Life and Death in a Crow Trap

There is a landfill in central New Jersey. It is a large, stinky place. It is also alive with wildlife. Especially birds. Gulls by the thousands come to fill their bellies, arriving when the first dump trucks come in, and leaving with them in mid-afternoon. Over 120 different species of birds visit this putrid oasis.

Including crows. Loud and brassy American Crows along with small and brassy Fish Crows come to forage and socialize at the large compost piles below the stinking garbage hills. The compost piles are a sweet nasal sanctuary from the death and decomposition so close by. The crows bury their feet in the warm piles and pound open prized nuts. They call and caw, fussing loudly as they zoom overhead. That small group of crows over there may be a family with a nearby territory. The group on the other side of a pile might be an unrelated group of migrants that have formed a temporary clique until they return north in the spring.

I catch these crows. I have a crow trap at the compost piles. I bait it well, filling it with bread, peanuts, eggs, dog food and corn. When I catch them, I identify them to species, age them and give them a little bracelet, a gift of the US government. And I take a little blood to test for West Nile antibodies. And then I send their noisy, raucous I-can’t-believe-you-caught-me selves off.

0975-42353. That was the number of a crow I caught last week. He (I am assuming it was a he since I can’t identify them to sex) was a beautiful crow, a gorgeous crow. Enormous, with glossy black feathers, tinged in blue, green and purple. Large daring eyes and strong huge feet. Huge. This crow was HUMONGOUS. I’ve never caught a crow as big as this one. He stood a head higher than all the other American Crows and probably weighted 100 gms more than the largest I have caught. He was MegaCrow. And boy, he could bite! He was fast and he was strong.

Life and death.

Today, I, my assistant, and a colleague went to the trap to retrieve trapped crows. We squeezed into the truck and bounced down the muddy road. As we came upon the trap, we saw a sight I’ve never seen before: the trap full of crows and in their midst was a Red-tailed Hawk. Shit. Shitshitshit.

There are about 50 crows in the trap, mostly huddled toward one end. The hawk is on the other side, but as we drive up, everyone starts flying about inside - crows desparately trying to avoid the hawk or bouncing off her back. Crows start coming in from the piles, screaming crow curses as they circle and fly past as close as they dare.

I have no leather gloves. How on earth am I going to get this hawk out of the trap without losing too many crows? Their blood is too precious - these crows represent potential survivors of a disease that has meant death to them. But I have no leather gloves and hawk talons and beaks are built for tearing flesh more sturdy than mine.

So I don the only gloves available - flimsy thin gloves cuffed with faux leopard fur that I bought on a whim ($2.99 at Walgreens - yeah, I’m a class act :rolleyes: ). I go in the trap. Crows are flying everywhere, bouncing off my head and back, but I am all on this hawk. She’s moving everywhere too - always keeping her golden eyes on me. I grab at a wing and catch the tips of her primaries. She crouches down and I am able to grab her back and extend her legs out. I hold her like an ice cream cone. A dangerous ice cream cone.

She is beautiful. Her tail is a cinnamon wedge and she has bulk to her. Her breast is streaked brown and red. The brown is her color. The red is crow blood.

I don’t have my banding or bleeding equipment with me, and so I let her go. She flaps off, crows chasing her as she retreats to some tall trees. I turn back to the trap to see what havoc she brought.

There are two crows lying on the trap floor. One is unbanded. The other is 0975-42353.

They are not torn up. There is some blood on the legs of the unbanded one - another large American Crow. The MegaCrow has blood in his mouth. When we catch and take the rest of the crows out, we find a third large American Crow with a bloody mouth as well, but he is okay. We bleed and band the crows and let them go.

Because the three largest birds were dead or had wounds, an image is forming in my mind. It may not be right (wooboy, I’ve been wrong about before, lots of times), but I think what happened is that the hawk came upon the trap with the crows inside. A big box of food waiting for her. She dropped inside and it turned into a nightmare for her - swirling black stabs from so many trying to save themselves was too much. Lunch is not supposed to fight back this much.

I suspect the biggest crows fought back the most. And in doing so, they put themselves within her taloned reach. They can easily get out of the way (from me, at least). When I take them out of the trap, the Fish Crows are the easiest to grab. They are very passive and I have got to be the scariest thing they’ve ever encountered. The American Crows have a whole 'nother attitude. When caught, they bite and grab. They try to bite you as you let them go, just to let you know.

0975-42353 is gone. I feel bad because if not for me and my trap, he’d be soaring over the compost piles tomorrow. He’d spy an acorn and break it open. He’d warm his feet in the decomposing leaves. He’d chase that red-tail. He’d caw, scold and rattle to others. He’d warble, that lovely quiet melodic song so rarely heard by us mere humans. He would be, just be. And now he’s gone.

Well told. That beautiful crow is now remembered in eastern Canada. Thank you.

I thought you had something to do with crows by your sig! How did you get into banding them? I didn’t know they made traps big enough to catch bunches of them at once. Could you tell me more about your work?

It’s too bad the hawk got in there. And too bad your mega crow was one of the casualities. :frowning:

I’ve been observing the same crow pair for over five years now and even know that Gimpy is the male and Wing is the female and together in that time, they’ve sucessfully raised 12 kids to adulthood. I’ve helped out by giving them peanuts and soft doggie treats, which they seem grateful for. My only complaint is that Gimpy has to tell everyone in the neighborhood that I’ve got treats, even thier rivals in the neighboring territory. I keep telling him to be quiet and just get his, (he lets Wing grab her share before he swoops down to get his) but he won’t listen. :stuck_out_tongue:

West Nile has finally made it to Washington state, with a couple cases of crow deaths reported in just the last few months. I worry about my buds getting it and sure hope they don’t.

They’ve given me a lot of enjoyment over the years and I’ve learned so much about crows just by watching them. I love when one of them lowers his head and makes that rolling, clicking sound. I’ve come to think that means the crow is content and I feel honored when they seem to direct that sound to me.

The University of Washington has a page where you can report banded crows but I don’t think anyone monitors it anymore. I’ve sent them reports of the ones I’ve seen around Seattle but have never recieved any form of acknowledgement. Is there a national web site I can report them to? It’s hard to find much on the web about crow studies that are current.

Anyway, it’s nice to know that someone else cares about crows. They get a bum rap I think they don’t really deserve.

Cheers, Tikki

A little addendum. I’ve found your website and am perusing it. Is your Brat one of the New Zealand parrot species, like the kea?
I also see that you celebrate your Finnish heritage too. Sisu!

Very well-told; thank you for sharing this with us.

You’re the General. Sometimes a troop will be lost in the battle against the virus but in the end it’s so that many others can live. I hope you share more with us… this was very interesting.

Loved your story…thank you for sharing. Poor MegaCrow…he will always be remembered. :slight_smile:

(Yep, animal lover, here.)

Thanks, you guys! This board is the best! I’m more reconciled with this whole thing today, but I think I’ll be watching the trap the next time I close it up (I close it up 24 hours before I get the crows out).

Tikki, if you recover or are able to read a band on any kind of bird, you can report it to the Bird Banding Lab electronically. They’ll send you a certificate that tells you where and when the bird was banded.

I’ve been interested in crows since my undergraduate days, and began catching birds in my doctoral program (magpies). I catch all kinds of birds, but concentrate on crows and their kin. There is nothing in this world so wonderous as holding a bird in my hands. Hot, soft, beautifully light. They are generally fairly calm, but some, like chickadees and cardinals, will find just the right amount of skin to pinch for maximal ouch. They sometimes bite as they take off; often they’ll poop (anti-predator behavior or lightening the load, I dunno); usually, they let the leg that’s been banded hang. I guess they weren’t expecting that added weight (as small as it is). They seem to get used to the bands quickly, though.

You’re right, my Big Bad Brat is a tiny New Zealand parakeet. I wonder if he can smell other birds on me. :wink:

You can always tell a Finn, but you can’t tell 'em much. Ha!

Brachy, I’m so sorry you had that experience. I love crows, too. My bird experience is growing up with biologist parents, and , more recently, as a wildlife rehabilitator. Your story brought tears, for the plight of the crows, especially such a magnificent one as MegaCrow, and also for the hawk who found herself in a bad situation. I gotta say, from experience, if you can go in there and restrain a hawk with Walgreen gloves, honey, you are some kind of ace birdwoman!

I looked at the link to your trap, and it’s a large and humane one. It boggles my mind that a hawk would go in there. Well, live and learn, I suppose. I know you cried over MegaCrow, but the work you do is so important to understand and help birds survive this disease. And you’re so right, there is nothing like day to day interaction with birds to realize how amazing they are. Each species is so different from each other, and individuals are just that, each one is their own self. It’s a blessing to be able to see that. :slight_smile:

Keep a Going with your fine work.

Thanks for sharing your experience with us.

Looks like you’ve got a kakariki for a friend there, brachyrhynchos, the red-crowned parakeet. Wonderful to see one of our native species on your site! :slight_smile: