It was a new piece of hunting ground, a patch of second-growth woods among farm fields, and hard ground to read even with the help of a light covering of snow that showed the passage of every living creature over the past several days.
We did not know the lay or the history of the adjoining land, so there were no clues to the probable wildlife patterns beyond the obvious ones of cornfield edges, hedgerows and brushpiles. There are always rabbits in such places, which give shelter and cover near sources of food. Usually there are quail, too, and although they can't be hunted in the snow, they can be sought out and enjoyed for the whirring rush of a convey burst.
That was the idea, really, just to wander around on a winter day and see what was going on. Ostensibly we were after crows, to test a new recipe, but mainly the shotguns served to help keep us alert and concentrating.You see a lot more in the woods while hunting than you do hiking, because you move slower and pay closer attention.
We were seeing almost nothing. The woods were young and still fairly open, but most of the trees were pines, which feed little more than paper mills. The islands of oaks were not yet mature enough to produce many acorns. Seedlings and saplings abounded, along with some honeysuckel and greenbrier, but there were almost no signs of browsing, either the ragged edges left by deer or the clean nip of rabbits.
There were few tracks, even along the edges of fields where shattered corncobs still lay where the harvester had spilled them. Kicking through brushpiles launched no rabbits and flushed no quail. We followed the trail of a fox for a hundred yards; coming and going he had found few scents to investigate. Nowhere was there a disturbed patch to mark the end of a field mouse or rabbit.
Once there was a movement in a tree that suggested a squirrel, and again a blur on the ground as ofa rabbit. In an hour we were certain only of two jays, a woodpecker, a flurry of house sparows and then, passing over silently and seemingly out of place, an immature osprey.
The owner had spoken of deer in his yard and flocks of crows in his garden. The single set of deer tracks we saw were old, and the animal had crossed the woods without even pausing to drink from one of the streams. The sky was empty of crows, and none came to investigate our calling.
In habitat that might be expected to be full of game there was nothing, and even the ground didn't look right. On a slope too gentle for serious erosion even after clearcutting there was a broad and deep ravine that anyway did not follow the trend of the land. We puzzled over it and then remembered that we were in an area traversed by great armies during both the Wilderness and Chancellorsville campaigns. Even so the placement of the trench, if that's what it was, seemed singularly ill-chosen for either infantry or artillery, since it was commanded by higher ground on three sides and lay open on the other. More than a century later, its edges softened by weathering and undergrowth, it still suggested frantic digging by desperate men.
In the afternoon, staggering and sleepy after a vast and intricate lunch, we investigated a patch of woods on an adjoining farm said by the owner to be lousy with crows. It was, and as full of other signs of wildlife as the first had been empty. We could't think why, because the only differences seemed to be somewhat heavier cover and even fewer oaks. There was no trailing to be done because there were too many tracks to untangle.
And anyway there were the crows, scores of them. They ignored our calling but seemed to enjoy playing hide-and-seek, flying off from their perching trees just as we crept into extreme shotgun range. After an hour or so a trio of them -- apparently new-comers who hadn't been told the rules -- flew so low and slow we couldn't miss.
One, hard hit, locked its wings and glided out of sight over the trees and could not be found. A few minutes after the search was abondoned more than a hundred crows gathered at the top of the ridge; filling several trees and croaking as though demented. When we sidled into range they flew away, and there where they had caucused lay the fallen crow.
We had interrupted their wake, which hardly seemed fair. We went home.