HOREAU says: "What a perfectly New England sound is this voice of the crow! If you stand still anywhere in the outskirts of the town and listen, this is perhaps the sound which you will be most sure to hear, rising above all sounds of human industry and leading your thoughts to some far-away bay in the woods. The bird sees the white man come and the Indian withdraw, but it withdraws not. Its untamed voice is still heard above the tinkling of the forge. It sees a race pass away, but it passes not away. It remains to remind us of aboriginal nature."
The crow is probably the most intelligent of all our native birds. It is quick to learn and clever in action, as many a farmer will testify who has tried to keep it out of corn fields with various devices, the harmless character of which the crow soon understood perfectly. Of all our birds, this one has the longest list of virtues and of sins, as judged from our standpoint; but we should listen to both sides of the case before we pass judgment. I find with crows, as with people, I like some more than I do others. I do not like at all the cunning old crow which steals the suet I put on the trees in winter for the chickadees and nuthatches; and I have hired a boy with a shotgun to protect the eggs and nestlings of the robins and other birds in my neighborhood from the ravages of one or two cruel old crows that have developed the nest-hunting habit. On the other hand, I became a sincere admirer of a crow flock which worked in a field close to my country home, and I have been the chosen friend of several tame crows who were even more interesting than they were mischievous.
The crow is larger than any other of our common blackbirds; the northern raven is still larger, but is very rarely seen. Although the crow's feathers are black, yet in the sunlight a beautiful purple iridescence plays over the plumage, especially about the neck and back; it has a compact but not ungraceful body, and long, powerful wings; its tail is medium sized and is not notched at the end; its feet are long and strong; the track shows three toes directed forward and one long one directed backward. The crow does not sail through the air as does the hawk, but progresses with an almost constant flapping of the wings. Its beak is very strong and is used for tearing the flesh of its prey and for defense, and in fact, for almost anything that a beak could be used for; its eye is all black and is very keen and intelligent. When hunting for food in the field, it usually walks, but sometimes hops. The raven and the fish crows are the nearest relatives of the American crow, and next to them the jays. We should hardly think that the bluejay and the crow were related to look at them, but when we come to study their habits, much is to be found in common.
The crow's nest is usually very large; it is made of sticks, of grape vines and bark, sod, horse-hair, moss and grasses. It is placed in trees or in tall bushes rarely less than twenty feet from the ground. The eggs are pale bluish green or nearly white with brownish markings. The young crows hatch in April or May. Both parents are devoted to the care of the young, and remain with them during most of the summer. I have often seen a mother crow feeding her young ones which were following her with obstreperous caws, although they were as large as she.
While the note of the crow is harsh when close at hand, it has a musical quality in the distance. Mr. Mathews says: "The crow when he sings is nothing short of a clown; he ruffles his feathers, stretches his neck, like a cat with a fish bone in her throat, and with a most tremendous effort delivers a series of hen-like squawks." But aside from his caw, the crow has some very seductive soft notes. I have held long conversations with two pet crows, talking with them in a high, soft tone and finding that they answered readily in a like tone in a most responsive way. I have also heard these same tones among the wild crows when they were talking together; one note is a gutteral tremolo, most grotesque.
A pet crow.
Photo by S. A. Lottridge.
Crows gather in flocks for the winter; these flocks number from fifty to several hundred individuals, all having a common roosting place, usually in pine or hemlock forests or among other evergreens. They go out from these roosts during the day to get food, often making a journey of many miles. During the nesting season they scatter in pairs and do not gather again in flocks until the young are fully grown.
When crows are feeding in the fields there is usually, if not always, a sentinel posted on some high point so that he can give warning of danger. This sentinel is always an experienced bird and is keen to detect a dangerous from a harmless intruder. I once made many experiments with these sentinels; I finally became known to those of a particular flock and I was allowed to approach within a few yards of where the birds were feeding, a privilege not accorded to any other person in the neighborhood.
The crow is a general feeder and will eat almost any food; generally, however, it finds its food upon the ground. The food given to nestlings is very largely insects, and many pests are thus destroyed. The crows damage the farmer by pulling the sprouting corn and by destroying the eggs and young of poultry. They also do much harm by destroying the eggs and nestlings of our native birds which are beneficial to the farmer; they also do some harm by distributing the seeds of poison ivy and other noxious plants. All these must be set down in the account against the crow, but on the credit side must be placed the fact that it does a tremendous amount of good work for the farmer by eating injurious insects, especially the grubs and cut-worms which work in the ground, destroying the roots of grasses and grains. It also kills many mice and other rodents which are destructive to crops.
The best method of preventing crows from taking sprouting corn is to tar the seed corn, which is planted around the edge of the field.
If any of the pupils in your school have had any experience with tame crows they will relate interesting incidents of the love of the crow for glittering objects. I once knew a tame crow which stole all of the thimbles in the house and buried them in the garden; he would watch to see when a thimble was laid aside when the sewing was dropped, and would seize it almost immediately. This same crow persisted in taking the clothes-pins off the line and burying them, so that he was finally imprisoned on wash-days. He was fond of playing marbles with a little boy of the family. The boy would shoot a marble into a hole and then Billy, the crow, would take a marble in his beak and drop it into the hole. The bird understood the game perfectly and was highly indignant if the boy took his turn and made shots twice in succession.
References—The American Crow, Barrows & Schwartz, Bulletin No. 6, Division of Ornithology, U. S. Department of Agriculture; Birds in Relation to Man, Weed & Dearborn; Bird Neighbors, Blanchan; Birds of Villages and Field, Merriam; Outdoor Studies, Needham.
Leading thought—The crow has the keenest intelligence of any of our common birds. It does good work for us and also does damage. We should study its ways before we pronounce judgment, for in some localities it may be a true friend and in others an enemy.
Methods—This work should begin in winter with an effort on the part of the boys to discover the food of the crows while snow is on the ground. This is a good time to study their habits and their roosts. The nests are also often found in winter, although usually built in evergreens. The nesting season is in early April, and the questions about the nests should be given then. Let the other questions be given when convenient. The flight, the notes, the sentinels, the food, the benefit and damage may all be taken as separate topics.
The following topics for essays should be given to correlate with work in English: "What a pet crow of my acquaintance did;" "Evidences of crow intelligence;" "A plea a crow might make in self-defence to the farmer who wished to shoot him;" "The best methods of preventing crows from stealing planted corn."
1. How large is the crow compared with other blackbirds?
2. Describe its colors when seen in the sunlight.
3. Describe the general shape of the crow.
4. Are its wings long and slender or short and stout?
5. Is the tail long or short? Is it notched or straight across the end?
6. Describe the crow's feet. Are they large and strong or slender? How many toes does the track show in the snow or mud? How many are directed forward and how many backward?
7. Describe a crow's flight compared with that of the hawk.
8. Describe its beak and what it is used for.
9. What is the color of the crow's eye?
10. When hunting for food does the crow hop or walk?
11. Which are the crow's nearest relatives?
12. Where and of what material do the crows build their nests?
13. Describe the eggs. At what time of the year do the young crows hatch? Do both parents take care of and feed the young? How long do the parents care for the young after they leave the nest?
14. What are the notes of the crow? If you have heard one give any note except "caw," describe it.
15. Where and how do crows live in winter? Where do they live in summer?
16. Do they post sentinels if they are feeding in the fields? If so, describe the action of the sentinel on the approach of people.
17. Upon what do the crows feed? What is fed to the nestlings?
18. How do the crows work injury to the farmer? How do they benefit the farmer? Do you think they do more benefit than harm to the farmer and fruit-grower?
19. Have you known of instances of the crow's fondness for shining or glittering articles, like pieces of crockery or tin?
Supplementary reading—"The Story of Silver Spot" in Wild Animals I have Known, Seton; Second Book of Birds, p. 117; "Jim's Babies" in Nestlings of Forest and Marsh; "How the Crow Baby was Punished," True Bird Stories; "The Children of a Crow," and "The Scare Crow" by Celia Thaxter; Our Birds and their Nestlings; "Crow Ways," Ways of Wood Folk, Long; "Not so Black as he is Painted," Outdoor Studies, Needham; The Crows, John Hay; "Jack Crow," American Birds, Finley.