, a quarter
of a mile off. In the woods, between the two hills, is a pine-tree in
whose top is a deserted hawk's nest. Every Toronto school-boy
knows the nest, and, excepting that I had once shot a black squirrel
on its edge, no one had ever seen a sign of life about it. There it
was year after year, ragged and old, and falling to pieces. Yet,
strange to tell, in all that time it never did drop to pieces, like other
One morning in May I was out at gray dawn, and stealing gently
through the woods, whose
 dead leaves were so wet that no rustle
was made. I chanced to pass under the old nest, and was surprised
to see a black tail sticking over the edge. I struck the tree a smart
blow, off flew a crow, and the secret was out. I had long suspected
that a pair of crows nested each year about the pines, but now I
realized that it was Silverspot and his wife. The old nest was
theirs, and they were too wise to give it an air of spring-cleaning
and housekeeping each year. Here they had nested for long, though
guns in the hands of men and boys hungry to shoot crows were
carried under their home every day. I never surprised the old
fellow again, though I several times saw him through my
One day while watching I saw a crow crossing the Don Valley
with something white in his beak. He flew to the mouth of the
Rosedale Brook, then took a short flight to the Beaver Elm. There
he dropped the white object, and looking about gave me a chance
to recognize my old friend Silverspot. After a minute he picked up
the white thing—a shell—and walked over past the spring, and here,
among the docks and the skunk-cabbages, he unearthed a pile of
 shells and other white, shiny things. He spread them out in the sun,
turned them over, turned them one by one in his beak, dropped
them, nestled on them as though they were eggs, toyed with them
and gloated over them like a miser. This was his hobby, his
weakness. He could not have explained why he enjoyed them, any
more than a boy can explain why he collects postage-stamps, or a
girl why she prefers pearls to rubies; but his pleasure in them was
very real, and after half an hour he covered them all, including the
new one, with earth and leaves, and flew off. I went at once to the
spot and examined the hoard; there was about a hatful in all,
chiefly white pebbles, clam-shells, and some bits of tin, but there
was also the handle of a china cup, which must have been the gem
of the collection. That was the last time I saw them. Silverspot
knew that I had found his treasures, and he removed them at once;
where I never knew.
The Handle of a China-Cup, the Gem of the Collection
During the space that I watched him so closely he had many little
adventures and escapes. He was once severely handled by a
sparrowhawk, and often he was chased and
 worried by kingbirds.
Not that these did him much harm, but they were such noisy pests
that he avoided their company as quickly as possible, just as a
grown man avoids a conflict with a noisy and impudent small boy.
He had some cruel tricks, too. He had a way of going the round of
the small birds' nests each morning to eat the new laid eggs, as
regularly as a doctor visiting his patients. But we must not judge
him for that, as it is just what we ourselves do to the hens in the
His quickness of wit was often shown. One day I saw him flying
down the ravine with a large piece of bread in his bill. The stream
below him was at this time being bricked over as a sewer. There
was one part of two hundred yards quite finished, and, as he
flew over the open water just above this, the bread fell from his
bill, and was swept by the current out of sight into the tunnel. He
flew down and peered vainly into the dark cavern, then, acting
upon a happy thought, he flew to the downstream end of the
tunnel, and awaiting the reappearance of the floating bread, as it
 onward by the current, he seized and bore it off in
Silverspot was a crow of the world. He was truly a successful
crow. He lived in a region that, though full of dangers, abounded
with food. In the old, unrepaired nest he raised a brood each year
with his wife, whom, by the way, I never could distinguish, and
when the crows again gathered together he was their
The reassembling takes place about the end of June—the young
crows with their bob-tails, soft wings, and falsetto voices are
brought by their parents, whom they nearly equal in size, and
introduced to society at the old pine woods, a woods that is at once
their fortress and college. Here they find security in numbers and
in lofty yet sheltered perches, and here they begin their schooling
and are taught all the secrets of success in crow life, and in crow
life the least failure does not simply mean begin again. It means
The first week or two after their arrival is spent by the young ones
in getting acquainted, for each crow must know personally all the
 others in the band. Their parents meanwhile have time to rest a
little after the work of raising them, for now the youngsters are
able to feed themselves and roost on a branch in a row, just like
Roost in a Row, like Big Folks
In a week or two the moulting season comes. At this time the old
crows are usually irritable and nervous, but it does not stop them
from beginning to drill the youngsters, who, of course, do not
much enjoy the punishment and nagging they get so soon after they
have been mamma's own darlings. But it is all for their good, as
the old lady said when she skinned the eels, and old Silverspot is
an excellent teacher. Sometimes he seems to make a speech to
them. What he says I cannot guess, but judging by the way they
receive it, it must be extremely witty. Each morning there is a
company drill, for the young ones naturally drop into two or three
squads according to their age and strength. The rest of the day they
forage with their parents.
When at length September comes we find a great change. The
rabble of silly little crows have begun to learn sense. The delicate
 iris of their eyes, the sign of a fool-crow, has given place to
the dark brown eye of the old stager. They know their drill now
and have learned sentry duty. They have been taught guns and
traps and taken a special course in wire-worms and greencorn.
They know that a fat old farmer's wife is much less dangerous,
though so much larger, than her fifteen-year-old son, and they can
tell the boy from his sister. They know that an umbrella is not a
and they can count up to six, which is fair for young crows,
though Silverspot can go up nearly to thirty. They know the smell
of gunpowder and the south side of a hemlock-tree, and begin to
plume themselves upon being crows of the world. They always
fold their wings three times after alighting, to be sure that it is
neatly done. They know how to worry a fox into giving up half his
dinner, and also that when the kingbird or the purple martin assails
them they must dash into a bush, for it is as impossible to fight the
little pests as it is for the fat apple-woman to catch the small boys
who have raided her basket.
All these things do the young crows
know; but they have taken
 no lessons in egg-hunting yet, for it is
not the season. They are unacquainted with clams, and have never
tasted horses' eyes, or seen sprouted corn, and they don't know a
thing about travel, the greatest educator of all. They did not think
of that two months ago, and since then they have thought of it, but
have learned to wait till their betters are ready.
September sees a great change in the old crows, too. Their
moulting is over. They are now in full feather again and proud of
their handsome coats. Their health is again good, and with it their
tempers are improved. Even old Silverspot, the strict teacher,
becomes quite jolly, and the youngsters, who have long ago
learned to respect him, begin really to love him.
He has hammered away at drill, teaching them all the signals and
words of command in use, and now it is a pleasure to see them in
the early morning.
'Company I!' the old chieftain would cry in crow, and Company I
would answer with a great clamor.
'Fly!' and himself leading them, they would all fly straight forward.
 'Mount!' and straight upward they turned in a moment.
'Bunch!' and they all massed into a dense black flock.
'Scatter!' and they spread out like leaves before the wind.
'Form line!' and they strung out into the long line of ordinary flight.
'Descend!' and they all dropped nearly to the ground.
'Forage!' and they alighted and scattered about to feed, while two
of the permanent sentries mounted duty—one on a tree to the right,
the other on a mound to the far left. A minute or two later
Silverspot would cry out, 'A man with a gun!' The sentries repeated
the cry and the company flew at once in open order as quickly as
possible toward the trees. Once behind these, they formed line
again in safety and returned to the home pines.
Sentry duty is not taken in turn by all the crows, but a certain
number whose watchfulness has been often proved are the
perpetual sentries, and are expected to watch and forage at the
same time. Rather hard on them it seems to
 us, but it works well
and the crow organization is admitted by all birds to be the very
best in existence.
Finally, each November sees the troop sail away southward to
learn new modes of life, new landmarks and new kinds of food,
under the guidance of the ever-wise Silverspot.
There is only one time when a crow is a fool, and that is at night.
There is only one bird that terrifies the crow, and that is the owl.
When, therefore, these come together it is a woful thing for the
sable birds. The distant hoot of an owl after dark is enough to
make them withdraw their heads from under their wings, and sit
trembling and miserable till morning. In very cold weather the
exposure of their faces thus has often resulted in a crow having
one or both of his eyes frozen, so that blindness followed and
therefore death. There are no hospitals for sick crows.
 But with the morning their courage comes again, and arousing
themselves they ransack the woods for a mile around till they find
that owl, and if they do not kill him they at least worry him half to
death and drive him twenty miles away.
In 1893 the crows had come as usual to Castle Frank. I was walking
in these woods a few days afterward when I chanced upon the
track of a rabbit that had been running at full speed over the snow
and dodging about among the trees as though pursued. Strange to
tell, I could see no track of the pursuer. I followed the trail and
presently saw a drop of blood on the snow, and a little farther on
found the partly devoured remains of a little brown bunny. What
had killed him was a mystery until a careful search showed in the
snow a great double-toed track and a beautifully pencilled brown
feather. Then all was clear—a horned owl. Half an hour later, in
passing again by the place, there, in a tree, within ten feet of the
bones of his victim, was the fierce-eyed owl himself. The murderer
still hung about the scene of his crime. For once circumstantial
evidence had not lied.
 At my approach he gave a guttural 'grrr-oo'
and flew off with low flagging flight to haunt the distant sombre
The Track of the Murderer
Two days afterward, at dawn, there was a great uproar among the
crows. I went out early to see, and found some black feathers
drifting over the snow. I followed up the wind in the direction
from which they came and soon saw the bloody remains of a crow
and the great double-toed track which again told me that the
murderer was the owl. All around were signs of the struggle, but
the fell destroyer was too strong. The poor crow had been dragged
from his perch at night, when the darkness had put him at a
I turned over the remains, and by chance unburied the head—then
started with an exclamation of sorrow. Alas! It was the head of old
Silverspot. His long life of usefulness to his tribe was over—slain at
last by the owl that he had taught so many hundreds of young
crows to beware of.
The Death of Silverspot
The old nest on the Sugar Loaf is abandoned now. The crows still
come in spring-time to Castle Frank, but without their famous
 their numbers are dwindling, and soon they will be seen no
more about the old pine-grove in which they and their forefathers
had lived and learned for ages.