"I know, but
will they be as nice?"
tell. He was a very good one. It depends on how you treat them."
As we talked, the
two adult crows circled overhead, giving their curious alarm call, a half-bird,
half-frog croak. They and their note bothered me more than they should have.
The trouble was not exactly bad conscience about taking the young birds. In the
morning two adult crows would sail over the swamp without emotional pain or
grief, and to my mind Kent had more need for the fledglings than their parents
did. Also, in a practical sense, the cause of crowdom is better served than not
by a boy occasionally taking and raising a nestling. I have yet to know a boy
who has had a tame crow who has grown up to be a dynamiter of crow roosts, a
crow poisoner or a crow gunner, as so many of our sportsmen and
It was not
anthropomorphic guilt that the crows stirred up in me, but stranger fantasies.
The two crows fluttering black against a black thunderous sky represented for
me what crows are classically supposed to symbolize—fell, funereal thoughts.
They were mixed up in my mind with notions of death, treachery and the
irreversible passage of time. So we retreated, Kent carrying the fledglings
under his shirt, pushing through the swamp to get away from the coming storm
and the croaking crows.
The time has now
come to introduce Barry, another fish crow, who was the subject of Kent's first
questions when he was given the fledglings. We had all known Barry, and these
four boys, along with some of their sisters and brothers, had dug a grave for
him along the Potomac River one bad day three summers past. Had there been no
Barry we would not have been there together in the Jersey marsh.
Barry was a
paragon among crows, and this is high praise indeed, for there are few other
animals that make as good and interesting companions as crows. The Corvidae are
a large family of birds which includes crows, jays, ravens and magpies. Most of
them have a flair for amusing, and apparently being amused by, people. After
being a crow fancier for the better part of 40 years, I believe that the reason
crows and men can, if they choose, get along so well is simply that they have
remarkably similar outlooks and reactions to life. Crows, like men, are
omnipresent, omnivorous and often seem to think of themselves as omniscient.
Crows are social, but one of their principal social ambitions is to put down
other creatures. Crows are brave in mobs, discreet when outnumbered. They can
be both affectionate and aggressive, adaptable and obdurate. They are
suspicious, sly, humorous, quick learners. They tend to be gluttons, fetishists
crows are easy and practical birds to rear. Taken at the right age, just before
they have learned to fly, fed promptly and often, juvenile crows do not need to
be caged even after they have, so to speak, their wings. Even a very young crow
has his eye on the main chance. If he finds that a boy or a man (or,
presumably, a walrus or a parrot) will feed and entertain him, he will hang
around. A tame crow will roost outside (if one is quick about shutting windows;
otherwise he is likely to roost on a mantel or bedstead). During the day a crow
will stay as close, underfoot and overhead, as the laws of physics and human
patience permit. (In frankness I must admit that I have occasionally caged
domestic crows—never to keep them from escaping but to temporarily escape
All of which
makes the physically and psychologically irritating operation of building and
maintaining pens unnecessary in the case of crows. It is possible to associate
with these interesting birds on something other than a
kindly-keeper-resigned-prisoner basis, which is about the best one can hope for
with a wild animal that is caged. Far from acting or thinking like slaves or
indentured servants, adopted crows seem to regard themselves as privileged
guests. They move into a household in the manner of Monty Woolley.
To begin with,
crows are good, steady conversationalists who believe that one of the principal
duties of a family lucky enough to be their host is to serve as a respectful
audience. (The less said about split-tongue crows who "talk" the
better. If a man is ass enough to spend hours shouting hello at a crow and the
crow is dull enough to sit still for it, the bird will learn the word out of
sheer boredom. The split-tongue bit does nothing to advance the process and
probably delays it. Would you feel like shouting hello at a sadistic idiot who
had razored your tongue?)
Left with their
own tongues and to their own devices, crows are the Hubert Humphreys of the
animal world. A normally articulate crow has between 40 and 50 vocal signals
(as well as a dozen or so expressive gestures), which he uses to tell other
crows how he feels, what he is eating, where he is going, where they should go
and what he is viewing with alarm. The vocabulary of crows, like that of most
animals, is both inherited and learned, and when a crow moves in with people he
adapts his native language to fit his new domestic status.