It’s mid-September. The shucks of the earliest maturing pecan variety—‘Pawnee’—are beginning to open. I’ve monitored the nut’s maturity closely since the kernel-filling process began in August, slicing the nuts open a couple times per week to see how the kernel meat is filling the cavity inside and checking for the moment when the nuts have broken free from the inside lining of the shuck. No matter how attentive I am to the expected beginning of this process, there are others who know before I do that the nuts have matured.

               Whether through a keen sense of smell or simply an insatiable curiosity, the crows are the first to find the mature nuts. More than anything else, the sight of a crow flying away from the orchard with a pecan in its mouth tells me that harvest is near. Flocks of crows make routine passes over the orchard, often several times, before descending. A scout or sentinel will continue flying over the orchard or land somewhere nearby, in an open field or on a fence-post, with a good view of the major entrance and exit points, and keep watch. As soon as the scout catches sight of any untoward movement or a person or vehicle approaching the orchard, he lets out a throaty cry and takes to the air, followed by his horde of black-shrouded revelers.  It is estimated that a single crow can consume 15 lbs of pecans per month. They can pick the nuts right out of the shuck or knock them to the ground, where they hold them beneath their dark, gnarled claws and crack the shell open with strong, sharp beaks. They leave the ground beneath the trees littered with cast-off green shucks and fragments of shell. Nothing stirs the blood of a pecan farmer to anger more.

               My first instinct is to take up my shotgun and lie in wait beneath the whispering leaves of the pecan trees to blast those dark birds out of the sky. That seems to be the simplest solution. But, I’ve read enough Aldo Leopold to know that would be a mistake. Its this kind of thinking that lost us the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet. Wonders that held the world together a little better than it is now.

               I had a biology professor in college who told us it was literally impossible to hit a crow with a moving vehicle. He said he’d tried. He’d taken aim at a flock of crows feeding on some form of roadkill to test his theory. He’d done this over and over for years and had never even come close. He told us this as an illustration of the crow’s intelligence. They are simply too wicked-smart to wind up as a pile of black feathers in the road.

               Widely known as being among the smartest of animals, crows are said to have the intelligence of a 7-year old human, but I don’t believe it. These grim, dark birds are smarter than that. Crows commonly work together. They can use found objects as tools. They’ve even been seen operating water fountains, taking turns, with one holding the button down while the others drink. Crows have been observed to have the presence of mind to drop stones into a tube of water to make the water level rise so they can reach the treat floating in the water. Not only that, but they quickly learn to use the heaviest stones to make the water rise faster.

              Recent studies have shown that crows are self-aware, conscious of themselves and their actions. In humans, this sense of consciousness is found in the cerebral cortex, yet birds have no cerebral cortex. Instead, this type of thinking occurs within the pallium of birds—a layer of grey and white matter covering the upper surface of the cerebrum in vertebrates. While their brains are comparatively small, the neurons of birds are packed extra-tight, reducing the brain’s weight as an aid to flight and allowing for better communications between the brain’s cells. Though packed tighter, crows have the same number of neurons as some monkeys. Nature can be quite efficient when she wants to be.

               Most impressively, crows have the ability to plan—to take actions now that will provide a benefit later. Delayed gratification is a form of wisdom that human society as a whole has yet to master, for it seems our ability for self- indulgence knows no bounds. Not so with crows. They see the forest, or orchard in this case, even amid the trees.

               In my own attempt to foster such wisdom, I consider Leopold’s statement, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” So, before blasting away at them, it has become pertinent to me to ask, What role do these glossy-black, roguish birds play in the natural order of things? What do the turning of these cogs and wheels accomplish? 

               Crows are like us in many ways. They are mischievous and sometimes cruel. They use perhaps their greatest gift—intelligence—for seemingly diabolical ends—like gobbling up the young of songbirds, or eating pecans from my orchard. Their intelligence also gives crows multiple roles to play in the functioning of a healthy land. Crows are generalists. They eat meat, alive or dead. They consume insects. They eat plants, seeds, nuts. They are opportunistic omnivores. Assuring that nothing goes to waste, crows pluck the leftovers from carrion after other animals—vultures, coyotes, foxes—have done the hard work.

               It may sound blasphemous, but in a sense, even the pecan farmer owes a debt of gratitude to the crow. Since the glacial ice sheet retreated from North America 11,000 to 12,000 years ago, crows along with squirrels, jays, woodpeckers, and even our own kind, have been among the primary dispersers of pecan seed. As such, they had a hand, or claw as it were, in moving the pecan throughout its native range. These creatures, of which the crow is one, have been so proficient at this job, that since the last ice age, the pecan spread across a native range extending from Oaxaca, Mexico, throughout the Eastern and Central rivers of Texas, into Oklahoma, Louisiana, and up the Mississippi River and its tributaries as far north as Iowa. As crows cached nuts for later use and failed to retrieve them or frightened, dropped them upon some accepting soil among the river bottom’s sandy ridges, they dispersed pecans incrementally at a clip of up to 5 miles from the parent tree at a time.

This dispersal over such a wide geographical range with a host of climatic conditions led to the pecan’s great diversity. This diversity is now a treasure trove of potentially favorable traits, which provide the sources of insect, disease, and drought resistance, larger nut size, smaller tree size, earlier maturity dates, and other valuable characteristics that excite those who grow pecans.

I’ve shot plenty of crows in the past but I now realize that killing a crow or two here and there doesn’t accomplish much, other than to stoke my own hubris and false sense of control over the situation. I can’t stand guard in the orchard 24/7. Another flock will find the pecans as soon as I turn my back and leave the orchard. And if, somehow, I could kill enough crows to reduce the number of nuts they take, I would be increasing the size of my pocketbook only incrementally at the expense of a great impoverishment of the land.

               Despite my philosophical wanderings, I am not so foolish as to think that just giving the crows complete free reign of the orchard would not be a mistake. So, every so often, when they descend upon the trees in numbers exceeding our agreed upon quota, I will fire a 20 gauge into the air, taking no particular aim. Crows have been known to hold grudges for years. They recognize faces and take revenge on those who commit offensive deeds against them. They will even teach friends, family, and future generations about perpetrators. My warning shots are a game played between us. One of mutual understanding. The crows give me the satisfaction of holding onto a little self-respect, allowing me the illusion of protecting my crop from their depredations. And with my warning shots, I keep them guessing.  I give them safe passage, while at the same time, planting a seed into those densely-packed neurons that, though the old fool seems harmless, it would pay to be careful around this orchard in case his aim improves.

One thought on “Crows

  1. That’s a great description of crows: black-shrouded revelers. They look well-suited for the plague doctor mask look. They are indeed smart – I was raising chicks in my house and yard, and when I’d bring them outside in very short order a crow would come calling, sitting in a nearby tree and slowly moving closer, so slowly he would seem to transport himself without wings. I’d gather up the chicks and move inside after I’d notice him, as I figured I was pushing my luck to gamble against the cold efficient heart of a crow.


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