I was 11 years old when I met Jim. I would guess he was 10 or 12 days out of the egg – an ugly blob of pink crow flesh, oversized feet and tubular black pinfeathers sprouting from naked wings. I found him sprawled on the forest floor below the nest from which he had either fallen or been pushed by overcrowded siblings. He didn't like me at first and tried to bite my hand, but over the next two years the bond between us became one of genuine friendship.
I built him a shelter on the roof of a shed attached to the back of the rambling log ranch house where I lived. At first I had to jam the blobs of milk-soaked bread down his throat but by the second day he opened his beak expectantly and gulped down whatever was offered. By the third day he was begging – no, demanding to be fed. As soon as I appeared he began to vocalize his hunger and flap his wings in the imploring body-language of fledgling birds.
One of my daily chores was keeping the burgeoning population of gophers under control in our hayfields, a routine that contributed greatly to satisfying Jim's astonishing appetite. Raised on an ample supply of gopher fillet, grasshoppers and sour milk curds, Jim thrived and was soon transformed from his scrawny beginnings to a handsome black crow with a strong beak and shiny feathers. Cats and dogs no longer posed a threat and Jim was free to stride about the roof of his shed and climb up to the ridge of the house. But he still begged to be fed and made no effort to fly.
I decided to give him flying lessons. Tossing him off my wrist I watched him flap furiously to a crash landing. But each flight was a little longer and each landing a bit more controlled until finally he gained the strength and confidence to take off and land wherever and whenever he chose. He joined the other crows foraging for grasshoppers in the field. I was no longer his care-giver but when I called he would fly to my outstretched hand and accept my offering.
In the foothills of Alberta, where temperatures can drop to 40 below, the crows don't hang around for the winter. Jim was free to leave with the others but he chose to stay for two winters. He gave up roosting in his house on the shed roof, disappearing each evening to some sheltered hideaway in the spruce grove beside the house. He never lacked for food; sharing grain with the chickens, curdled milk with the pigs, and receiving a steady supply of tidbits from me. His days were spent socializing with me and the other ranch-hands. He accompanied us on long rides, alternately flying beside us or bouncing along on the horse's rump behind the saddle. Following the loads of hay from the stacks to the feedlot was a favourite pastime and the one that eventually did him in. Spotting something ahead of the hayrack he swooped down in front of the team of horses – a split second error in timing and Jim came to an end under the hoof of a 2000-pound Clydesdale.
I was devastated. But our friendship was a revelation of sorts. A realization that each animal and bird, even a crow, is an individual with a distinct personality and a storehouse of unique experiences that govern its day to day life. I like to think that Jim's life as a free flying crow was somehow enriched by his bond to that 11-year-old kid.
Christmas Bird Counts
The first Pemberton-Mt. Currie annual Christmas Bird Count is on Thursday, Dec. 27th.
Thanks very much to Karl Ricker for organizing the Whistler count this past Tuesday. Other notable local contributors were Michael Thompson of the Whistler Naturalists and Sandra Smith of the RMOW Bylaw Department. Thanks to the birders from Squamish and Vancouver who helped, as well as the long-distance champion, Doug Brown from Osoyoos.
Written by: Jack Souther