Counting Crows

Anyone who is out early in the morning these days will surely hear or see a crow, or a murder of crows, as groups of crows are called. They may be cawing from one tree to the next, alerting each other to the skunk dead in the road below or the field just planted with tasty seed corn. They may simply be conversing. But there is always an urgency in the voice of a crow.

Naturalists say that, along with parrots, members of the crow family (these include blue jays, magpies and ravens) are the most intelligent birds. Crows are not averse to being tamed either — perhaps they know instinctively that if they are man’s friend, he will be their friend too. A handful of shiny coins laid down on a path or road where they glitter in the sun is a good way to attract a crow.

Some years ago, though in different decades, two tame crows lived in West Tisbury and if their owners were out, they would boldly make the rounds of neighboring houses where they would be fed in exchange for performing crow-like antics. (About that time, a less intelligent corn-fed crow, legend has it, was shot and eaten in West Tisbury by a youthful, adventuresome Peter Huntington. There was no report on its tastiness.)

Farmers, of course, don’t like crows — particularly because of their predilection for seed corn and tomatoes. And crows are picky about the tomatoes they eat, always sampling before they decide which is tastiest. A crow-pecked tomato is hardly one a farmer can sell.

Time was when scarecrows of varying charm were put out in Vineyard fields to keep crows away. Albert and the late Peg Littlefield of West Tisbury had a scarecrow family: Dapper Dan in a morning coat, striped trousers, a cravat and a top hat, his wife, Lucy and their yellow-yarn-haired daughter warned crows away from their State Road garden by waving pie pans in the wind.

Today scarecrows are largely a thing of the past. Occasionally Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown sets one up and Tom Hodgson in West Tisbury has a truly scary one on Tiasquam Road that wears crow and turkey feathers in his hat and a Halloween mask in place of a face.

More often netting over tomato plants and glittering metallic tape have replaced the scarecrow. At the Norton Farm in Vineyard Haven those are the anti-crow tactics. But even farmers like the Nortons are grudgingly impressed with the intelligence of crows. Did you know, Sonya Norton asks, that a sentinel crow can differentiate between a farmer walking, a farmer with a stick and a farmer with a gun — and caw his warning to his comrades accordingly?