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
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 special gifts.
Old Silverspot was the leader of a large band of crows that made
their headquarters near Toronto, Canada, in Castle Frank, which is
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
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 danger—a gun.'
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
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 danger—a 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
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 telescope.
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,
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 barnyard.
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 was swept onward by the current, he seized and bore it off in triumph.
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 acknowledged chief.
The reassembling takes place about the end of June—the young
crows with their
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 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
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
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
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 hopeless disadvantage.
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 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