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In the evening of a day this past June I was splashing across a flat, wet piece of New Jersey real estate, half salt meadow, half swamp, a mile inland from an Atlantic beach resort. Swarming around me, in addition to clouds of the mosquitoes that come so big and bold in south Jersey, were four boys—the oldest 15 and the youngest 10. At that moment they could easily have passed for Tom Sawyer's gang or half a squad of smallish guerrillas. They, we all, were gashed from greenbriers, bug-bit, slathered with mud. There was no way we could have been otherwise. We had come into the swamps early that morning, using canoes where the channels were deep enough and, where they were not, beaching the boats and pushing through the water and thickets on foot.
Many boys have a natural affinity for swamps, and a few of us older, retarded ones have never lost it. In the first place, there is a lot to see and do in swamps. They are so lively that they make neighboring beaches, for example, seem sterile and monotonous. Great blue herons, least bitterns, magnificent white egrets rise up out of the reeds. Frogs bark and splash. Little crabs no bigger than June beetles scuttle over the mud. Lilies bloom, sweet bay smells, muskrats swim and the mud sucks and sounds as if it, too, were alive. There is still another thing about bog-trotting for children and childish men. Once in a swamp, you are beyond all those insistent feminine voices that speak for the virtues of being clean and dry and careful about your shoes. In a swamp, civilization is suspended and soap has not been invented. There is nothing for it but to wallow in the mud and enjoy it.
Despite the diverse and exotic pleasures of swamping, our scraggly little band had not spent the day in the Jersey mud and briers entirely for the esthetics of the experience. We were on a mission—to find some fledgling fish crows to take back as companion birds. Fish crows (Corvus ossifragus) are small versions of the common American crow which have adapted, like boardwalk concessionaires, to seaside living. They breed abundantly all along the coast from Florida to Connecticut, nesting (at least in New Jersey) in sassafras, holly, swamp cedars and oaks, which though low are perishingly hard to climb because of the poison ivy and catbrier vines that usually drape these scrubby trees. That day we had climbed dozens of trees with crow nests but found no young crows. Mainly this was because we were too late in the season. We could identify many young crows by their food-begging cries, but they were already flying.
In some of the abandoned nests there were infertile eggs or the carcasses of fledglings that had died of disease, storms or from being starved to death by more aggressive nestmates. Two nests apparently had been ripped apart by predators, perhaps raccoons. In one thicket close by a road fish-crow nests had been pulled down by a neighboring cottage owner whom we encountered. He told us he was a bird lover, that is, he loved the good herons, which nested in this clump of trees, and proved his affection by driving off the bad fish crows, which eat heron eggs. (They do, as herons eat frogs and fish and mice.)
So by evening we had come down to our last hour of light and our last chance, a single row of a dozen trees growing far out across the flat, wet meadow. The trees, mostly stunted cedars, were apparently standing on an imperceptible ridge of land, and from the channel by which we approached we could see a bulky osprey's nest at the end of the row. One of the big fish eagles was in the air, and above, harassing it, were two fish crows. We had seen countless fish crows in the air that day, so while these two at least encouraged us to search the isolated row of trees, they did not inflate our hopes extravagantly.
We poled the canoes within half a mile of the ridge and then got out into the swamp. We hurried because the light was failing and a storm was rising somewhere west of the Delaware River. Already the sun was hidden by thunder-heads, and the wind was coming in squalls. The youngest boy, Kent, the son of a friend of mine, and I were ahead, as we had tried to be all day. Kent stayed in front of the older boys because, through a chain of coincidences and tragedies, there probably was never a 10-year-old who had such reasons for wanting a fish crow. I kept up with him because I had never wanted to get a bird for a boy as badly as I did for him. Also I was perhaps the only man ever hunting hard for fish crows who had vowed never to take another away from the marshes.
As it so often will do, eagerness undid Kent and me. My 12-year-old son, Ky, bringing up the rear, walking and looking more carefully, spotted the crow's nest hidden near the trunk of a cedar. Before Kent and I could double back, Ky was up the tree, gave a yell of triumph and was back down with two young crows, fully fledged but a week or so away from flying.
All the boys, Ky not the least, had wanted a crow badly, but as Kent came up, Ky, who is as unaltruistic as a proper boy should be, handed him both crows. Neither of the other boys objected. My immediate reaction was one of dumfounded pride and admiration, first for my son, then for boys in general and by association for my whole species.
"Will these crows be like Barry?"
"I hope they end better than Barry."