Lost caws 

Watching crows watching us

I went to Missoula's Northside recently to visit Brian Donahue, a construction worker originally from central Illinois, to hear about the celebrated crow-hunting season back where he comes from. As one thing led to another, he told me about the time he found a dead crow in his backyard in Missoula and how, as he was trying to dispose of it, other crows circled him and dove for his head. He had to summon his roommate home to fend them off long enough for him to scoop the dead bird into a garbage bag, he said.

"But why were they attacking you?" I asked.

"Well, I shoot them off my front porch with an air rifle," he said.

The words didn't compute. What good is a rifle that shoots air? My knowledge of weapons is not vast. "What's an air rifle?" I asked, and then, in the same breath, "Why do you shoot crows?"

Donahue was eager to explain the way his gun worked and went into another room to show it to me. It looked like a normal rifle, with a scope attached that reminded me a little of Super Soaker water guns. "It's like a BB gun, basically," he explained. Instead of gunpowder, the pellets are expended with a whoosh of air. At close enough range, it packs enough power to take out a 1.5 lb. bird.

"But why do you shoot crows?" I asked again.

He looked at me as though the answer were in the question. "I just hate them," he said.


Crows and humans have some history. Depending on the time and place, we've regarded them both as soothsayers and as malevolent, dirty animals—or worse. The Norse god Odin, for instance, had two ravens, Thought and Memory, that travelled the world collecting intelligence for him. They were talented animals. Also, tattletales. When Noah sent a bird out from his ark to scout for land after the flood, he sent a raven the first time—but black birds do what they want and the raven never returned, so Noah had to contract a second mission, this time with the more virtuous dove. As Christ suffered on Calvary, crows were said to have croaked above the dead and dying, but what does that mean? Whose side were they on?

These black birds seem to have an ancient amorality.

They evolved from dinosaurs, like all birds; you can see it in their feet and the shapes of their bones. A feather isn't anything more than a modified scale. Crows, like ravens, are in the corvid family, along with their cousins, jackdaws, rooks, bluejays and magpies. Like humans, crows are warm-blooded, omnivorous scavengers. Technically, corvids are all songbirds, but more in the tradition of Tom Waits than Al Green. Crows can crudely mimic human speech or the dripping of a faucet.

These birds have come to depend on our towns and cities. It's rare to find crows in the wild, or, for that mater, more than a few miles from human establishments. In Missoula, they have more than enough food to scavenge, plus green lawns to pull worms from, roadkill to eat and prime nesting real estate in neighborhoods and on the University of Montana campus. No one's counted the crows in Missoula, but given their numbers in similar cities, there are likely tens of thousands here.

And here's something: It's not illegal for Brian Donahue to shoot crows off his front porch. Nearly all birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, including their nests, feathers and eggs, but crows are a weird exception. According to federal guidelines, "Individuals may kill crows without a hunting license or permit when [crows] are found committing, or about to commit, depredations on agricultural crops, or when concentrated in such numbers and manner as to constitute a health hazard or other nuisance."

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