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Crows Can’t Count

We had thousands of crows on Vashon in the 50’s, they could lay waste to a garden and destroy it in minutes. The farmers hated the crows as they would quickly pick up freshly planted seed or pull out the fresh seedlings. Crows were pests on the island and we dealt with them, the same as raccoons trying to get into the chicken house. The U.S. government once had a bounty on the crow of 25 cents. A flock of crows is called a murder of crows which can be found in the Oxford dictionary circa 1500; just as a parliament of owls, a skulk of foxes or an ostentation of peacocks.

Crows have all sorts of customs that are common to the flock. The flock uses a sentinel to warn of a potential intruder or to check out a situation that may be too dangerous to fly into; such as a hunter hiding in the bushes. The sentinel gives a shrill staccato call to warn of danger and the flock responds with angry calls of encouragement to themselves and others. The sentinel perches in a tree high above where the hunter is hidden. If the hunter was lucky and only wounded the guard crow, he would fall to the ground, creating a ruckus and drive the rest of the flock crazy as if they were joining in battle with some unseen enemy that sounded like a crow. They would dive and cavort trying to draw you out. It made for tough shooting but lots of sport.

“Crow’s can’t count”, our Grandfather told us. Three hunters walk into the woods and two come out and the crows think all the hunters have left. The crows can be fooled into believing that you are no longer in the woods. Crows can’t count but they can recognize the difference between a gun and a stick. If there were crows flying overhead, and one of us picked up a stick and pointed it at the crows, they would ignore us. If you just carried the shotgun where they could see it, they flared and flew away. If the crows were watching us walk into the woods, the shotgun would be carried at your side between you and the crows where they couldn’t see it. Brother Mike and I tried our Grandfather’s advice one day but were unable to fool the crows.

It turns out that my Grandfather may have been wrong. A farmer in England built a blind so he could protect his crops but everyday he went to his blind, the crows wouldn’t come. So he invited a friend to the blind, but when the friend left, the crows stayed away. It was only when the farmer had 16 people in his blind, that the crows lost count of the ones leaving.
If you turn your head up to look at them, the white of your face will cause alarm and they won’t come to your call. Calling the flock in was done with a crow call, a black plastic instrument about the size of a shotgun shell, with a reed that vibrates making a sound something similar to the call of the crow. It doesn’t work all the time and takes many hours of practice before they will even answer the call. The proof of your ability to call the crows is being able to call them into a stand of trees where you are hidden.

Crows have funerals. Dad once witnessed a seagull and a crow fighting, the seagull killed the crow. Silently, About 30 or so birds gathered in the maple tree leaning out over the beach. The only sound was the rustling of their wings as they fluttered between branches. After a short while they would have paid their respects to a fallen comrade and flown away.
The crows sometime sound like they have been affronted or are being driven out of their territory and
erupt into raucous communial noise makings. Mom would say: “The crows are yelling bloody murder”. Time for a hunt.