THE CARRION CROW
Those familiar with the valley of the Thames and with the wild population both of the riverside and of the adjacent hills, will set down the carrion crow as the typical resident bird of the whole district. On the London Thames as high as Teddington it keeps mainly to the line of the river itself, on the banks of which and on the market gardens and meadows it finds abundant food, while the elms of large suburban residences give it both shelter and a safe nesting place. The bird is also commonly mistaken for a rook, and so shares the privileges of those popular birds. Higher up the river it swarms all along the Oxfordshire and Berkshire banks where not killed down by keepers, and a perfect army of them has for years invaded and been settled in the elm-bordered meadows of the Vale of White Horse. Thence it has spread on to the downs, where since the gradual abandonment of cultivation on the highest ground, and the removal of the scattered population of carters and keepers from a very large area, it now has matters all its own way. But it always haunted these heights, as the name "Crow Down," recurring more than once on the Ordnance maps, shows. The "Crow Down" with which the writer is less acquainted is on the very high, wild land north of Lambourn. There they have grown so confident that a nest was found in a thorn bush not ten feet high, at a place called Worm Hill, a good old Saxon name denoting that snakes abound there. There is no doubt that the crows kill and eat the young snakes, one having been seen carrying a snake in its beak recently.
The habits of the carrion crow are so independent and peculiar, and its resourcefulness so great, that it is not to be wondered at that it holds its own well within and around London, while the rook is gradually being edged out. It is generally regarded as a criminal bird, which it is to some extent in the spring. From that point of view the following facts may be cited against the crow. He is keenly on the look-out for all kinds of eggs about the time that his own nest is building. Consequently he is a real enemy to pheasants, wild ducks, plovers, moorhens, and other birds which lay in open places before there is cover. Nothing is more exasperating than these exploits to people who know where birds are nesting on their property, and wish to see them hatch safely. A wild duck's nest in a large copse was found by some persons picking primroses. In that copse was a crow's nest. The crows found out that the primrose-pickers had discovered something interesting, and a few hours later the "Quirk! quirk!" of the crows announced that they were enjoying life to an unusual degree. It was found that they had removed all seven eggs from the duck's nest. In an adjacent reclaimed harbour they took the eggs of ducks, plovers, redshanks, and even larks. In the Vale of White Horse they seem to take most of the early wild pheasant's eggs, besides stealing hen's eggs from round the farms. They are particularly fond of hunting down the sides of streams and canals in the early morning, where they find three dainties to which they are particularly partial, - moorhen's eggs, frogs, and fresh-water mussels. They swallow the frogs in situ, and carry the moorhen's eggs and mussels off to some adjacent post to eat them comfortably. The shells of both eggs and mussels litter the ground under these dinner-tables. In Holland they are so mischievous that little "duck-houses" are made by the side of all the ornamental canals in private grounds for the ducks to nest in, a convenience of which they, being sensible birds, avail themselves. These duck-houses, or laying bowers, are still regularly made by the half-moon canal at Hampton Court, a survival probably of the days of William of Orange's Dutch gardeners.
During the day they are very quiet birds, keeping much to the trees; but towards evening in March and April, their disagreeable croaking caw may be heard from all quarters where they are numerous. Just at dusk they become less wary than in the day. The writer for many years used to organise a few evening "drives" of the crows to try to thin them down before their ravenous families were hatched. Several guns used to hide in different parts of the valley near nests, and on to this "blockhouse line" the crows were driven. A few were generally shot before they discovered the plot. Solicitude for the nest seldom leads them into danger, but one pair met their fate in this way. The first bird came flying to the nest, in which there were eggs, as soon as a shot was heard in the distance. It was killed, and hardly had the spark of the flash disappeared when the other bird dropped down out of the gloom straight on to the eggs, and met the same fate. Forty young chickens were taken by a pair of crows from a farm in one spring. It was objected by some young ladies who were "interested" in the farm that the crows were "such sneaks." They used to come at luncheon-time up a line of trees extending from the wood to the farm. They were not in the least afraid of any one with a cart, apparently knowing that the horse could not be left, but would go straight for the chicken yard. A pair of sparrow-hawks near would seize a chicken now and then, but in a bold way as if they had a right to them. A few crows contrive to nest in Kensington Gardens. In the early mornings they always hunt the west banks of the Long Water, and are credited with taking a good many ducks' eggs, as well as ducklings.