Crows Everywhere Are Equally Black
~Chinese Proverb~

Recently Mark, Cricket and I took a walk in the meadows, a beautiful, open space next to the Connecticut River that straddles the Northampton and Easthampton town lines.

Walking along the dirt road, we saw crows flying above a spent field. They circled and dropped to feed on whatever had been left by the farmer. They were beautiful. There was a bunch, a group -a murder of crows.

birthday crow

A Birthday Crow -- Carved wood, paint
Michael Tillyer, American, b. 1952

I have always been interested in crows. Growing up in the Forest Park neighborhood of Springfield there were many crows but one, in particular, was the stuff of legends. Blackie the crow was a former inmate at the natural history display in the old Barney Mansion who escaped and proceeded to terrorize the kid population of Florentine Gardens.

Blackie had no fear of humans and would land on the porch and steal and eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches right off of the plate. He permanently traumatized a few of my siblings by swooping down and grabbing their mittens in his beak. These hand-knit mittens had been affixed to the sleeves of our snow jackets with little metal clips lest they be lost. When they were not in use they would dangle from the sleeves like woolen leaves. Blackie delighted in grabbing these dangling bits and would hang on to them flapping his wings as the terrified child shrieked and spun in circles unable to dislodge the crow or get rid of the mitten. Some of my brothers and sisters would start to cry at the mere sight of any crow. Others refused to go outside, fearful of Blackie.

At this point, my father got into a contest of wills with Blackie. He read up on the subject and went to work. Dad read that crows were attracted to bright and shiny objects. A poorly made trap was laid, baited with a few of my great aunt Gigi’s earrings. We children would lay in the bushes with a string in hand ready to drop the cage onto Blackie when he got under the trap to steal the earrings. Blackie never fell for it.

Dad escalated the campaign to be rid of Blackie and get the children, there were at least 6 of us at this point, back out of the house. He went deeply into a second-floor closet and emerged with a BB gun. We were fascinated and impressed. We never knew Dad to be armed and watched as he loaded the gun, which looked a bit like the one Chuck Connors had on The Rifleman, a western TV series. Dad pumped the gun to make it work and we all waited for Blackie to show up.

Blackie came mid-day looking for sandwiches and watched Dad from the roof of the garage. Dad crept across the backyard, took aim and fired! The BBs fell far short of Blackie on the roof. Dad said, “Damn,” and tried again. He never even got close. The attempted murder of a crow failed. Eventually Blackie was returned to the Barney Mansion but I forget how that happened. It certainly wasn’t because of anything the Bosses did.

Back to my murder of crows…

They are part of a group of birds, usually glossy black passerine (perching) birds, family Corvidae, that include magpies and jays. There are four Massachusetts crows: Ravens, American crows, Fish crows (which are a bit smaller) and Blue Jays.

“Breeding and nest building begins during late March and April. Crows begin a series of nests, usually in the crotch of a tall tree before completing the one that will be used. Non-breeding young from the previous year or the one before that, stay with the parents to become nest helpers. They have been observed aiding in nest building and feeding the incubating female.”Mass Audubon

As the oldest of ten children, I can identify with the nest helpers. Some of my early memories are of sitting on a couch with pillow props and holding an incredibly sweet smelling and dense infant, being very careful to support its big and floppy head. By the time I was eight or so I could lift and hold a younger sibling either in my arms or on my hip. I’d been feeding siblings from a bottle for years and was adept at coaxing a burp and catching any “urp”. I was a born nest helper.

Crows have between three to six eggs and they are hatched after an eighteen-day incubation period. The chicks are fed by both parents for four to five weeks. Within two weeks of fledging they are foraging for food on their own. Apparently, they will eat just about ANYTHING: fruit, nuts, grains, insects, sea creatures, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, other birds, their eggs and young, roadkill, and garbage. Our murder of crows was feasting in a spent field of hubbard squash.

Crows hide food for later, which is a testament to their intelligence and memory. This provides them with access to nutrition during periods of shortage.

“Roosts are areas where crows sleep at night. The American crow is well known for forming large communal roosts, which may be comprised of thousands of individuals, in the non-breeding season.”Mass Audubon

Mark and I had the good luck to attend a lecture about crows at Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary a couple of winters ago, following a caravan of other naturalists to a huge roost in West Springfield next to the Connecticut River. Just as the sun was setting, hundreds of birds from all directions began to fly towards the roost giving meaning to the expression, “As the crow flies,” i.e. in a straight line – Merriam Webster dictionary. It was very impressive. The sound of their wings settling in and their vocalizations were almost as amazing as the sight of thousands of birds getting together for the night.

I have read that crows, especially ravens, have the most varied vocalizations of almost any bird. I have heard them first hand during walks in the woods exhibit a wonderful variety of whistles, crooning and muttering in addition to the familiar cawing.

“Captive birds have been reported to imitate car horns, barking dogs and human speech.”- Mass Audubon

Let us celebrate the crows: loud, communal, curious, intelligent, omnivorous, inventive, social, caring, opportunistic and rowdy. They mirror some of our own social traits, sharing both the best and the worst of human behavior. No wonder we love them so much. They are our winged brothers and sisters.

 aluminum crow

Aluminum cast crow, painted- artist unknown