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The Crow
by [?]

The crow may not have the sweet voice which the fox in his flattery attributed to him, but he has a good, strong, native speech nevertheless. How much character there is in it! How much thrift and independence! Of course his plumage is firm, his color decided, his wit quick. He understands you at once and tells you so; so does the hawk by his scornful, defiant whir-r-r-r-r. Hardy, happy outlaws, the crows, how I love them! Alert, social, republican, always able to look out for himself, not afraid of the cold and the snow, fishing when flesh is scarce, and stealing when other resources fail, the crow is a character I would not willingly miss from the landscape. I love to see his track in the snow or the mud, and his graceful pedestrianism about the brown fields.

He is no interloper, but has the air and manner of being thoroughly at home, and in rightful possession of the land. He is no sentimentalist like some of the plaining, disconsolate song-birds, but apparently is always in good health and good spirits. No matter who is sick, or dejected, or unsatisfied, or what the weather is, or what the price of corn, the crow is well and finds life sweet. He is the dusky embodiment of worldly wisdom and prudence. Then he is one of Nature’s self-appointed constables and greatly magnifies his office. He would fain arrest every hawk or owl or grimalkin that ventures abroad. I have known a posse of them to beset the fox and cry “Thief!” till Reynard hid himself for shame. Do I say the fox flattered the crow when he told him he had a sweet voice? Yet one of the most musical sounds in nature proceeds from the crow. All the crow tribe, from the blue jay up, are capable of certain low ventriloquial notes that have peculiar cadence and charm. I often hear the crow indulging in his in winter, and am reminded of the sound of the dulcimer. The bird stretches up and exerts himself like a cock in the act of crowing, and gives forth a peculiarly clear, vitreous sound that is sure to arrest and reward your attention. This is, no doubt, the song the fox begged to be favored with, as in delivering it the crow must inevitably let drop the piece of meat.

The crow has fine manners. He always has the walk and air of a lord of the soil. One morning I put out some fresh meat upon the snow near my study window. Presently a crow came and carried it off, and alighted with it upon the ground in the vineyard. While he was eating it, another crow came, and, alighting a few yards away, slowly walked up to within a few feet of this fellow and stopped. I expected to see a struggle over the food, as would have been the case with domestic fowls or animals. Nothing of the kind. The feeding crow stopped eating, regarded the other for a moment, made a gesture or two, and flew away. Then the second crow went up to the food, and proceeded to take his share. Presently the first crow came back, when each seized a portion of the food and flew away with it. Their mutual respect and good-will seemed perfect. Whether it really was so in our human sense, or whether it was simply an illustration of the instinct of mutual support which seems to prevail among gregarious birds, I know not. Birds that are solitary in their habits, like hawks or woodpeckers, behave quite differently toward each other in the presence of their food.

The crow will quickly discover anything that looks like a trap or snare set to catch him, but it takes him a long time to see through the simplest contrivance. As I have above stated, I sometimes place meat on the snow in front of my study window to attract him. On one occasion, after a couple of crows had come to expect something there daily, I suspended a piece of meat by a string from a branch of the tree just over the spot where I usually placed the food. A crow soon discovered it, and came into the tree to see what it meant. His suspicions were aroused. There was some design in that suspended meat, evidently. It was a trap to catch him. He surveyed it from every near branch. He peeked and pried, and was bent on penetrating the mystery. He flew to the ground, and walked about and surveyed it from all sides. Then he took a long walk down about the vineyard as if in hope of hitting upon some clew. Then he came to the tree again, and tried first one eye, then the other, upon it; then to the ground beneath; then he went away and came back; then his fellow came, and they both squinted and investigated, and then disappeared. Chickadees and woodpeckers would alight upon the meat and peck it swinging in the wind, but the crows were fearful. Does this show reflection? Perhaps it does, but I look upon it rather as that instinct of fear and cunning so characteristic of the crow. Two days passed thus: every morning the crows came and surveyed the suspended meat from all points in the tree, and then went away. The third day I placed a large bone on the snow beneath the suspended morsel. Presently one of the crows appeared in the tree, and bent his eye upon the tempting bone. “The mystery deepens,” he seemed to say to himself. But after half an hour’s investigation, and after approaching several times within a few feet of the food upon the ground, he seemed to conclude there was no connection between it and the piece hanging by the string. So he finally walked up to it and fell to pecking it, flickering his wings all the time, as a sign of his watchfulness. He also turned up his eye, momentarily, to the piece in the air above, as if it might be some disguised sword of Damocles ready to fall upon him. Soon his mate came and alighted on a low branch of the tree. The feeding crow regarded him a moment, and then flew up to his side, as if to give him a turn at the meat. But he refused to run the risk. He evidently looked upon the whole thing as a delusion and a snare, and presently went away, and his mate followed him. Then I placed the bone in one of the main forks of the tree, but the crows kept at a safe distance from it. Then I put it back to the ground, but they grew more and more suspicious; some evil intent in it all, they thought. Finally a dog carried off the bone, and the crows ceased to visit the tree.

* * * * *

From my boyhood I have seen the yearly meeting of the crows in September or October, on a high grassy hill or a wooded ridge. Apparently, all the crows from a large area assemble at these times; you may see them coming, singly or in loose bands, from all directions to the rendezvous, till there are hundreds of them together. They make black an acre or two of ground. At intervals they all rise in the air, and wheel about, all cawing at once. Then to the ground again, or to the tree-tops, as the case may be; then, rising again, they send forth the voice of the multitude. What does it all mean? I notice that this rally is always preliminary to their going into winter quarters. It would be interesting to know just the nature of the communication that takes place between them.