Who knew? Mainers – at least those now squawking their displeasure with the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife – love crows.
“My inbox has been inundated with crow-season comments,” lamented Becky Orff, the department’s rule-making contact person, from the center of a rapidly expanding bull’s-eye on Tuesday. “I’ve received over 100 emails – and there are many more negative than positive.”
The flap centers on a short story from The Associated Press this week saying that the state is accepting comments through the end of this month on a proposed “new” hunting season for crows. For a species that has long suffered an image problem (see: schoolyard scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds”), the seemingly innocuous brief that appeared in this and other newspapers was a watershed moment.
“What did the crows do to upset someone in a position of power?” queried one Portland Press Herald reader in a comments section than ran at least twice as long as the story.
“All it takes is ‘1’ disgruntled, miserable, hateful individual, who is bent on killing things, to come up with an outrageous proposal like this. Takes only one,” wrote another.
Implored a third, “Crows are beautiful and very smart creatures. Please don’t approve this !! :-/”
Now for the rest of the story: The AP’s use of the word “new” was technically correct – the state is, in fact, floating new dates for hunting crows in 2015 and 2016.
But if you inferred from that single word that it’s been illegal until now to hunt the “black bandit” in these parts, you inferred wrong.
“This is not a ‘new’ season,” said the beleaguered Orff. “We’ve had crow hunting for many, many, many years.”
More on Maine’s crow hunt in a minute.
First, a closer look at the bird that, if it were human, would be the obnoxious uncle who talks over everyone at the backyard barbecue and isn’t above eating the hamburger that just fell off the grill.
“Crows get very bad press,” said Kevin McGowan. “They have for a long, long time.”
McGowan should know. An ornithologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, he’s been studying (and admiring) crows for just over 25 years – more than enough time for him to conclude that they are more like humans than just about any other species on the planet.
You read that right. They may love road kill (only after it’s been properly tenderized by our tires) and possess the single-most irritating call of any living creature (especially when the “Caw! Caw!” shatters the early-morning solitude just outside our bedroom windows), but all in all the jet-black “Corvus brachyrhynchos” is smarter than the average bear or, for that matter, baboon.
“They have everything you want,” said McGowan. “They have extended family groups, they have a space that they own – just like your home, yard or house. Their kids are allowed to go away and come back.”
Wait a minute. Crow kids move back in with crow parents, too?
“We’ve got one crazy guy who’s nine years old and he’s still with his parents,” said McGowan. “But that’s a weird thing.”
Beyond their home lives, crows love a good crowd.
“They roost together and go off to forage together,” said McGowan. “It’s like you going off to the shopping center or the mall or to work and then coming back home.”
And smart? Consider the study of European crows (a close relative to the American crow) that timed their responses to oncoming traffic while they were dining out on freshly flattened squirrels or other dim-witted mammals.
“It turns out they know the speed limit,” said McGowan. “They’re good at estimating when they need to move.”
Closer to home, McGowan gets a daily demonstration of crows’ intelligence whenever he pulls out of his driveway and heads for the lab.
“I have crows that chase my car down the street so I’ll stop and feed them peanuts,” he said. “They know me. They know my car. They know us.”
The problem is, at least historically, we don’t know them.
Long regarded as a varmint that could be shot anywhere at any time, the crow has been protected under federal law since the early 1970s, with one caveat: Any state, if it chooses, may establish a crow hunt for a maximum of 124 days each year.
McGowan doesn’t buy the common assumption that crows, which eat just about anything, are a serious threat to large-scale agriculture and thus must be eliminated before they take food right out of our mouths.
“They probably do more good for a farmer by eating damaging insects and mice and stuff like that,” he said.
If there’s crow hunting going on out there, McGowan added, it’s more likely just to give hunters something to shoot at “when nothing else is in season.”
Which brings us back to Maine’s not-so-new crow hunt. For the record, it’s held before and after the breeding season – in the late winter and early spring, then again in late summer.
According to Orff at the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, no statistics are kept on how many crows are shot by Maine hunters each year. (Although given how smart they are, she said, “it’s pretty challenging to try and shoot one.”)
But if you ask David Trahan, executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, the sudden surge in concern for the state’s crow population (which, according to McGowan, is doing quite well) is much ado about nothing.
“I’ve hunted my entire life so far and I’ve never encountered a single crow hunter,” said Trahan. “And I don’t know of anybody who hunts crows.”
Neither do I. But as I sit here typing this sentence – and I swear I’m not making this up – a big crow has just swooped past my window and landed on a light pole atop the parking garage across the street, and is now just sitting there, staring at me.
I wonder if Alfred Hitchcock had days like this.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: