My Crow, Jim
By Jo Hintz (March 2002)
When I was 12 or 13, I owned a very beloved and special pet: my crow, Jim. Capturing him just exactly at the right time, nurturing and guiding him through “chickhood,” a testy adolescence, and an early adulthood took dedication to task and acknowledgment of the brilliance and dalliance of the crow mind. This, my memoir in remembrance to Jim begs a prologue.
My tomboy friend, Margaret Bimler, and I would spend an occasional late spring or summer day and night camping out in “the willow.” Along with cattails, these trees grew on the low-lying potholes of the glaciated prairie farmlands of Northeastern North Dakota. These pot holes are green islands, small in area (usually less than a couple of acres) which are not tillable, since they are wet or wettish all or most of the year. Precious, orchid-like, yellow Jack-in-the-Pulpits decorate the areas beneath water-loving willow tress. Incidentally, a proper sized branch from these scrubby trees can be crafted into easy-to-make whistles which every kid knew how to fashion, using his/her small jackknife. It would be stored in overall or coat pocket.
Parenthetically, I add that almost every boy and girl over the age of eight or nine carried a knife, even to school, for a recess game of springtime mumble-ty-peg. Never ever did we consider our knives a weapon to be used on each other. Never.
Preparation for camping out in the willows for Margaret and me meant a morning of assembling blankets, basic foods for a supper and a breakfast, matches, kindling for a fire, a clock, and a flashlight — all these limited to a weight that we could carry or push in a wheelbarrow the one-quarter mile from home to the campground.
By use, and over time, the specific location of our campsite had been pretty well cleared of underbrush. It was centrally chosen in the trees so that it was protected by shrubs and tress all around. Our day there was spent in setting up camp, gathering dry twigs and branches, and picking velvet cattails or pussy willows (depending on time of year). We hunted down the location of the prized and elusive Jack-in-the-Pulpits. They hid their beauty and uniqueness under nondescript yellow green spathes — what a prized gift these became when taken home to a mother.
My friend and I busied ourselves thusly in our own little “Eden on the Prairie,” enhanced by the songs and antics of bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds, and meadowlarks, each bent on defending his kingdom. And there was always a family of crows raucous and threatening in taller willows on the outskirts of the area.
Evening and early night, after a supper of beans on bread and, most surely, marshmallows toasted over coals, found us two campers telling each other made-up stories, scary stories influenced by the intimidation of the darkness and the rustling of things beyond us. The funniest episode I presently recall was once when we decided each to tell her story using as many swear words as we could think of. I’m sure that designated vocabulary of ours rivaled any of those of an uninhibited and highly gifted longshoreman. Actually, I think we even fashioned some of our own searing shockers.
Although Margaret and I slept well, the birds, inherently song-happy and with work to do, arose very early; and so awakened, so did we. We got a fire going, cooked eggs, bacon, and burnt toast, and then lay down for a peaceful nap before packing up and trudging home to a youngster’s normal play-a-day world.
It was on one of these campouts that my friend and I discovered a batch of very young baby crows being fed by their parents. They were in what had been named the “crow tree,” heavily branched and low growing. Then and there I decided that I must have a crow pet. I’d read and heard about how brilliant and charming they are, and how they could be taught even to talk.
I realized that to make a capture, I must take advantage of a window of opportunity; that is, the job must be done when a genetically programmed chick himself felt that all systems were go to fly.
Doggedly, I walked out to the crow tree, at first at intervals of three or four days, later, of an early morning, every day. On that final day, the baby out on a branch, fully feathered and full-sized, was boosting itself up and down, power supplied by flapping wings. It was in full test-flight mode. Above, angry parents circled, yelling wildly and dive-bombing me. Concerned but defiant, I climbed the tree, grabbed my bird, and bagged him. Then home I went, triumphant and excited with the kidnapped one.
Little did I realize then what a day-in and day-out challenge mothering a baby crow would be. It rather reminds me now of the dilemma I had faced after the birth of my first child — that is, before my mother rescued me two weeks later.
As for the situation I faced with my new pet, I was on my own with a demanding and very dependent totally spoiled-brat of a bird. His loud irritating insistent voice could not be ignored. He arose early, around sunrise, hungry and cawing. Worst of all, he would not eat the food placed before him: he had to be hand-fed. I blame this on parent crows who indulgently mouth-feed their progeny long after their young ones are as large and potentially capable as adults. I am a big-time crow-watcher and I now see this same behavior here on my farm as every day I feed, study, enjoy, and love my crows.
At first Jim had to be fed and watered every couple of hours. Being omnivorous, he’d accept my kind of food, but not necessarily swallow it. If he didn’t like the offered food, he’d walk (crows do walk) to a neutral area, put it down, and march back to let me try again. Jim loved peas from my mother’s garden, but he’d eat them with his very own crow routine. I’d empty all the peas from the pod into his mouth and as I did this, he with loud throat noises, stored each in his gullet. Then he’d walk away, empty the peas on the ground, pick them up individually and eat them one-by-one. He’d do it his way — the Frank Sinatra of his kind.
To Jim’s credit and my delight, very early on, he accepted me as his mother and friend. He loved me and I loved him: we had bonded. Soon I became the only one that could hold him. He wanted to be near only me. Outside, where he preferred to be, he’d follow me or sit on my head or shoulder.
If I were with family or friends, Jim would stay his distance, but he always kept me in his sight. If I blindfolded him and then handed him over to my dad, Jim would bite and claw till he got away. When I went to school by horseback or by buggy, Jim would follow along fence post to fence post for a quarter mile or more. When I came back, he’d meet me down the road and again follow along fence post to fence post to home for a flappingly warm reunion and a tidbit or two.
As crows go, Jim was a handsome fellow. He had poise. His feathers glistened blue-black in the sun, surely a result of his taking regular baths in the drinking troughs of the horses and cows. Much preening followed.
In the legends of our Northwest Coast Indians, the raven, among other attributes, was the trickster. Jim certainly became one and with a sense of humor, to boot. Jim would sit on a wire above where an old mother hen was busily tending her brood of babies. In a flash, Jim would dive down, just safely above the hen, pretending he was going to grab a chick. Again in a flash he’d fly off and away, safely ahead of the hen that bounced up in the air, bent on ripping the intruder to pieces. Chicks scattered and hid. Jim, back on the wire, viewed and delighted in the near carnage he’d pulled off — or so I must assume (for he surely looked as if he did).
Later on, my pet wintered in the barn where my brothers milked the cows. Jim took considerable perverse joy in landing on a cow’s back, causing it to jump and most likely to knock the milker off his stool, with the milk spilled. It was then that my brothers threatened to ring my pet’s neck and nail his body to a wall in my bedroom.
Our horses in their stalls took Jim’s antics calmly, so my pet often slept on their backs, staying warm and cozy of a cold winter night. The barn cats took no heed of Jim — to them just another different-looking chicken, it would seem.
Like Sacajawea with her fabled blue stone, like me with my fixation for diamonds, Jim, my crow, loved bright shiny objects. He’d spot them and pick them up, and then hide them in his secret places. And here the plot thickens: For several years I had had a vividly painted dollar-sized pet turtle who lived in an old dishpan in and on rocks, sand, and water. Because his shell had become a bit soft, I set him outside the house so that he could sun himself and harden his shell.
One day the turtle was gone, surely no one, even his detractors thought of Jim’s possible involvement. A few weeks later, though, as I was on horseback driving Prince as he pulled a hand-held cultivator in our small shelterbelt trees, I spied the shell of my turtle. I didn’t need a Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Jim was the culprit. He’d found my turtle, hauled him off to the trees, and I expect had eaten his soft parts. Bad, bad crow.
I had Jim for about a year and a half, through two summers, two springs, one winter, and one fall, plus part of another. During that first fall, wild crows visited Jim but he stayed faithful to and with me. By next fall, things had changed for me and for him. I went away to school and was home only on weekends. Jim had matured into an adult crow and his wild compatriots came in great numbers to persuade him to join them in their migration south. Crows, by nature being astonishingly community-minded, were telling him, no doubt, that a crow could not survive a North Dakota winter. They knew best and persisted. At first when this crow operation was in progress, I’d come home and find Jim nowhere around. But I’d shout for him and belatedly he’d show up. Later on, frost in the air, my calls were unheeded and unanswered. He had left me.
I felt betrayed by Jim and I expect he felt abandoned by me. That early experience had only to suggest to me that love affairs can end tragically. Presently, I have come to believe that they all do. One way or another.