It’s early morning and I pile Gracie and Joker into the van and race the sunrise to the park, two miles West of here.
I don’t see any wildlife as I pull into the park entrance with my high beams on. The road winds past the fenced-in baseball field on the right and the lake on the left. No dogs are allowed in this part of the park. I open my window and the dogs and I sniff the air. Me, for skunks. Them, I’m not sure. I’ve caught lovers – and sleeping cops – this time of day, too, but this morning both the air and the parking lot are lacking any predawn drama. The eastern sky burns away the night as I drive to the far end of the parking lot and pick a spot closest to the footbridge. It looks like a magnificent sunrise is about to be born. Easily, this is my favorite time of day.
I use my mega beam flashlight to spotlight what I know will be the dog’s first stop; the holes under the bushes by the footbridge. Various wildlife use these holes because of their proximity to the river, so there are always fresh scents for the dogs to explore. There is nothing lurking around bushes that I can see from here so I trust my nose and let the dogs out, then follow them at a much slower pace.
As they run, their tags jingle like cowbells that act as an early warning system. That’s not by accident, and I use the flashlight to scan the tree line for beady red eyes or critters running away.
Suddenly my ballcap, which I wear backwards, flies off my head and I feel a breeze through my hair, but that was no gust of wind! My heart races as the silhouette of a large bird drops my hat from its claws then flaps up to the sky. I watch it turn around as the clouds set on fire, and I get excited.
Gracie and Joker start growling and I turn the flashlight just in time to see my white dog, Joker, dart down the bank towards another hole. I can’t see Gracie. I turn back to the sky to see the clouds turning from burnt-orange to bleeding-red, but no crow. It is one of the richest sunrises this summer and wish I could enjoy it. But I spot my hat and then shine the light around for Gracie.
Three loud shrills cry out from overhead.
I turn to see Fred in his pickup truck pulling into the parking lot, but no sign of the crow. Fred is usually the first one here. He owns two dogs, too; Sadie and Taco. Both are female and get along great with my dogs. Sadie’s tan and as big as Gracie. Taco is a Chihuahua.
The crow swoops just over my head and flies straight at Fred’s truck!
I flash back to when Fatso cut off the squirrels’ retreat in my backyard and suddenly have more concerned for that stupid bird than my dogs. I run towards the parking lot waving my hands and yelling, ‘Stop!’ thinking the crow doesn’t know a truck from a squirrel! Behind me, I hear cowbells and Gracie growling something fierce, but I keep running, shouting and waving my arms.
The crow soars only a foot or two over the truck’s cab then flies up. The sky is already fading to blue.
Fred stops, lowers the window and casually says, ‘What’s up?’ He looks over my shoulder, adds, ‘Oh.’
I turn to see Joker and Gracie playing tug-of-war with a critter! ‘Gracie! Joker! Stop that!’ Gracie growls louder. I shout louder and with more growl in my own voice, then take off towards them. After a few more calls, they come to me.
Fred’s dogs listen when he lets them out and tells them to heel.
I scold my dogs as soon as we’re back in the parking lot, then look them over for bite marks or scratches, and say to Fred, ‘Did you see that crow flying at your truck?’
‘Saw somethin out of the corner of my eye. I was watchin you wavin your hands an figured Joker got skunked again. But it looks like a rabbit from here.’ He reaches into the bed of his pickup and pulls out a five-gallon bucket. But before we can take a step, a few common crows fly in and start to feast on both halves of the rabbit, now separated by about ten feet. More crows are overhead. Fred says, ‘Watch this.’
Before he can sic Sadie, I grab his arm and tell him, ‘Don’t do that! That’s what the crow was trying to tell you!’ My voice sounds strange to me and I have no idea where the statement comes from, but I say it with certitude. ‘That crow got Gracie and Joker to kill it for them!’ I nod towards the massing crows. Fred stares at me.
Fred’s an old farm boy from Minnesota; a man of few words. He just nods back and lights a cigarette.
Sunlight is just hitting the taller trees as I tell him how Gracie and Joker killed a squirrel for the same fat crow that just attacked his truck, and how I let the crow feed it to its flock. How it took almost an hour. ‘Look at the dogs! Gracie and Joker were just that calm the first time, too.’
All but Taco are down on their haunches and ready to spring into action if necessary, but they’re just sitting on the grassy edge by the pavement with their ears up, watching the birds. Taco is at Fred’s feet. There is an entire murder of crows now, too many to count, coming from every direction.
Crows are not a quiet bunch when they eat, or friendly. More and more land and all ferociously fight each other off for a piece of rabbit. There seem to be more losers than winners with some crows stealing from others in midflight.
As morning breaks, a few more dog owners drive in and I tell each to leash their dogs and just watch.
When there is nothing left, the crows fly off as fast as they flew in.
As we walk up to the battlefield, I say to Fred, ‘You only got here, what? Fifteen, twenty minutes ago?’
‘Crows don’t waste time,’ Fred says as the dogs sniff and piss. We kick the rabbit’s head and a couple of attached bone-and-pelt bits into the river, they can be dinner for some other scavenger. Mother Nature will have to take care of blooded grounds, and there isn’t much else to clean up. We set off on our morning walk through the woods with four other folks and a half dozen other dogs.
Fred and I were the only ones who saw how the rabbit died and he agrees to play dumb. It’s not something I’m proud of. Not something you boast about, especially to other dog owners. After a few minutes, the ferocity of the crows and their dazzling aerobatics are old news, and conversations drift to other things.
Fred and I fall behind the others. While our dogs play and scout as dogs do, I tell him, ‘This is the third time that crow has paid me a visit.’ I tell him about the second time, when the crow dropped the charm on my deck. I make my wife the scapegoat and tell him the fact it arrived on the twenty-seventh anniversary of the date on the back freaked her out. ‘It had the name Jeremy on the other side.’ I don’t tell him what that meant to her, or how she deduced the date to be 05/??/1990.
‘Crow’s tellin ya his name,’ Fred says. ‘Greeks worshiped crows. Egyptians made em gods in the afterlife.’
I start to feel all sweaty under my long-sleeve tee and jeans even though it not even sixty degrees yet. I still haven’t told my wife, but after this morning, I’ve got to tell someone before I go crazy.
‘He talked to me, Fred. I heard someone say leave it and when I looked out my window there was only that big, fat crow. Just staring at me. I swear, he spoke to me. He told me three hours before the dogs killed the squirrel; he said leave it – twice! He knew what was coming!’
After a long pause, Fred says, ‘Crows can talk.’
‘I’ve read that. They can mimic certain words, but I didn’t say that first.’
We walk on in silence. Fred starts to chuckle, then says, ‘Tell ya somethin even funnier.’
I wonder if he thinks I’m making it all up.
He lights another cigarette, says, ‘When I waza kid, growin up on my uncle’s dairy farm in Minnesota, I once saw a lone wolf chase down and kill a sick ol moose. About an hour later, a pack of coyotes chased off the wolf. A while after that, dozens of buzzards chased off the coyotes an got that moose all to emselves. Until hundreds of crows attacked the buzzards, in waves, an chased em off. Crows are social in that kinda way, but once they got the moose all to emselves, it was each crow for emself. Just like we seen here.’ He chuckles, ‘I never heard of one crow feedin another. Maybe in a nest…’
We walk on without conversation. I’ve never known Fred to bullshit, but I feel like he’s playing One-Upmanshit with me. I don’t defend my position any stronger than, ‘Tomorrow, I’ll bring the charm.’
When we get back to the parking lot, Fred says, ‘Growin up, there use to be this ol boy, Indian guide, who talked crows into huntin for em an to bein lookouts for em. Remember seein em, maybe thirty years ago, walkin along a dirt road an sure enough, there’s crows flyin over em.’
‘I’ll look him up on the Internet,’ I say, sure I’m getting more upmanshit. ‘What’s his name?’
Fred shake his head, says, ‘Owe Cousin Tom a call, I’ll ask em.’ With that, he drives off.
Maybe he does believe me, I don’t care either way. I know what I saw, what I heard.
I use a tattered bath towel to dry off Gracie and Joker before I let them get in the van. As I do, I hear three quick caws. I turn expecting to see Fatso, but it’s only a small common crow up by the pagoda. He’s not even looking in this direction.
Driving back home, I realize Fatso knows our morning routine, too. I wonder how long he’s been watching me, watching my dogs. I mumble, ‘Smart bastard needs a better name than Fatso.’
Joker comes forward in the van and I say to her, ‘What about Alfred? Or Hitchcock? He’s every bit as smart as those birds.’ But further thought of those birds is chilling. Then I remember Fred’s comment; He’s tellin ya his name.