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A brazen act by a bold predator?

An all-out war between crows and raptors may be on the horizon
2018-08-12 hawke crows.jpg
A crow in flight. David Hawke/OrilliaMatters

Finding dead birds while on a country walk is somewhat unusual, although it does happen from time to time.

Loosened feathers from a grouse, sparrow or chickadee will be seen where a bird has been bopped by a small hawk or maybe a fox. But a crow? Now that's quite different.

The crow, what was left of it, lay on its back, wings outstretched and tail slightly fanned. But the most striking feature, other than the perfect ring of black feathers that encircled the carcass, was the perfectly clean bones. A surgeon, taxidermist or butcher could have done equal work.

Julie, who had stumbled onto the scene, was puzzled by this macabre discovery and returned home with questions that needed answers.

A while later I was told about the discovery (or possibly immediately thereafter … I forget exactly because it was my wife who reported it to me and we have, how can I put it, interesting mixed views of when and what I’ve been told), but by the time I got back to the scene of the crime a heavy cloudburst had washed away much of the fresh evidence.

Crows have always been a common part of our valley's life, their raucous cawing acting as an early morning alarm clock for us (I just wish we could get them to start their grandstanding about 45 minutes later!).

Over the past decade the number of resident crows seems to have risen considerably. While once there was a pair, or maybe two pair, which lived their summer months amidst our fields and forest, there are now dozens. And when autumn arrives, their numbers swell into the hundreds. And with our milder, shorter winters of late, they now stay here all year round.

However, this dead one's a bit of a puzzle. A healthy looking specimen, other than it was dead, means it must have been taken by surprise. When a great horned owl manages to nab a rabbit or grouse, it usually flies back into the shelter of the woods for private dining; this one was consumed right out in the open, a brazen act by a very bold predator.

The ring of feathers suggests the perpetrator was a bird of prey, and the clean picked bones further indicate it was a predator which was quite skilled at obtaining maximum food from its kill. Also, the size of the prey had to be taken into consideration. My deduction: a goshawk had done the deed.

Crows will mob a goshawk just as readily as an owl. Mob action is typical of crow behaviour, and it seems to be as well-rooted and as pointless as human mob behaviour. Usually a loud individual incites others to join in on harassing a sleeping owl, and soon the woodlot is filled with dozens, even hundreds, of crows all hell-bent on making this one owl's day as miserable as possible.

And now that the dead one's remains are so visible to all who fly by, I'm guessing that all out war is a possibility. Crows versus raptors. Should be a box office hit.

Okay, I'm being a bit glib about this. However, crows just might be capable of diabolical plotting. Their intelligence has been researched and recorded as being similar to that of a great ape. And this intelligence has perhaps provided for them to avoid many of the programs designed to eradicate crows.

Starting in the late 1930s, and continuing to the early 1960s, bounties were paid for crows. A person had to present both feet, or an egg, to collect from the government.

In Manitoba a crow collector would be awarded five cents for each pair of feet, and apparently 24,000 crows were turned in (or 48,000 moldering feet, if you do the math).

School children were encouraged to destroy crow nests, and in 1939 for each of the 8,103 eggs destroyed, two cents were paid out. Hmm, what an interesting way to encourage children to observe nature.

But as with all bounty programs, it finally became obvious that it wasn't working. The only thing that was being depleted was the government's coffer. “Nevermore” quote the… crow?

And so we'll keep our eyes wide open as we go for our morning walks, as who knows what skullduggery and revenge these black villains are capable of. I think Hitchcock was on to something.