Barry was hatched
on the Eastern shore of Maryland and brought back to our mountain bestiary in
central Pennsylvania late in June. The first thing that set him apart from
other crows was that he was a finicky eater. Most crows have cast-iron stomachs
and catholic tastes. They will eat anything—roast chicken, watermelon, cheese,
distillery mash, cigarette butts, ripe olives. They are feathered goats. Barry
was different. He gagged and spit out such old crow favorites as bread-and-milk
mush, soft dog kibble and hard-cooked eggs. At last my wife, with typical
feminine perspicacity, hit on the solution. "They call this a fish crow.
Ky was dispatched
with a dip net to the trout stream that flows past the house. After some
judicious chumming he came back with half a dozen black-nosed dace minnows.
Barry took them down immediately and shouted for more. It quickly became
apparent that while he would eat only minnows, he would eat them in really
extraordinary quantities. The dace in our stream run about two inches long,
eight to the ounce. Barry ate 82 of these little fish on his best day (or,
rather, Ky's best netting day; the crow would probably have eaten more if Ky
could have caught more).
learned all there was to know about minnows except how to catch them for
himself. When the dip net appeared Barry would fly to the stream, settle on a
rock and squawk until the catch was brought to him. I was never certain that
his failure to fish for himself may not have been intentional. After all, why
should a crow splash around in a cold, swift stream, spearing dace one at a
time, when there were half a dozen people who could bring him fish by the
specialized feeding habits were at the root of his special dependency. Most
crows prefer to be fed, but if chow is late or skimpy they will not go hungry.
They will begin to find a bug here, a berry there, a neighbor down the road who
makes a tasty peach cobbler. In time they will wander farther and farther
afield. Barry, however, had no place to go except where there were damn fools
to net minnows for him.
His food supply
secure, Barry settled into the domestic routine as only a crow can. He was a
dog scolder, a button snatcher, a turner of book pages. He was also a telephone
answerer. The phone was rigged to an outside bell, and Barry learned that when
this bell rang, humans, like Pavlov's dogs, would react by going to a desk
beside a second-floor window and fondling a black instrument. Therefore when
the phone rang Barry would fly to the same window and sit outside on the ledge,
beating on the pane with his beak for admittance.
carryings on, Barry won his greatest fame as a canoe crow. Barry commenced
canoeing in a small way. He learned to sit on the thwart of a 15-footer that Ky
anchored in a dammed-up pool of the creek, the better to carry on his
dace-netting operations. This experience served Barry as a sort of novice canoe
instruction and prepared him for bigger things as a member of The Trip.
The Trip is a
cross between a reunion of old friends and a cooperative summer camp, a 10-day
canoe cruise that four of us fecund mated pairs and 16 of our offspring have
made each summer for the past six years. The four boys who made up the party to
the Jersey swamps were all Trip veterans, along with such other people as Ky's
three younger sisters, Kent's older brother and his younger sister, Kristin.
The first Trip, when none of the children were as old as 10, was anticipated
with considerable doubt by the Bigs (the kids' slang for the adults who dreamed
up the idea). Mothers were worried about drownings, fathers about horsing and
portaging 11 canoes down a 30-mile stretch of river. However, the thing came
off because we were of an age, in an age, when if anything, no matter how
preposterous, is conceived as being "good for the children" it must be
acted upon. Much to our surprise, we found after the first Trip that Smalls can
perform unexpected feats of good sense, endurance and daring when the operative
orders are "you can," rather than "you can't." By the summer of
Barry's advent, The Trip had become such a tradition that it could not be
postponed even for a crow. Since the chances of finding a crow-sitter with a
dip net and stream full of dace were slim, there seemed nothing to do but take
the bird with us.
Barry by this
time was fully grown, a competent, if not fancy, flier. Nevertheless, he made
his way down the river as the rest of us did, in a canoe, sitting on thwarts or
gunwales, taking his ease like a Victorian maiden in a punt while others
provided the locomotion. Occasionally, when we had to make a portage or when we
struck a stretch of rough water (he detested being splashed) or when a bit of
shiny flotsam caught his fancy, he would leave the flotilla, but never for
long. Small or Big, it is a wonderful thing to see a crow winging across a
river and have him drop down and perch on the bow thwart of your canoe.
Barry had only
one problem, the thing that bothers many first-time campers. He had difficulty
adjusting to the food. We were cruising on an upper section of the Potomac
River, where the current was fast, the bed rocky and crow minnows hard to
catch. After some sulking and temper tantrums, Barry eventually learned to take
fresh-water clams, canned ravioli, beef stew, pancakes and sugar cookies. This
fare kept Barry's body and soul together, but it did not satisfy him as minnows
did, and consequently he was, or would have us believe he was, ravenous most of
At night Barry
roosted on the grip ends of a pair of crossed canoe paddles that were erected
expressly for his convenience at each campsite. At daybreak he was up and at
us, intent on rousing someone to start the fire and get the pancakes going. He
would hop from sleeping bag to sleeping bag, making a raucous food call,
pulling an ear here, tweaking a nose there. He was a villainously effective
getter-up, but otherwise not much help in the early morning. Real woodcraft is,
at 5:30 a.m., with thick, cold river mist blowing in your face, trying to coax
a flame out of a bundle of damp grass while a crow sits on your head fanning
the air with his wings.