Nothing to crow about

SONY DSCIt’s frightening how much damage just one crow can do at nesting time. When I see them patrolling the open moors at this time of year, I’m galled to know that grouse eggs or young chicks will almost certainly be on the menu.

However, I consider myself lucky. I don’t have many crows in my neck of the woods. Perhaps it’s because I don’t have many woods either. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of places where a pair of crows can nest, given half the chance, which, by my reckoning, is way too generous. To this end, I’ll walk all the trees on my ground, checking for nests. I try to get round all my well-scattered birches before they come into leaf. Once my stiff neck has recovered, I’ll try to get round them a second time in case of late nesters. Rock faces are also walked if possible. If not, I fire a shot to see if a ‘clocking’ hen flies off.

Once I locate a nest, there are a number of ways of dealing with it. Sometimes it is as straightforward as kicking the tree (or giving a shout from below a rock face) and shooting the hen with a shotgun as she flies off. Rumour has it that the cock bird will also incubate the eggs and that you can go back the next day and deal with him the same way. Well, that’s the theory anyway.

In practice, things are often a little different. Especially if you’re unlucky enough to have missed on your first visit. After that, approaching anywhere closer than mortar range will have her flit off if she spots you.

With my scarcity of woods, I’ll sometimes locate a nest in a lone tree, with commanding views of all the approaches. The classic way of dealing with these is to approach from downwind on a really foul evening. You can be sure the hen will be hunkered down with her beak pointing into the wind, rather than watching her ‘six’.

The advent of the Larsen trap was a real breakthrough, and it did away with a lot of this faffing about. Its portability allows you to ‘introduce’ another crow – held in a separate compartment of the cage – into a known territory. The resident birds subsequently throw themselves into the trapdoor sections in their eagerness to get at the call bird. It sure as hell beats stumbling about in the driving rain at bedtime.

But as most of you will know, the crow is an adversary never to be underestimated. This thought struck me recently as I checked the most insignificant of rock faces in a corrie at the far end of my ground.

My suspicions were aroused before I even got to the rock face. On the other side of this natural amphitheatre, I could hear a crow calling earnestly. I couldn’t see him but I twigged his partner as soon as she left the stunted birches growing out of the face 200 yards in front of me. There was no doubt in my mind that he’d warned her of my approach.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThe nest was an untidy collection of heather ‘cowes’ piled into the fork of one of these small birches. I circled around it at a distance, aware of the likelihood of beady eyes watching. Then I retreated, my thoughts crowded by misgivings.

The nest site had grandstand views of the massive corrie below. If I was to approach from above, I could get in to about 150 yards but then would be breaking a skyline as smooth as a baby’s bum. It was far from ideal  but I wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice.

I gave them a couple of days to settle down before I tried stalking in with my trusty Remington 700. Before starting I spent 20 minutes spying the opposite side of the bowl, the best part of a kilometre away. Despite seeing nothing, the alarm call of the cock started up before I was halfway to the nest. The hen dived off the second I peered over the skyline.

I retreated to the top of the hill and spied until my eyes bled. Eventually a flit of wings gave her position away as she sat atop a distant rock. It was only when the two of them took to the air that the penny dropped. As I looked down on them I understood why spotting him had been so difficult. His distinct grey waistcoat told me that he wasn’t one of our usual carrion crows but a hooded crow. Although common on the west coast, they’re a rare thing in these parts – though not rare enough for my liking, I reflected.

Having lost the element of surprise, I reckoned my chances of stalking in were pretty slim. I put a Larsen on that bleak hillside the next day. When I returned to it 24 hours later, the call bird looked at me accusingly while the pair laughed from the other side of the corrie. I upped the ante and moved the Larsen to within 20 yards of the tree. The following day told the same story. There was no sign they had been anywhere near the trap. They were certainly being cagey about this cage.

Over the next week, I tried various things in an attempt to lure them in. I changed the position and orientation of the cage; I tried a different call bird; I offered different baits in the trapping compartments. My efforts were met with complete indifference. Each trip to this site required 30 minutes in a Land Rover and another 20 minutes on foot – each way. It was time I could ill afford. It was time to try another approach. Unusually, I found myself wishing for wind and rain but – even more unusually – we were enjoying a prolonged spell of fine weather.

I had wondered if the ever-vigilant hoodie would have allowed a dusk approach anyway, so instead I decided on a dawn sortie. This required such an early start as to make it pointless even going to bed. I spent the few hours of darkness lamping for foxes in another area. By the time the first signs of sunrise showed on the eastern horizon, I was lying in a ghillie suit with the Remington trained on the tree.

As the light strengthened, I peered through the scope but couldn’t make out the nest. As the day dawned, it dawned on me that I’d managed to position myself in a place where the nest was hidden by a branch. Cursing under my breath, I tried to ease myself slowly to the right.

At my first movement, the hen swooped out of the trees. However, between the ghillie suit and the half-light, she wasn’t so sure of the danger. She floated backwards and forwards along the face for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually she settled in the top of a tiny, spindly birch over 200 yards down the hill.

Moving with infinite care, I eased the rifle round until I picked her up in the scope. Even at 8x magnification she made a small target and, as I watched, the dawn breeze swayed her back and forward from one side of the crosshairs to the other.

I was torn. Might this be the best chance I was ever going to get? Or if I waited, would she come closer or even return to the nest? If I was going to take the shot, I had to make up my mind quickly.

My thumb pushed the safety forward and I started taking up the pressure on the wide blade of the Shilen trigger. A fraction later, the boom of the rifle shattered the peace. Even before the bullet had ploughed into the floor of the corrie, I knew I had missed. The crow launched away in a frantic flurry of wingbeats, leaving a pinch of breast feathers to be whisked away on the frigid air. For long moments, I lay in stunned disbelief before expressing in no uncertain terms exactly what I thought of myself, my shooting, all crows and this particular bit of Scotland.

It took another few days of trailing back and forward to be certain, but the pair abandoned the nest after that shot. When I was sure, I retrieved the Larsen and pulled the nest down. I gleaned some small satisfaction that at least there weren’t going to be four more hoodies to harass my grouse.

Destroying the nest wasn’t an act of vengeance. Should I come across a nest in this tree next year, I’ll know straight away that it’s a new one. Heaven forbid.

Weeks later, I was driving home when I spotted a crow feeding in a field. I coasted to a halt and was amazed to see it was a hoodie. Could it possibly be the hoodie? Even more amazing, it never batted an eyelid as I juggled my .22 around before shooting it off the wing mirror. What a shot – it must have been at least 30 yards.

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