Murder Those Crows (1996)

Birds of a feather mock together; farewell to Hedley Bray

(The newspaperman referenced is my late father, Donald H. Cragin. I’m amazed reading all this ancient copy at the headlines I wrote. I have minimal memory of writing these particular columns — Tales rampaged on for seven years — but some of the triggers that occasioned them — being awakened by crows — are still accessible)

For the past week or more, Hollis the Mountain Man has been awakened by the deafening cacaphony of crows roosting in a tree he calls “Old Man Butternut.” The crows swoop in before dawn, and begin their morning caws, squawks, calls, cries, shrieks, and general avian badinage. Morning birds aren’t unusual — what’s striking about this crowd is that there are dozens and dozens and dozens of them. One morning, he counted 30 on the Old Man, and that’s not counting the ones roosting on neighboring trees. “It’s really alarming,” he reports, “They surround the house. They roost on the topmost branches like little Dickensian undertakers, and they’re constantly rearranging themselves, and making the branches sag.”

Like the passing hearse, or anticipated thunderstorm, crows have a strange and at times unsettling effect on their fellow bipeds. H.D. Thoreau, who enjoyed observing birds because of the insights they provided into his own character, was most perplexed by the crow, and his “singular wild and suspicious ways.” He wrote in 1860, “You will see a couple flying high as if about their business, but lo, they turn and circle and caw over your head again and again for a mile; and this is their business, — as if a mile and an afternoon were nothing for them to throw away. This even in winter, when they have no nests to be anxious about. But it is affecting to hear them cawing about their ancient seat which the choppers are laying low.”

Fortunately for the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), he invariably survives the disruption of his nest. This is one highly adaptable bird, undoubtedly more numerous now than when European settlers first arrived, and one which occupies virtually the entire North American continent. For the most part, Hollis the Mountain Man, has resigned himself to living with crows. “Between roadkill and trash, they’re well taken care of here,” he sighs, and agrees with Thoreau that the ways of the crow are mysterious. “Sometimes I’ll see hundreds of them in a tree for quite a while and then they’ll rise up en masse and land on the next tree over. And the other day I saw a solitary one sitting on a railing on a bridge. It opened its beak, and I expected to hear this c-a-a-a-w, but instead it made this beautiful burble — I guess they can mimick other birds if they want to.”

And if they’re determined, they’re not easily deterred. Crows can gather in roosts of more than half-a-million birds and can be wildly destructive to crops and agriculture. One winter, hundreds of thousands of crows descended on a suburb of Springfield, and the noise and environmental befouling drove the residents wiggy. But infestations of crows are just a sidebar to increased suburbanization. When you remove the understory of trees, songbirds and smaller species lose their habitat while omnivorous, larger breeds proliferate. And once installed, crows are difficult to dislodge. Felix’s downstairs neighbor, a vigorous octagenarian, made frequent forays onto her porch armed with a frypan and spoon. “She was banging away and yelling at the crows to make them leave,” recalls Felix. “But they just seemed amused at all the noise she was making, and screamed with laughter all the louder.”

The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife does what it can to regulate the rogue corvid population — for hunters, there’s no bag limit on crows, and open season is nearly year-long. But, from all reports, eating crow is not just a distasteful metaphorical exercise.

When two-time Fitchburg mayor Hedley Bray began his political career, it was the 1950s, and the English-born farmer worked a piece of land just past Westminster’s Old Mill. He also had a farmstand near the newly-built Route 2, and one retired newspaperman recalls: “He became something of a character at the farmstand — people would go to buy corn and listen to him discourse. He had a lot of socialist ideas, and at the same time, he had a column in the Fitchburg Sentinel ‘Farmer Bray Says…’ Before long, people were saying, ‘Why don’t you run for office?’ and he said, ‘Gee, what a grand idea!'” Bray was also famous for stripping to the waist at any opportunity — residents who went to harvest parades in the 1950s remember Bray standing knee-deep in corn on the back of a haywagon with a big “Farmer Bray” sign hurling ears to the eager crowd.

The newspaperman continues: “During Bray’s second term, there was one of those typical north county winter snowstorms — you know Fitchburg, being in a valley surrounded by hills, what the snow accumulation is like. Well, people were outraged because it hadn’t been plowed. Hedley’s answer was: ‘God put it there. God will take it away.’ You see, he didn’t want to spend the money on snow removal. After you spend the money — you don’t get anything for it. He was very difficult if you were a city department head, and he was famous for driving school superintendants to complete distraction — he’d show up and raise hell at committee meetings, or not show up at all. But if you went along with him, roads were tarred and paved in your ward.”

Bray’s second mayoral term was in the 1970s, and for his 70th birthday, he posed for a picture for the front page of the Sentinel again, stripped to the waist. “He was a canny guy,” says the newspaperman, “But along with cannyness, went callowness.” Still, Bray had one of the more remarkably varied political careers in the north county, serving on the city council and as a councilor-at-large. He passed away last month at the age of 88, and it’s a shame Sinclair Lewis had to miss this career.

Sally Cragin wonders why you never find cardinal feathers on the forest floor.


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