RECORD: Waterton, Charles. 1833. The habits of the carrion crow. Magazine of Natural History, and Journal of Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Geology, and Meteorology 6, no. 32: 208-214.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed (single key) by AEL Data 4.2013. RN1

NOTE: This work formed part of the Beagle library. The Beagle Library project has been generously supported by a Singapore Ministry of Education Academic Research Fund Tier 1 grant and Charles Darwin University and the Charles Darwin University Foundation, Northern Territory, Australia.


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ART. IV. The Habits of the Carrion Crow.

By CHARLES WATERTON, Esq.

"Inter aves albas, vetuit consistere corvum." Ovid. Met.

The crow was order'd not to hold a place

'Mid whiter favourites of the feather'd race.

THIS warrior bird is always held up to public execration. The very word carrion, attached to his name, carries something disgusting along with it; and no one ever shows him any kindness. Though he certainly has his vices, still he has his virtues too: and it would be a pity if the general odium in which he is held should be the means, one day or other, of blotting out his name from the page of our British ornithology. With great propriety he might be styled the lesser raven in our catalogue of native birds; for, to all appearance, he is a raven; and I should wish to see his name changed, were I not devoutly attached to the nomenclature established by the wisdom of our ancestors.

The carrion crow is a very early riser; and, long before the rook is on the wing, you hear this bird announcing the approach of morn, with his loud hollow croaking, from the oak to which he had resorted the night before. He retires to rest later than the rook: indeed, as far as I have been able to observe his motions, I consider him the first bird on wing in the morning, and the last at night, of all our non-migrating diurnal British birds.

When the genial voice of spring calls upon him to prepare for the continuation of his species, the carrion crow, which, up to this period, has been wary, shy, and cautious, now, all of a sudden, seems to lose these qualities; and, regardless of personal danger, sometimes makes his nest within a hundred yards of the habitation of man, upon a tree, at once the most conspicuous and exposed. To us, who know so little of the economy of birds, this seems a strange phenomenon; nor can any penetration of which we may be possessed enable us to comprehend the true meaning of this change from timidity

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to boldness, from distance to proximity, from wariness to heedlessness, in so many different species of birds. One would suppose that they would be more shy and distant at this interesting period; and, in imitation of the cat, the rabbit, and the fox, conceal as much as possible the place of their retirement. The rook will sometimes build a poor and slovenly nest, but this is never the case with the carrion crow: this bird invariably makes its nest firm and compact. A writer, who signs himself A. B. C., in Vol. V. p. 590., tells us that "some of the nests have such deep beds of wool, moss, and cows' hair, that the eggs seemed quite lost; and might have given the professor his erroneous idea of their being covered with those substances to keep them warm." O, fie! How is it possible that the eggs should seem quite lost, when the lining on which they lie is so perfectly smooth that they appear as though they were in a basin. Not a single particle of the lining of the nest is ever seen betwixt the eggs and the eye of him who has ascended the tree to take a view of them. I challenge any naturalist to bring proof positive which can invalidate this assertion. Verily, when the professor climbs up to crows' nests this ensuing spring, he will agree with Ovid, that "Causa patrocinio, non bona, pejor erit." [The advocate's cause was not good: it will be worse.]

The carrion crow never covers its eggs on leaving the nest; they are generally from three to five, and sometimes even six, in number; wonderfully irregular in size and shape and colour. This irregularity is so very apparent, that, on examining the nests of some carrion crows with eggs in them, you might fancy to yourself that the rook had been there, to add one of hers to those already laid by the original owner.

This bird never builds its nest in hedges, but will construct it in any of our forest trees; and, with me, it seems to give the preference, in general, to the oak, the spruce fir, and the Scotch pine. The young are hatched naked and blind, and remain blind for some days.

Our ancestors, no doubt, bestowed the epithet "carrion" upon this bird, in order to make a clear and decided distinction between it (whose flesh, they probably supposed, was rank and bad) and the rook, the flesh of which was well known to be good and wholesome food. Perhaps, too, in those days of plenty, and of less trade, the carrion crow had more opportunities of tasting flesh than it has in these our enviable times of divers kinds of improvement. Were a carrion crow of the present day to depend upon the finding of a dead cow or horse for its dinner, it would soon become an adept in the art of fasting by actual experiment; for, no

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sooner is one of these animals, in our neighbourhood, struck by the hand of death, than its hide is sent to the tan-pit, and its remains either made into soup for the hunt, or carefully buried in the dunghill, to increase the farmer's tillage. The poor crow, in the meantime, despised and persecuted for having an inclination to feed upon that of which, by the by, the occupier of the soil takes good care that he shall scarcely have a transient view, is obliged to look out for other kinds of food. Hence you see it regularly examining the meadows, the pastures, and the corn fields, with an assiduity not even surpassed by that of the rook itself.

We labour under a mistake in supposing that the flesh of the young carrion crow is rank and unpalatable. It is fully as good as that of the rook; and, I believe that nobody who is accustomed to eat rook-pie will deny that rook-pie is nearly, if not quite, as good as pigeon-pie. Having fully satisfied myself of the delicacy of the flesh of young carrion crows, I once caused a pie of these birds to be served up to two convalescent friends, whose stomachs would have yearned spasmodically had they known the nature of the dish. I had the satisfaction of seeing them make a hearty meal upon what they considered pigeon-pie.

The carrion crow will feed voraciously on ripe cherries; and, in the autumn, he will be seen in the walnut trees, carrying off, from time to time, a few of the nuts. With the exception of these two petty acts of depredation, he does very little injury to man during nine or ten months of the year; and if, in this period, he is to be called over the coals for occasionally throttling an unprotected leveret or a stray partridge, he may fairly meet the accusation by a set-off against it in his account of millions of noxious insects destroyed by him. However, in the spring of the year, when he has a nest full of young to provide for, and when those young begin to give him broad hints that their stomachs would like something of a more solid and substantial nature than mere worms and caterpillars, his attention to game and poultry is enough to alarm the stoutest-hearted squire and henwife. These personages have long sworn an eternal enmity to him; and he now, in his turn, visits, to their sorrow, the rising hopes of the manor with ominous aspect; and assaults the broods of the duck-pond, in revenge, as it were, for the many attempts which both squire and henwife have made to rob and strangle him.

In 1815, I fully satisfied myself of his inordinate partiality for young aquatic poultry. The cook had in her custody a brood of ten ducklings, which had been hatched about a

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fortnight. Unobserved by any body, I put the old duck and her young ones in a pond, nearly three hundred yards from a high fir tree in which a carrion crow had built its nest: it contained five young ones almost fledged. I took my station on the bridge, about one hundred yards from the tree. Nine times the parent crows flew to the pond, and brought back a duckling each time to their young. I saved a tenth victim by timely interference. When a young brood is attacked by an enemy, the old duck does nothing to defend it. In lieu of putting herself betwixt it and danger, as the dunghill fowl would do, she opens her mouth, and shoots obliquely through the water, beating it with her wings. During these useless movements, the invader secures his prey with impunity.

I would recommend all henwives, in early spring, to place their ducks' eggs under a hen. At that time of the year there are no weeds on ponds sufficiently high to afford shelter to the young, when they are led on to the water by their real mother. If the first sitting of eggs be taken from a duck, she will generally lay a second time; and that will be at a period when the water abounds with weeds, amongst which the young brood can skulk, and screen itself from the watchful eye of an enemy.

From what I have written, the reader may be able to form a pretty correct idea of the habits of the carrion crow; and he will perceive that, for nearly ten months of the year, this bird, far from being considered an enemy, ought to be pronounced the friend of man.

Let us now examine if the attacks of this bird on domestic poultry cannot be easily counteracted; and whether its assiduous attention to the nests of pheasants and of partridges is of so alarming and so important a nature as to call for its utter extermination from the land. For my own part, I acknowledge that I should lament his final absence from our meadows and our woods. His loud and varied notes at early dawn, and again at latest eve, are extremely grateful to me: and many an hour of delight do I experience, when, having mounted up to the top of a favourite aged oak which grows on the border of a swamp, I see him chasing the heron and the windhover through the liquid void, till they are lost in the distance. Then, again, how eager is his pursuit! — how loud his croaking! — how inveterate his hostility! — when he has espied a fox stealing away from the hounds, under the covert of some friendly hedge. His compact and well-built figure, too, and the fine jet black of his plumage, are, in my eye, beautifully ornamental to the surrounding sylvan scenery.

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A very small share of precaution, on the part of the henwife, would effectually preserve her chickens and her ducklings from the dreaded grasp of the carrion crow. Let her but attend to the suggestion of setting her early ducks' eggs under a hen, and let her keep that hen from rambling, and she will find her best hopes realised. As for the game, I verily believe that, in most cases, the main cause of the destruction of its eggs may be brought home to the gamekeeper himself. This unrelenting butcher of our finest and rarest British birds goes, forsooth, and makes a boast to his master that he has a matter of five hen pheasants hatching in such a wood, and as many partridges in the adjacent meadows. This man probably never reflects that, in his rambles to find the nests of these birds, he has made a track, which will often be followed up by the cat, the fox, and the weasel, to the direful cost of the sitting birds; and, moreover, that by his own obtrusive and unexpected presence in a place which ought to be free from every kind of inspection, whether of man or beast, he has driven the bird precipitately from her nest, by which means the eggs are left uncovered. Now, the carrion crow, sweeping up and down in quest of food, takes advantage of this forced absence of the bird from her uncovered eggs, and pounces down upon them. He carries them off, not in his bill, but on the point of it, having thrust his upper mandible through the shell. Had there been no officious prying on the part of the keeper, it is very probable that the game would have hatched its brood in safety, even in the immediate vicinity of the carrion crow's nest; for instinct never fails to teach the sitting bird what to do. Thus, in the wild state, when wearied nature calls for relaxation, the pheasant first covers her eggs, and then takes wing directly, without running from the nest. I once witnessed this, and concluded that it was a general thing. From my sitting-room, in the attic story of the house, I saw a pheasant fly from her nest in the grass; and, on her return, she kept on wing till she dropped down upon it. By this instinctive precaution of rising immediately from the nest on the bird's departure, and its dropping on it at its return, there is neither scent produced, nor track made, in the immediate neighbourhood, by which an enemy might have a clew to find it out, and rob it of its treasure. These little wiles are the very safety of the nest; and I suspect that they are put in practice by most birds which have their nest on the ground. To these wiles, in part (before gangs of forty or fifty nocturnal poachers desolated this district), I attributed the great increase of my pheasants, though they were surrounded by hawks, jays,

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crows, and magpies, which had all large families to maintain and bring up in the immediate neighbourhood.

Keepers may boast of their prowess in setting traps (and, in testimony of their success, they may nail up the mutilated bodies of carrion crows against the kennel wall), but I am of opinion, that, if the squire could ever get to know the real number of pheasants and hares which have been killed or mutilated in those traps, he would soon perceive that he had been duped by the gamekeeper; and that henceforth he would forbid him to enter the covers in the breeding season, for the purpose of destroying the carrion crows. The frequent discharge, too, of the keeper's gun, though it may now and then kill or wound a carrion crow, still will infallibly drive away the game in the end, and oblige it to seek some more favoured and sequestered spot. As to the setting of poison, a practice so common with these worthless destroyers of crows, hawks, magpies, jays, and ravens, which they are pleased to style feathered vermin, it is a well known fact that foxes, ducks, dogs, hogs, and pheasants are all liable to fall a prey to the noxious bait. Often has the disappointed vulpine sportsman to mark down a blank day in his calendar, on account of his quarry having supped upon what was laid to kill the carrion crow; and I have reason to believe that the fox sometimes loses his life, by feeding on carrion crows which have died by poison.

If we were to sum up, on one side, the probable number of pheasants and partridges destroyed during one season by the carrion crow; and, on the other, reckon up how many times the keeper has disturbed the game by going in search of this bird, and thus exposed the nests of partridges and pheasants to certain destruction by vermin of all kinds; and, then, if we take into the account the many heads of game which the keeper has killed in his steel traps and rabbit-snares; we should conclude, I think, that, in the long run, the game actually suffers more from the keeper, in his attempts to destroy the crow, than it really does from the crow itself, while catering for its young. Indeed, I have made out the account myself; and, finding the balance to be against the keeper, I have renewed the order which I gave to his predecessor, never, upon any score, to persecute what is commonly called flying vermin. Thus, the partridges and pheasants here, during the time of incubation, are abandoned to their own discretion: and I judge, from what I have seen, that old Dame Nature, without any interference on my part, will kindly continue to point out to these birds proper places where to lay their eggs and rear their young; and, moreover,

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I am confident she will teach them, by her own admirable and secret process, how to elude the prying scrutiny of the carrion crow. Should, however, the country squire, whose eye is seldom quite closed to the advantages derived from a well-stored autumnal larder; should he, I say, not have sufficient faith in the dame's protecting care, it will be some consolation to him to be informed that, when birds of the game species lose their first eggs, they seldom fail to have a second hatch, which will be sure to find ample security from its enemies, in the abundant growth of summer grass and corn.

The carrion crow is evidently gregarious at times, in the autumnal and winter months: I have sometimes counted fifty of them together. Unlike the rook, these birds never become bare of feathers at the base of the bill.

The vulgar remark, that a carrion crow can smell gunpowder, ought to be received with explanation. The natural wariness of this bird at most seasons of the year, and the perpetual persecution it has to undergo from man, are the causes of its keeping a very sharp look-out; and it takes flight at the earliest approach of the gunner: hence the surmise that he smells the powder (which might certainly be smelled after the discharge of the gun, provided the crow were to leeward); but, then, the loud report would cause it to take instant flight, and it would be far away long before the scent from the burnt gunpowder could have any chance of reaching its olfactory nerves, though they were (and, for aught I know, they are) as sensible as those of the vulture.

I turn loose on the public, from my park, about threescore carrion crows per annum; which, no doubt, are considered as a dangerous knot of rascals by the good folks of this neighbourhood.

I beg to say that I have written this paper expressly to calm the fears of sportsmen, who may imagine that I do an evil deed in befriending a tribe of birds hitherto considered, by common consent, in no other light than that of plundering rogues and vagabonds. If they will do me the honour to read this little history of my warrior bird, I trust they will be satisfied that he is not such a desperate thief as he is generally imagined to be; and, furthermore, upon due consideration, they will agree with me that, when the keeper is abroad with his gun, his poison, and his traps, their game may be said, with great truth, to be exposed to much worse company than that of the carrion crow.

I am, Sir, yours, &c.

CHARLES WATERTON.

Walton Hall, Jan. 17. 1833.


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