Springtime always puts me in mind of the Great Black Crow Caper that took place on Muddy Creek.
There was never a shortage of those dusty, black-coated cousins to Edgar Allen Poe’s raven around our small farms. They seemed to have an inborn ability to know when the team was taking the road into town or going to the field, and would follow, half-flying, half-hopping, as they sought to stem their never-satisfied hunger for grain (or most anything that would fill their craws.)
In the spring, they followed the plow, seeking earthworms and grubs, and were often treated to fresh horse-apples as a bonus. When the corn was being planted, the signal must have gone out far and wide, for hundreds of the pesky creatures would descend along the planted track, digging up any kernels that were not completely buried. Then, later on when the grain was sprouting, the tiny plants were a tempting treat to these foragers, who would literally pull them from the ground to get at the bloated and sprouted grain.
When harvest time came, there were the uninvited guests again, forming cheering sections that would send up their varied but constant chatter, to let the farmer know that they were ready and willing to assist in the harvest. And assist they did – by partaking. The hand-shucking of the ears left some gleanings in the field, but these persnickety birds were not content to take the droppings. They were brazen enough to ride the wagons and fill their beaks with shelled grain that had been knocked off the cobs by hitting the bang boards. In short, the crows were a real nuisance.
Their favorite roosting place was the tall, stately walnut trees that grew in a long row along the back forty that gave our farm its name of Walnut Ridge. At sundown they would assemble in these trees in uncountable numbers. Their vocal chatter could be heard for miles. My Uncle Walter once rode a horse back into the lane and attempted to shoot them with the old muzzle loader that he had double-charged with number eight shot, but even by carefully sneaking along the fence rows, he was only able to get close enough to get a gunny sack full. The crow with its well-developed sense of sight could spot him far away and take flight with loud warnings to its fellow ruffians. There seemed to be no less noise, and certainly no discernable lessening in number when Uncle Walter had finished. That was when he came up with his bright idea: dynamite them.
Dad had several cases of dynamite leftover from blowing stumps out of the new ground, and Uncle Walter figured if he could tie a few sticks to the limbs of the trees and run a long fuse to where he aimed to hide, he could wait until the crows got settled and then touch off the explosives. He figured he could probably get rid of all those pesky crows, once and for all.
Dad had reached the point of frustration where he was willing to try any thing. He agreed to Walter’s scheme, and they went to work.
They spent several days using binder twine to tie dozens of full sticks and many half-sticks of the dynamite to the limbs of the walnut trees. They trailed the fuse wire down along the fence row to the little bridge that let water from the orchard drain into the creek. This was where Uncle Walter would hide until the birds got settled at dusk.
They decided to wait a few days to let the crows get over the idea that someone had been messing with their roosts. Uncle Walter said ‘It would just be our luck for them crows to get smart and move out, leaving all that dynamite to be taken down,’ but they didn’t.
Uncle Walter got himself settled down as comfortable as he could a few evenings later, and waited for the pesky birds to settle down. He waited and waited, but they seemed to be agitated about something. They kept flying, fluttering, and buzzing, and finally, Uncle Walter gave up and went home to bed, thinking maybe they were getting a sniff of him upwind.
The next night, he got settled a bit earlier, and sure enough, the flocks of crows started to come in and roost. They kept coming from all directions, just like they were having a convention (or as Uncle Walter said later, a wake.) I had begged Dad to let me and Lewie stay up to see and hear the fun, and he did.
Along about nine-thirty, when the moon was just starting to come up, suddenly there came a blinding flash of light way off in the walnut trees. The flashes were still flashing when the first jars hit us, and I mean, shook us, even though we were near half-a-mile away. The windows rattled and the cows started to bellow, the old hens started cackling, and even Old Bowser started to howl and bark. Uncle Walter came trotting in and said he bet there was a heap of dead crows lying under those walnut trees. We could hardly wait until morning. Dad had Uncle Walter hitch the team to the wagon and we headed back along the land to see what happened.
I don’t know what the city of Paris looked like after those Big Bertha shells bombarded her during the war, but I can imagine it some better after seeing our trees. Our hearts almost broke to see those stately walnut trees all shattered, with limbs hanging in every directions. Dad sent the hired man back to the barn to get the slip scraper and they spent all day burying those dead crows, hundreds and hundreds of them.
But it worked, in a way. Never more did the crows roost in the ruins of those walnut trees. When spring time came, there seemed to be as many crows as ever, but they nested in the big locust trees down by the Muddy Creek steel bridge, and aggravated the picnickers and gypsys that often camped there.
Sixty-five years later those walnut trees still stand, showing the ravages of an idea that didn’t quite work: mute testimony to the fact that you just shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature.
The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.