THOUGH crows are among the most intelligent of our native birds, they are almost universally disliked by country people for their predation on songbirds’ and gamebirds’ eggs and fledglings, as well as their liking for pecking eyes out of such as newborn lambs, and other creatures such as leverets. So when I came across a young one that seemed not quite as healthy as it should be, my first thoughts were of murderous intent.
Sometimes young of any species do not develop correctly, and in the world of Nature, that means an early death. A baby crow too weak or stupid to fly away will shortly become carrion, whether at my hand or else the maw of any one of many predators. It was sitting safely on a gate when I came into the field, but when it saw me, it flopped on to the ground and made feeble attempts to flutter away.
I told the dogs to leave it, for I did not want that vicious beak near their eyes, and the parent birds were beginning to circle and caw at us. The older dog obeyed, but the young one is not yet completely steady, and the helplessness and ragged movement of the young bird fired her into pouncing on it, like a cat. It bit her, and she dropped it, and then chased and caught it again.
I was not having this, so I called her back firmly, the crowlet now on its back and flapping while the parents dived at and mobbed us. It was now a necessary duty to put the creature out of its misery, for surely the dog had damaged it.
I strode over and picked up the bundle of warm damp feathers, feeling its ribs for fractures, checking its skin for perforations, stretching out its half- feathered wings and its black legs, but all seemed whole. The poor beast was too terrified to bite me, instead opening its beak all the way to its ears in a great scarlet gape. It was, I noticed, one of the piebald crows that we have around here, with white wings and tail. It seemed undamaged: the dog is usually soft-mouthed, but it had bitten her hard, and often dogs will bite back when that happens. Not this time.
That the young crow would die soon, I had no doubt, for even though the dog had not hurt it after all, a stupid crow in a world of wise ones is not going to last long. Instead of hastening that time, I thought it might as well enjoy a few more days in the sunshine, so I perched it back on the gate, whereupon it fell straight off again.
Definitely not one of Darwin’s best, this crow. Meanwhile the parents were wheeling and cawing in great anger at my molestation of their offspring, so I thought the dogs and I might as well get out of their space and leave them in peace, at least until somebody, possibly me, came along with a gun. I also suspected that I would regret my moment of sentimentality: one usually does.
Two days later, I was at the same place, and as soon as I got out of the car with the dogs, the crows started creating a lot of noise and flying in circles above me. I ignored them for a time, assuming that baby crow was in the long grass somewhere, and I kept an eye on the dogs because as a principle, they should not be going after it. Then, looking up, I saw that one crow was small, and that it had gaps in its wings and tail where feathers should have been. Had the youngster learned to fly despite its early mistakes?
It was indeed the same crow; not having mastered landing very well, it crashed through some low branches before heaving itself up into the air again, then circled us with increasing confidence if not skill, cawing its head off. Was it cursing me for having scared it previously, or demanding admiration of its flying? It flew from one tree to the next, then back again, parallel to my walking, before going up and circling me again.
Then it landed clumsily at my feet and looked up at me. And I looked down at it. And then it part-folded its wings, leaving bits sticking out the way beetles do sometimes, and walked away, partly hopping, partly stepping, but not hurrying.
Oh dear. I seem to have acquired a pet crow. How very embarrassing.