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Know the West

My great-grandfather the crow killer


The one time I met my great-grandfather was unexpectedly, at the Grand Canyon. It was on an overcast March day when I was 18. I wasn’t looking for any relatives. I was just trying to take photographs. I’d never visited the national park, and so my grandfather, Frederick, had driven my 11-year-old brother and me from his home in Phoenix to see the South Rim.

Throughout his life, my great-grandfather — Frederick’s father — was a dedicated and passionate crow hater. Their early morning cacophony, disregard for other feathered creatures, and propensity for making off with shiny objects, spurred his absolute hatred. His early morning hunting expeditions around his farm in Milwaukee, Wis., were legendary.

My great-grandfather would rise with the birds’ first cawing, quietly dress in the shadows of his bedroom, and creep outside. Armed with a single-barreled shotgun, he would stalk the crows, occasionally seeking cover behind the duck blinds he’d erected from discarded Christmas trees. There, he would wait for the opportunity to fill the unsuspecting scavengers with saltpeter.

Other times, he wasn’t so patient: He’d get out of bed, load his gun, and, still in his striped nightshirt, inch the barrel past the second-story balcony. Once, my grandmother was jolted awake at 4 a.m. by the report of a shotgun, followed by two more "terrible explosions" from upstairs. She woke her husband and asked him what was going on. "It’s my father. He’s shooting crows," my grandfather said groggily, and went back to sleep.

Sometimes the crows outsmarted my great-grandfather. "They knew which way he came from," my grandmother told me, and so they roosted in different trees each night. They might have even recognized his face, as some believe crows can. "One time he said to me, ‘You know, Lois, those sons of bitches are quite smart.’ "

My great-grandfather had his own tricks, however. He managed to kill a fair number of crows each summer, and kept a tally with pencil marks on the walls of his garage. After a good day’s kill, he strung the black bodies together and hung them by their legs from the lowest branch of a nearby birch tree, in hopes of attracting more of their kind. One murder led to another.

Frederick was the first to notice the old bird standing on a railing overlooking the Grand Canyon. It was a raven, actually, but he thought the bird’s fine ebony plumage was of the sort that would have suited his father. He stared at the bird for a moment, then casually introduced us, telling my brother and me that his father, dead for 20 years, had arrived for a visit.

Seeing it was our first time at the ancient hole and we’d never met this feathered member of our family, my brother and I did not feel it was our place to ask any questions. We watched the high desert bird for a few minutes and snapped photographs, as Frederick explained: In the years after my great-grandfather died, my family joked that karma would bring him back as a crow. Thus, a myth was born.

There my great-grandfather was, seemingly pleased with his latest incarnation. The human characteristics and crow qualities had blended. I doubt my great-grandfather ever understood the crows he loathed, never went beyond the fact that the birds’ "talking" interrupted his sleep. But he had more in common with them than he probably would have admitted.

A family man and a social person, my great-grandfather made sausage for a living. He learned the recipes from his father, who was born in Frankfurt, Germany. From bloodwurst and headcheese to wieners and bacon, the second-generation wurstmacher helped turn his father’s butcher shop into what has become a 125-year success. He and his wife in turn had one child, my grandfather, to whom he taught the family business, along with the wonder of travel, the importance of family, the need to be in the company of others, and how to be compassionate.

As a crow, he fit in nicely, just like his human self: sociable, protective of his own kind, family-oriented, albeit stigmatized by history and legend. Corvids — members of the family of birds that includes crows, ravens and jays — are believed to mate for life, share common roosts and eat just about anything. Family members stay together, as the older siblings stick around to help raise the next brood. And as my great-grandfather duly noted, crows are crafty. In fact, they’re considered some of the smartest of all birds. Crows can make and use simple tools. They’ve even been seen placing nuts in front of moving automobiles to get at the meat after the tires crush the nuts.

My great-grandfather watched us from his guardrail perch and comported himself admirably. I guess the old fellow did not have much to complain about that day. He did not ask why I was taking pictures of the fog, or whether we still killed crows for pleasure and hung them from trees. And we didn’t think to ask him about anting — the crow practice of collecting ants under the feathers to control parasites — or about how he cached his food, or why crow alarm calls come in threes.

His eyes, now little black bulbs, no longer the dark brown of his human life, wandered with ours. Finally, the bird motioned good-bye with a flap of his wings and flew away, leaving us with an image as memorable as the giant red walls of the Grand Canyon — another picture for the family photo album.

The author writes from Berkeley, California.