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  • June 12th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


There is little doubt that Edgar Allan Poe was no fan of the Corvidae clan, but ravens and crows probably were no fan of Poe’s either.  In his famous poem “The Raven” Poe described his avian visitor thusly: “ghastly grim and ancient Raven wandering from the nightly shore.”


I have a fascination with the members of the Corvidae family which I might reconsider if I opened the door to a faint tapping to behold a great big black bird, ghastly grim and ancient. But unless or until that happens I’ll remain a fan, Edgar Allen Poe notwithstanding.


There is a factoid about ravens that is bound to cause the reaction “oh come on, get serious!” It is reported that ravens have been known to imitate wolves or foxes to attract them to carcasses that the Raven is not capable of getting into. I sometimes have to ask someone to open a can of food for me which, apparently, indicates that I am at least as intelligent as a raven. Nice to know. Although it is an uncomfortable memory that I once wrote a sports story lamenting the loss of the local basketball team by quoting (I thought) Edgar Allan Poe’s “Raven”: “Not again, not again, quoth the raven”I said.  My wife gently, (amid raucous laughter which sounded remarkably like a blue jay in full voice) guffawed “It’s never more, never more.”  Ravens are considered by researchers to be marginally more intelligent than their smaller cousins the crows, and I would add, remembering that sports page faux pas, considerably more intelligent than I am.


The Crow family includes that raucously obnoxious bird, the blue jay, which follows hunters, hoping to  hunt silently, through the woods, squawking high-volume warning to every prey creature the hunter is after. There are other members of the jay, family like the gray jay of Western states also known as the whiskey jack, which is fond of absconding with shiny objects—like your treasured Super Bowl ring if you happen to be a football star on a camping expedition. Jaybirds are the petty criminals of the bird world, but you have to admire their persistent nefariousness, kind of like the way you admire the class clown who gets away with tricks on the teacher whereas you don’t.


I once called in and shot a crow. It was classic lure and collect hunting—essentially the same thing a duck hunter does, even what a moose hunter does by issuing a challenging call in hopes of fooling prey into coming close enough for a shot. The intent varies. With turkeys, elk, moose, you are imitating a competing male to fool the living creature into believing a competitor is intruding and needs to be eliminated. With waterfowl you are inviting migrating ducks and geese to a banquet. A predator call imitates the squeal of a prey animal and invites living competition for the spoils. A crow call is essentially an invitation to a gang fight, a scene from “West Side Story”.


Sure enough, I imitated an agitated crow on the caller, perhaps one harassing an owl, something that crows are inordinately fond of doing, and soon enough a crow came sailing overhead, intent on berating the supposedly enemy, and I shot and the bird tumbled through the branches to the ground near me.


I never will shoot a crow again. I looked at the dead bird and felt nothing but regret. It was not edible, as are all the other birds I shoot—turkeys, quail, grouse, pheasants, doves, waterfowl. They are reduced to table fare, with thanks for providing me both with the thrill of the hunt, and the joy of consumption. But a dead crow? Just a heap of bloody feathers, once something living with purpose (even if that purpose was known only to the crow).Now shot from existence for no good reason. At least a reason that, in retrospect, I could justify.


Once I dated a girl from Ft. Cobb, Oklahoma, which, aside from the fact that it was her hometown, was notable for having been the site of what was supposed to be the largest crow roost in North America. The girl has long since disappeared into the misty realms of memory, and Ft. Cobb is pretty much the same when it comes to crows.  It’s estimated that in the nineteen fifties about 10,000,000 crows roosted near Ft. Cobb. Hunters came from everywhere to shoot the birds as they came to roost in the evening.


It was a slaughter somewhat comparable to the way hunters decimated the passenger pigeon millions to the point that in 1914 the population of passenger pigeons constituted one—a lone individual named Martha which died in the Cincinnati zoo. While passenger pigeons now are extinct, the crow persists, a tribute to the bird’s ability to survive. On a website about crow hunting in Oklahoma, someone asked about the Ft. Cobb crows shoot and the response was “the crows are gone. I don’t know what happened but there are not anywhere near the crows around Caddo County that there used to be when I was a kid. You could get a few around but nothing like the old days where you could shoot boxes of shells.” As if there was a mystery about what happened to the crows—you shoot them by the thousands for many years and, golly gee, there aren’t as many as there used to be.


It’s like Jimmy Driftwood’s song “the Battle of New Orleans.” “We fired our guns and they began to runnin’/there wasn’t now as many as there was a while ago.”


Crows have a special protection under federal migratory bird regulations. It’s sort of a wussy situation that kind of protects crows, but not really. For example you can’t hunt them from an airplane. And the hunting season is open almost all year except that it should not exceed a total of 124 days during a calendar year and it should not be permitted during the peak crow nesting period. Most places you can kill crows with everything short of a short range nuclear device. You can kill crows with guns, bow and arrow, and with a falcon. The latter method must be great consolation to falcons and other birds of prey which put up with harassment by crows year round.  The collective noun for crows is a “murder.” That pejorative description must have been coined by one of the other talking birds. Many birds do have the ability to mimic human speech. While Poe’s Raven is perhaps the most famous talking bird, many birds have the ability to mimic some human speech and the Guinness world record book credits a budgerigar named Puck with having a vocabulary of 1728 words which, judging from Donald Trump’s press conferences is more than he has. Still, these days it’s hard not to look at a murder of crows shouting avian insults at a hunkered down owl or hawk and not see a similarity between that and a Donald Trump rally.


There is a section of the federal regulation which caused my mentor and role model and hero John Madson, the best writer I’ve ever known, great merriment. It is that section which stipulates that you can kill crows that are in the vicinity of a cropfield and are “about to commit a depredation.” John scoffed, “There is no time during which a crow is not about to commit a depredation.”


Crows often are described as intelligent birds, but after all, they are birds. Referring to someone as “birdbrained” is not a compliment. But in the avian hierarchy, crows are right up there with the Mensa crowd. In fact, not too long ago, an article in a science journal claimed that crows are just as good at reasoning as a human seven-year-old child. Scientists have challenged crows with a battery of tests designed to understand their intelligence potential.


Try this test with your toddler: fill a container with water and drop treats into it that sink to the bottom. Crows learn on their own to drop stones in the water to raise the food to a level where they can reach it. It takes a human child about seven years before he or she can figure out the concept of water displacement to be rewarded with a treat.


A friend secured a suet feeder with twist ties only to find that crows after a couple of days had figured out how to untwist the ties and get at the suet. He then used carabiners as fasteners, only to find a couple of days later that the crows were obviously working to unlock the carabiners.


The researchers also have found that crows hold grudges. They trapped and released crows, an indignity that ticked off the crows. Two researchers were involved, wearing masks. Later, others walked the same route for the birds had been trapped, either wearing a mask like that worn by the trappers, or a neutral mask. At least one fourth of the crows they met cussed out the “dangerous mask” wearers, while ignoring those with neutral masks. Furthermore, some three years later two thirds of the crows reacted to the “dangerous” mask, which indicated researchers that the birds were passing along knowledge.


Native American mythology is rife with stories about crows. Most folks think that crows are symbols of doom and gloom, but that’s more Poe than Native American. Actually, the Indians consider crows as a symbol of good luck and, in common with the crow researchers, an example of intelligence.


By comparison, Poe’s Raven is pretty limited with his one word vocabulary of “nevermore,” (or, if you prefer, my version “not again”). However, I am one among what I hope will be an overwhelming number of voters in November who will give the bird to Trump. I pray that November 3 will turn out for Trump to be “a midnight dreary”, while he ponders weak and weary and there suddenly comes a gently rapping, rapping at his chamber door and when he opens it, “with many a flirt and flutter,” there steps a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore.


And when the brilliant minded Donald Trump quotes Poe “on the morrow he will leave me as my hopes have flown before.” The bird, “this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore” will say “tough noogies, Donnie. Not again! Not again!”





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1 Comment

  1. CJ

    June 13th, 2020 at 8:07 pm


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