No day afield is unsuccessful. The hunter either bags something or learns something, and on the best days he does both.
Such a day was one spent with Pete Brown of Rixeyville, Virginia, who may be the best crow-hunter in Culpeper County. Not counting time away in the service, Brown has spent all his life within five miles of the farm where he grew up, and knows the land and the game like few others.
Brown hunts game big and small and ranges as far as Canada and the West, but takes special pleasure in his home grounds and extra delight in crows. He said he would be happy to neglect his chain saw and gunsmithing business to show an enthusiastic but frustrated beginner how it's done.
The crows and their cousins of the family Corvidae are the crown of avian evolution, including some of the most widespread and adaptable species. They are smart, can live just about anywhere and will eat almost anything, including song and game bird nestlings, corn sprouts and carrion.
Farmers hate crows (although wildlife biologists say they do more good eating bugs than harm eating corn) and they love to see Brown come along in his red Jeep CJ-5 with the pump gun in the window rack. Two guns are so much the better, and how-do, any friend of Pete's is welcome here. Even a man who says he wants the crows to eat.
The corn was high and green and soaking wet with dew in the first field, providing perfect cover on a knoll. "The higher the ground the more likely they'll come in range," he said. "They tend to fly on a level instead of following the roll of the ground." Both hunters wore camouflage, especially over the head. "They'll see your face long before you see theirs," Brown said.
He set out a weatherproof tape player and inserted a cassette recording of crows raising hell with an owl. Usually he puts out an owl decoy also, but there was no logical spot for it in the field. Crows are the only game bird for which a hunter may legally use an electronic caller, a holdover from the days when they were considered varmints. Crow language is so complex and subtle that the device is nearly a necessity; even expert calling will often spook them.
It is deadly effective most of the time, but this morning and in this field only a few reluctant birds came to investigate. They circled so far away that only a splendid shot by Brown and a lucky one by the pupil brought a pair down. The rest perched in a row of trees half a mile off and stayed there.
"Time to pick up," he said. "Once they stop coming in they never start decoy on a high branch the local flock of crows showed more interest, and four fell before misses by the guest gunner educated the rest. Crows are highly social, and lose no time spreading the news.
"Something funny going on here," Brown said. "They're not coming in anywhere near as fast as I'm used to." He inspected the birds. "They're all molting. That may have something to do with it; maybe their feathers are patchy they don't want to fly. We used to hunt spring and fall before the government put a season on them, and now that I think of it I don't believe we've ever hunted them in August."
The next field was a bust, and he called off the hunt until late afternoon. "I've saved the best fields for then, because you usually get better action later." He went back to his shop while the visitor exchanged his full choke for a modified barrel and went off to Clark Bros. in Opal to see if he could sharpen his eyes on clay pigeons.
As it turned out it didn't matter what kind of shooter the pupil was, because they struck out in every stand that evening, including one that in living memory had never failed to yield a dozen crows. They wouldn't respond to any of Brown's cassettes, which feature birds hollering for help, or besieging an owl, or harrying a hawk or announcing a feast. Selection of the tapes is important, because regional dialects are so distinctive that a Boston crow would be laughed out of a Virginia cornfield. Neither would the birds come to the mouth calls Brown tried.
Brown took some ribbing from a farmer friend on the way out, but ornithologist Chandler S. Robbins said the hunters had been lucky to get any birds at all.
"All our birds molt in late summer, but only ducks and geese lose so many feathers at once that they can't fly," Robbins said. "The others do it gradually, and they can fly fine, but it affects them physiologically. Producing all that protein is exhausting, so they keep quiet and stay out of sight.
"The reason a flock is so hard to draw right now is that they're mostly in family groups. They primarily flock for protection of fledglings in the spring and for migration in the fall. This is no time to hunt crows.