Lake Effect, Spring 2019, Volume 23: "Getting Rid of Crows"

Getting Rid of Crows

by Karen Weyant


My father strings store-purchased pie tins throughout his garden. He says the clamoring of aluminum keeps the crows away. When I look out at his rows of tomato plants and at the heads of cabbage nestled near the ground, I see the shine of the summer sun gleaming off the tins. Light flashes on the worn garden shed and on my old swing set. For a moment, I am reminded of how the sun sometimes catches metal crosses and bits of stained glass windows in churches.

“Maybe it’s the glare that scares them,” I say.

He shrugs. He doesn’t argue with me, but I can tell that he’s convinced it’s the noise.

Never a church goer, my father has always been mute when it comes to religion. Growing up in rural western Pennsylvania, where every small town is lined with both churches and bars, there is no way he could have  avoided religion all together. But it seems as if  his knowledge  of religion has always come out in curse words. “Jesus H. Christ,” he would say if he was baffled, or even disgusted, at an event.

He was also famous for his strange oxymorons. “It’s cold as hell outside,” he would say, on those cold January nights when he would come home from second shift factory work. He would peel off his heavy coat and gloves, swiping snow from his shoulders and pulling off his steel toed boots caked with ice. Sometimes, it seemed, he brought the cold in with him, his breath white. Having always learned about hell in a weird abstract way as a tortuously hot place, I didn’t understand his comparisons.

My father is also a veteran of World War II, and wars are certainly events where people find faith. Or lose it.

Still, it seems as if my father always found some sort of spirituality in the earth. He grew up on a farm, and up until his recent years, he took care of his own garden, planting, weeding, and harvesting. Now, at the age of 90, he has a lot of help, both from family members and neighbors. The garden still gets planted every year, complete with shiny pie tins. We work on the barter system here in rural Pennsylvania. If his neighbors shovel his sidewalk in the winter they can have as many tomatoes as they want. If we help with the weeding, we can have squash and peppers.

I close my eyes, feeling the afternoon warmth on my face. The tins clank against each other like some kind of tortured homemade wind chime swaying on a back porch. I wonder if there are any crows nearby, cocking their heads, listening, more curious than fearful of the strange hollow sounds.

Crows sport a dark beauty. They are completely black, even their beaks and their feet. Their dark feathers shine like tar or brand new wet tires. Sometimes, there is a sheen of violet or dark blue when they are standing in the sun. It’s true that as members of the Corvidae family of birds, a family that contains the literary raven, the brightly colored blue jay, and the thieving magpie, that the common American crow seems to get lost in the crowd.

Still, crows are proud birds. They hold their heads high. They strut more than they walk. Poet Cornelius Eady described them as “gentlemen in spottled black coats” while the late writer, Lucia Perillo once said they are “little Elvises, their hairdo slicked, with too much grease.” Either description, really, shows the crows’ sense of pride, with at least a little bit of arrogance. Even their harsh call, the sharp, caw, caw, caw, shows a great source of strength.

In spite of their beauty, crows are often surrounded by a dark lore starting with the fact that a group of crows is called a murder. Collective nouns for groups of birds are often both unusual and funny. A group of owls, for instance, may be called a parliament. A group of geese in water is a gaggle. And starlings are able to claim the much more lyrical murmuration.

But a murder of crow, of course, brings to mind a much darker image. While no one is really sure of this term’s origins, some believe that it comes from an old folktale that says that crows will gather in number to decide the fate of another crow in their group. Crows have also been known to mob other birds, including the much larger red-tailed hawk, in order to keep them away from their nests. In fact, according to In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell, at least one bald eagle has died because of injuries sustained in a crow attack. As a child, I remember a stray cat running down the street to get rid of five or six crows that were in a frenzied pursuit. I don’t doubt for a moment, the fury of crows.

Others say it’s the simple fact that crows gather where there is death – roadkill, battlefields, and sites of natural disaster where the dead are strewn about. Yes, along with vultures, I often do see crows near bodies of dead animals along the side of the roads.

Crows are parts of other rural landscapes as well. They share the shredded cornfields of late autumn with wild turkeys and white-tailed deer, looking for leftover kernels. When I see their shadowed images sauntering through brown fields or the thick first frost of fall, I know that winter is just around the corner.

Still, in general, whether it’s death or just the changing of a season, the image of a crow often foreshadows any kind of dark event to come. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, The Birds, will easily remember that it’s crows that gather ominously at the playground before their attack on the town’s children.

The crow’s attachment to death may not always be considered a negative force. Many Native American tribes considered the crow, along with the raven, as sacred birds. Crows could bring magic to mankind, and often could help guide wandering and confused spirits from this world until the next, almost as if they are ferryman of the sky instead of the dark portraits of the ferryman found guiding rafts along the Greek River Styx.

On my drives through the backroads of Pennsylvania, I often find myself looking for bodies of crows.

According to local lore, farmers at one time would kill crows and nail their bodies, in crucifixion style, to walls of old sheds and barns. The body was supposed to warn off other crows.

There’s little evidence to say this ever worked. Thankfully, there’s also little evidence that suggests that today’s farmers still practice this gruesome ritual. My father, in spite of his disdain for crows, has never taken part in this ritual.

Still my home state has a history of cruelty against crows. In fact, early settlers were asked to shoot crows in order to help clear the land for farming and rid the world of what was thought to be adversaries to the future farming community.

Today, Pennsylvania does have an official crow season, except it can’t really be called a season as crows can be hunted nearly all year long, from the first week of July until the second week of April, but only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. There is no limit on the number of crows that can be killed.

The true purpose of any kind of crow season is not clear to me as many experts believe that shooting crows does little to deter their friends from hanging around. Furthermore, while it’s true that crows do like seeds, they also eat a lot of insects that play their own part in damaging gardens and crops.

So, I am relieved that when I make my way through the backroads of my home state, I don’t see crows nailed to barns, nor do I see flannel-clad farmers waiting on their back porches with rifles in hand.

Instead what I often see are gardens lined with compact discs. Much like the pie tins in my father’s garden, I believe the shining light scares the crows away. I often wonder what discs have found their way into these gardens. Do these old CD’s reflect those who live on the farms? Are there country music fans with music by Alabama or Toby Keith? Parents who were once 90’s teenagers, so there may be Nirvana or Soul Asylum? Or maybe the gardens are always classical with compilations of Mozart or Beethoven strewn throughout the plants?

Or maybe, I have a fleeting thought, there are church hymns. I suddenly think of my mother’s love of Jim Reeves, and her favorite, “In the Garden,” that is a narrative story of a human narrator walking with Jesus and hearing the Savior’s voice that “is so sweet the birds hush their singing.”

Whatever the music contained on the worn compact discs, I am sure I’m not going to hear lyrics of love gone wrong or energetic symphonies.

Instead, compact discs hitting each other only make a quiet clanking noise almost like a series of dull thuds, sounds easily muted in the other noise of country life.

Scarecrows, for practical purposes, seem to be obsolete. Like other methods of deterring crows, there is little fact to say that they ever really worked anyway. Still, they remain a common identifiable character, made popular because of the Scarecrow figure in The Wizard of Oz. Look around at Halloween: there are sure to be scarecrows among the witches, animals, and superheroes in the groups of trick-or-treating youngsters.

So, while many automatically think of the scarecrow as a straw figure, fewer people probably know that scarecrows, at one time, were also actual human beings, mostly young boys, who were employed to scare crows in farmers’ fields. Often called Clappers, these children would scare birds away by running through the rows and hitting two sticks together, the crack of wood meant to startle the birds. One may think that this is an archaic tradition, but some farmers still hire teenagers to do this job. For instance, in The Scarecrow: Fact and Fable Peter Haining tells the story of a cherry farmer in Oxfordshire who hired three teenagers to keep birds away from his 46 acres of orchards. These teens were charged with walking through his property and protecting his cherry trees by making noise to scare any fruit loving bird away.

Human scarecrows seem to do a little better at scaring away all kinds of birds, including crows. In essence, they were doing the job of rattling aluminum pie tins and old compact discs used today.

Crows are smart birds. Aesop’s Fables tells the famous story of a thirsty crow who comes along to a bottle that only has a little water. When the crow tries to get a drink, his beak will not reach the water. Instead of becoming discouraged, the crow merely drops pebbles into the bottle, until the water level rises high enough for him to drink.

Fable or not, science suggests that crows are highly intelligent. In “Has Success Spoiled the Crow?”  David Quammen argues the natural intelligence of crows is far more than what they really need to survive. “Dolphins and whales and chimpanzees,”  he writes, “get all the fawning publicity, great fuss made over their near-human intelligence. But don’t be fooled. Crows are not stupid.” In a recent experiment, a crow figures out how to bend a wire in order to make a hook to retrieve food, while chimpanzees and monkeys fail at a similar task. Indeed, one can see the intelligence shining in a crow’s eyes. It is very possible that they find their world a bit boring and so, they make up their own games to amuse themselves.

Crows’ intelligence in a nutshell: they are not going to be fooled by straw-filled figures. As for strange noises? Crows may be startled, but they are not that easily frightened. They may fly away, but they almost always seem to come back. It may be one reason why these birds, in spite of a history of persecution, continue to thrive.

My mother died almost eight years ago. Now, as I watch my father age, I have to admit to myself that he may not be with us much longer. He rarely drives now, and he has given up hunting. He seems the most content on his living room chair watching baseball games and old John Wayne westerns.

Still, he looks forward to his gardening. I think about the last visit I had with him when his garden was still green and flourishing. I walked through the narrow rows as he stood on the edge pointing to vegetables with his cane. Sometimes a little unsteady on his feet, he has admitted that he doesn’t go into the depth of his garden as he is afraid that his feet will get tangled in the plants and he will fall.

He has also admitted to me, in a defeated voice, that he doesn’t lean down to pick vegetables when he is by himself. “I might not be able to get back up,” he says.

He showed me his plump tomatoes and the full heads of cabbages. He pointed out squash and green onions. He mourned the fact that once again, he has failed to grow any cucumbers.

But this year, his pride and joy seemed to be his hot peppers. As he pointed them out to me, I caught a glimpse of a black bird in the apple tree that grows in the corner of the backyard.

I wondered if the crows have somehow outsmarted my father. For years, it’s been some sort of battle between man vs. crow, and for the most part, at least in the case of my father’s beloved garden, man has won.

Still, I also wondered, more sadly, if their appearance is something darker. I have never seen crows in my father’s garden. Are they here for more than just seeds? Are they taking on some sacred role to help guide a spirit to the next world, wherever that next world may be?

I didn’t tell my father what I saw.

Instead, I brushed against a pie tin to watch the light dance across the ground, hoping the light or the sound would frighten them away.