For the love of crows – part two: pet crows in the 20th century.Posted: May 13, 2013
Back in March, I wrote about why I adore crows, and promised a part two. Hell-April then took me out at the knees, and kicked me in the mouth while I was down. On Thursday, I’ll be sharing a post detailing my experience of nitrous oxide, synethesia and time distortion, and revealing that I may really have some vampire blood in my ancestry. (Quick shout-out to Vampire Maman.)
Despite Hell-April’s malevolent efforts, I enjoyed my daughter’s visit AND made good progress on my manuscript. May has been kinder, even if spring refuses to … well, spring. My life (knock-wood / cross-fingers / drink-beer) is back to (para)normal. Today I resume regular posting with the long-overdue continuation of my crow stories. First, though, I should share a link to Ray Yanek’s blog. Ray was intrigued enough by my musings in March to address the subject of crows over at his place. Enjoy A Sleuth, An Unkindness, and A Murder… and poke around a bit. You’ll be glad you did.
We now know that it is wrong and illegal to capture or keep wild crows, but it was not always so. Keeping pet crows was once common practice – especially in rural areas of the mid-west in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many young birds were taken by a method that horrifies our modern sensibilities, but that exemplifies the cavalier attitude some folks had toward nature at the time: an old tree bearing a crow’s nest would be chopped down so that any fledglings surviving the fall could be taken and tamed.
At least that’s what I’ve been told by naturalists and conservation officers here in Minnesota. Though I believe this was a method employed by some, such was not the usual case in central Minnesota, in the 1920s – 1950s. I know, because my mother was born there in 1926, and she got to know several tame crows in her lifetime.
The first story is not a happy one, but then there are not many happy stories from my mother’s childhood. Her father, John, was born in Germany and immigrated to the US with a number of his kin when he was a child. The clan settled in Central Minnesota and homesteaded large farms. The community was mostly German and Scandinavian.
Though my mother has good memories of her grandparents and her uncles (many of whom were Lutheran ministers), her father was an unpredictable and cruel man. (Now that I have a better understanding of mental health, I have come to believe he was bipolar, but that’s a theory best saved for another post.) In a childhood dense with horror stories starring John, a few shining attempts at good parenting stand out.
When John’s first-born – a son named Arnold – was about five or six, John noticed a crow’s nest in a tree at the edge of one of his pastures. Apparently, Arnold was of nearly the same age John had been when he’d been given his first corvid*, back in Germany. John carefully observed the behavior of the nesting pair and figured out when the fledglings would be at an appropriate age for taming. He based his calculations on his knowledge of the birds of his youth. (*The German species was likely either a carrion crow or a common raven.)
On the predetermined day, there was a thunderstorm, but this did not deter John. He climbed into the tall tree, ignoring lightning and thunder. The wind was high and the boughs bent and twisted under his weight, but he was determined. When he finally reached the nest, he was soaked through and his hands were so cold they could hardly grasp the rain-slick branches on which he perched. As the parent-crows dive-bombed him, he realized the nestlings were younger than he would have liked. He had intended to take just one fledgling, but decided that he would take half the brood – in case they proved to be weak in their youth. He tucked three birds into his shirt and climbed down, eager to surprise his son.
Arnold hated the birds. He said they had evil, beady, black eyes. (In truth, baby crows have blue eyes, so I fear that my uncle never really looked at them closely. Or, perhaps, their eyes were not yet properly open.) I try not to blame my uncle for what happened next. He was so young himself that he was not equipped to tend to the babies’ intense needs. The birds, of course, were hungry … they screamed every hour, round the clock. I know that John considered his part of the job done. The task of feeding the crows – bread softened in milk – fell entirely on Arnold’s thin shoulders.
A short time later, John was at work in the fields. For his wife – Marie – and the children, it was washing day. Doing the laundry entailed boiling vats of water on the wood-stove, carting said water into the yard, scrubbing on a washboard, and hanging clothes out to dry. At some point in that day, Marie went back into the house to fetch more water and found three baby crows floating in the bubbling water in the copper vat on the stove. Arnold said he didn’t know what happened, and claimed the birds must have flown there themselves.
From that day forward, John told the story of the crows to illustrate the fact that his son was a lazy, worthless liar.
Years later, my mother married the son of a local farmer. Like her father, his name was John. Unlike her father – or his – this John was not a farmer. He was a construction worker who was away from home a lot. It was the first of five marriages for her, but there were a couple of good years at the beginning. When they married, John came with a crow. In the late 40s, the couple lived in a little house, in a small town, with their toddler daughter and Billy the Crow.
I wish I could share a photograph of my mother with Billy, but she wasn’t actually very fond of him and snapshots were not as common in those days as they are now. It’s a pity, because they would have made a striking pair. I’ll have to be content with posting the following photograph of my mother and Arnold, taken at about the same time.
John-the-Husband had captured Billy using the same method John-the-Father had – climbing up a tree to a dangerously high crow’s nest. He had been a teenager at the time, and crow-stealing was all the rage among his crew. Beer may have been involved, but even if not, taking a crow was a social event. A party of young men would mark a tree, wait for the right time, then dare each other to get on up there. Billy the Crow was not taken too young, because John and his friends had waited for appropriately-sized heads to pop up out of the nest.
By the time John married my mother, he’d already had Billy for a few years. The big concern, when they started their new life together, was whether the crow would adjust to his new surroundings. John built a coop, just like the one Billy had always been in, at the new house the couple rented. It was basically a big box mounted inside a garage window, attached to a chicken-wire-sided box on the outside of the window. At the front and the back of the construction, a door was hinged at the bottom and chained to create a stable platform when opened. In the fully-enclosed, interior box, a layer of straw covered the floor. A food and water dish were also provided.
When the couple first moved to the rental house, Billy was confined to this cage structure for just a couple of weeks, as my mother recollects. She remembers John being nervous about the first day that the exterior door was opened and Billy was allowed to fly free. He needn’t have worried. Billy spent most of his his first few days on the roof of the rental house, surveying his new territory and identifying his new enemies.
Though Mother was worried about what the neighbors would think, no one seemed to mind the black bird’s presence. Still, she was embarrassed. The existence of the pet crow, she thought, marked her and her husband as country-folk. It didn’t help that Billy vandalized the one item she had that made her feel ritzy – the elegant, faux-leather, baby buggy which her father had bought for her so she could walk with her child to the nearby downtown. Billy had taken one look at that shiny, black object, parked next to the house door, glinting in the sun, and become bent on destruction. Probably he was trying to steal one of the buttons from its collapsible, quilted sun bonnet, but he was enraptured by the white batting that appeared when he ripped at the fabric. In short, he shredded that thing. There was no money to replace it, so Mother had to push the torn-up buggy in public. She did not want to tell anyone that her husband’s crow had done the damage.
The first local residents to take exception to Billy’s presence were the neighborhood dogs. Mother remembers them coming into the yard and barking up at the roof for hours. This only lasted until Billy started to bark back. She tells me that, after a while, even John couldn’t tell if the barking was from the dogs or the bird.
This barking was a new addition to Billy’s vocabulary which, prior to town life, consisted of: Hello, Good Bye, Bill, and an uncanny reproduction of the sound of John laughing. John liked all those mimicries. He was chagrined by – and could not explain – Billy’s ability to also say, Don’t Come Back and Damn It!
The dogs seemed to amuse Billy more than anything, but he hated the cats. Mother had a fondness for cats and appreciated their ability to keep vermin like mice and snakes out of the yard, so she put food out for them – sometimes even expensive new-fangled kibble. Billy quickly developed a taste for this particular treat. In his quest to preserve such delicacies for himself, Billy taught himself to meow, hiss and spit just as they did. He also took delight in diving down on them when they came into the yard. This behavior irked Mother, but not as much as his wash day antics.
My mother’s laundry routine was easier than that of her mother’s – she had hot water and a ringer-washer – but she still had to hang her clothes out on a line to dry. Said line stretched from the corner of the garage to the house, and she used the kind of clothespins that people now use to make reindeer ornaments for Christmas trees. Billy thought those pins were awesome. Every week, he would pull the pins and drop her fresh laundry on the ground. She complained, but John thought it was harmless fun. Mother remembers deliberately doing the laundry on a Sunday, so that John could watch from the window as Billy started at his end of the line and worked all the way to the house, plucking each and every pin up and off, before giving it a good shake, then dropping it.
John left his bird locked up on washdays after that.
John ceded to Mother’s wash day wishes, but he seemed to take a weird pride in Billy’s thieving ways. John was an automotive tinkerer and had all the shiny tools and doo-dads to prove it. He spent his weekends putzing under the hood of the car. If ever he had to go into the house in the middle of a project, Billy was watching. When John would come back to find the nut or bolt he’d set aside missing, he would simply laugh and trace the most direct path to Billy’s hutch while kicking through the grass. Sometimes the bird would have managed to get the missing prize all the way into his food dish, but most often he dropped it somewhere between the car and the garage.
All the while, my mother says, “he would sit on a nearby perch, cock his head one way then another, look at John with his tricky-like-glass eyes, and smile.”
As time passed, Billy spent less time in the yard tormenting my mother and more time off in a nearby woods. She thinks that he maybe mated one year, but she can’t be sure. When Billy needed to die, however, she knows he came home. She remembers him sitting on the “porch” of his hutch, listless and droopy. He would take food from John’s hand, but otherwise seemed disinclined to eat. She says, “He lasted almost a week like that. Then one day he wasn’t sitting on the porch, and John ran out to check on him, and he was dead in his nest. John took the band off his leg and kept it. I saw him crying about it too.”
I’ve just read over what I’ve written, and I am freshly sad. That’s the nature of animal stories, I suppose. I think that’s only because we can see the whole saga unfold, though. Billy lived longer than most crows in the wild do, and his life was an adventure. Our companion animals – by their very nature – live their whole stories, from beginning to end, right in front of our eyes. It’s our job to learn what we can from those stories and move on to love other fellow creatures. As for me, I will always love crows, a species I know to be smart, beautiful, resourceful, adaptable and mischievous. I know I can’t walk my path with a crow companion of my own, but I’m grateful I got to meet Billy through the eyes of my mother.