Rodney Elmer says he's been wearing the same black baseball cap for more than 20 years. Just above the brim, nine tiny black talons protrude from the worn cotton. They're hunting trophies. "These are the back toes of every crow I shot at more than 300 yards," he says.
While crow hunting is an uncommon pastime in Vermont, the state does have an established crow-hunting season — in fact, two stints per year. It's hard to say how many people participate or how many crows are killed; hunters aren't required to report small game to state officials. But one thing is sure: Crow hunters need to be committed, because these are no easy quarry. Smart and adaptable, crows quickly learn to steer clear of humans shooting at them.
Elmer, 50, is co-owner with his wife, Theresa, of Mountain Deer Taxidermy in Northfield and works as a hunting-safety instructor. He began hunting crows when he was 14. He stopped about a decade ago, he says, when he no longer felt comfortable killing an animal that has so little practical use.
Despite that sentiment, Elmer spoke in defense of crow hunting last year at a Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department hearing on changing the dates of the season. He believes, he explains, that crows are invaluable teachers. As elusive targets, they helped Elmer strengthen his marksmanship; as highly intelligent creatures, they won his respect.
The international Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which covers the American crow and its relatives in the Corvidae family, allows states to set their own crow-hunting season while dictating that no season can surpass 124 days per year. The treaty also requires that crows not be hunted during peak nesting periods.
According to David Sausville, a wildlife biologist with Vermont Fish & Wildlife, "We find [crow] eggs in the nest around April 9 to May 15, and nestlings from June 3 to June 21." After last year's hearing, the state altered the dates of its crow-hunting seasons to better reflect that nesting period. They now extend from January 15 to April 11 and from August 19 to December 19, Fridays through Mondays only.
During those periods, anyone with a Vermont hunting license can take an unlimited number of crows. Or, more accurately, anyone can try.
The first time Elmer tried his hand at shooting the American crow, he remembers, "I shot and shot and shot, and I couldn't hit the buggers."
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The birds' wily, intelligent behavior prompted Elmer to begin researching and observing them. The American crow has inspired many a scientist to do the same.
John M. Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, has demonstrated that crows not only recognize distinct faces, but also remember a particular person who has wronged them. They can even convey this dislike to other crows. Elmer says he's noticed that the birds will change their migratory routes to avoid locations where they've been shot.
Crows form strong social and family ties; they mate for life and nest once a year, writes Cornell University ornithologist Kevin McGowan on a Cornell website about the birds. Their young often stay with the parents through two or more nesting seasons to protect the next generation.
If the point of crow hunting is to reduce the birds' numbers, it's not working. According to the Vermont Atlas of Life, a wildlife documentation project headed by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, the crow population in Vermont has increased by about 2 percent statewide over the past 20 years. In that time, the birds have also extended their range in northern Vermont.
While crows are relatively harmless nuisances in urban environments, they can have devastating effects on farms. Like tiny grim reapers, they'll swoop down on newly sprouted corn and yank it up by the shoots, devouring the seed and potentially destroying entire fields.
Eric Clifford, who runs Clifford Farm in Starksboro, grows corn as feed for his dairy cows. "One year we had to replant 10 acres of corn [because of crows], and we had to do it three times to get the stand established," he recalls. Clifford notes that he would be open to crow hunting on his property, but he doesn't think it would do much good. For now, he uses a nontoxic chemical called Avipel on his crops; its bitter taste deters crows.
Elmer, who grew up in Barre, recalls a neighboring farmer who encouraged him to hunt on his property: "He would say, 'Man, you shoot them crows every chance you get.'" Not that it was effective. "In a very short while," Elmer reiterates, "they smarten right up and learn to stay back."
Hunting on farms is basically just "a lethal form of hazing the birds," as Sausville puts it. Killing one or two crows won't impact the overall population.
So why does anyone bother to hunt them? Certainly not for the meat. Both Elmer and Sausville have sampled it: Elmer describes it as dark and gamey, similar to duck, but not impressive. Sausville says he once breaded and pan-fried crow with onions and butter and was similarly underwhelmed.
The biologist mentions that crow feathers are suitable for tying flies, and Elmer says he's used them for that purpose, noting their beautiful iridescence. But, he adds, the trade in feathers offers no motive for harvesting crows on a large scale. Under the migratory bird agreement, their feathers can't be sold.
The only real incentive, perhaps, is the challenge. Yet wannabe crow hunters should heed Elmer's words. "When it comes to marksmanship, the deer have taught me a lot," he says, "but not as much as the crows."
Though he ultimately decided to stop pursuing the birds, Elmer says he hopes to take his grandchildren crow hunting, and he imagines them learning as much from crows as he has.
"When you head out into nature to recreate, whether it's kayaking or fishing or hunting, Mother Nature gains nothing from you," Elmer says. "But when you gain an appreciation for her while you're out there, that's when she gains."
The original print version of this article was headlined "Eating Crow"