Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > A Murder of Crows

A Murder of Crows

Names for groups of animals have always interested me. For example, a gaggle of geese on the ground becomes a skein in the air. Then, we have a pride of lions, and a pack of wolves.

Others must be interested in the topic as well because the list keeps growing: thanks to the nauseating delights of Wienergate, we now have a twit of congressmen. Which raises the biological question, does pond scum qualify as an animal?

The Lower Imnaha River Valley

Be that as it may, of all the names for animal groupings, a murder of crows has intrigued me the most. But it wasn’t until a few years ago, at the bottom of Hell’s Canyon, that I actually saw one.

Thirty or so miles past the small, artsy town of Joseph in far northeastern Oregon is the tiny hamlet of Imnaha, named for the river on whose bank it lies and famous for its 100% Country tavern / restaurant / store, where Political Correctness is barred from entry. After Imnaha, it’s another forty miles or so on mostly dirt road down to the Snake River, which cut the canyon. Fill your tank in Joseph and count on 150 miles until your next chance to get gas.

I was in the canyon to fish for a few days, but my main memories of the trip are of a long-dead Indian Chief and crows. Lots of crows.

Headed over the Ridge toward Hells Canyon

At the end of the road is a small, rough-camping area donated by the rancher whose spread borders the river. No one is around but you and the canyon. It’s delightfully quiet, ruggedly beautiful and very dry. The only unquiet exception is that a few times a day, jet boats with tourists on board pass by, headed on a day trip from around Lewiston, Idaho, upriver to the huge and very remote Hell’s Canyon Dam. Once, a ranch hand came by, leaving his truck and horse trailer to ride up into the hills. He hadn’t returned by the time I left two days later.

About two hundred yards upriver from the camp is a special place, the Nez Pierce Crossing, marked by a small sign. It’s where the entire tribe, led by Chief Joseph and driven out of their verdant river valley at the foot of the Blue Mountains, forded the river, losing one in four. You see, it was March, the Snake is a serious river, there were no dams then and the snow melt had turned the strong flow into a raging, deadly torrent.

The Snake River in Hells Canyon Near the Nez Pierce Crossing

In July, when I was there, the dam upstream maintains a fairly steady flow (more in peak electrical-demand hours, less otherwise). Even then, it looked like a challenging swim. With horses, packs, old people and children, I’d never try it – unless there was no other choice.

That day, I’d brought a small inflatable raft. So, I just had to cross at that point for historical reasons. Plus, the eastern shore intrigued me. It was pretty rugged, too much so for jet boats to beach. So, the only access to it was either to cross as I did or hike in through the Seven Devils Wilderness on the other side. And, if you are in that particular wilderness there are much more spectacular hiking destinations.

A Last Bit of Sun on the East Wall of the Canyon

I figured if I crossed and climbed up about a thousand feet, the last person who’d passed that way was probably one of the Nez Pierce who’d survived the crossing, maybe Chief Joseph himself. At least, that’s what I convinced myself was the case.

So I did hike up, and learned that the Idaho side of the river was very different from the Oregon side. For one thing, there were lots of small and medium-sized critter skeletons, one of a calf who’d probably fallen into the river and come out on the wrong side. For another, every couple hundred yards along the bank was a tree full of crows. Seriously full. No wonder the skeletons, even the clearly fresh ones, were picked clean.

After happily achieving my fantasy of pseudo-oneness with the Nez Pierce, I paddled back to camp. By the time I’d got back down to the Idaho shore, I was feeling so good that I wanted to swim back. But some idiot had brought my raft over to that side and I didn’t want to swim both ways, retrieving it,  just to brag that I’d done it.

Dusk comes early and lasts quite awhile at the bottom of Hell’s Canyon. As I started a low fire and sat on my camp chair, there was a flurry of action from the nearest crow tree on the far bank, 50 yards or so upriver from me. One of their scouts had spotted a small dead or dying varmint and called the others to feast.

The Bottom of Hells Canyon

But… the carcass was just about exactly halfway between their tree and the ‘enemy’ tree filled with other crows just downriver. So, I was treated to the amazing scene of a fierce aerial battle between two or three hundred ravenous crows in the no-bird’s-land between their respective territories. It was loud and vicious and lasted at least ten minutes. I was very glad to have a hundred yards and one of the nations great rivers between them and me.

At last, I’d seen a true murder of crows. Two in fact. And, I made a mental note never to be incapacitated near one. Hitchcock got it pretty near right in The Birds.

Writing this now and recalling the two murders’ frenzied fight put me somewhat in mind of two Taliban groups fighting over the right to stone a school girl to death.

Aw… maybe not. What do I have against crows, anyway?

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: