HOLDERNESS, N.H. (AP) – As the cries of upset crows blare from a tape player, a group of hunters in training hunkers in the brush, waiting for the varmint to swoop.

They stare tensely at a make-believe scene of carnage on the sunny patch of grass before them – about a dozen crow decoys littered at the feet of a plastic owl perched on a fence post – willing just one bird to touch down.

But on this Saturday morning, the crow is a no-show.

That’s the way it goes sometimes on a crow hunt, said Pete Lester, who has been hunting the birds for 30 years and arranged the huddle in the trees as part of a Fish and Game Department workshop.

“You may see something in half an hour or something in five seconds,” Lester told the group. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

It’s easy to trash-talk crows – noise making, garbage pecking, egg thieving, roadkill eating, disease carrying, crop ruining nuisances that they are.

“I basically hate them,” said Phil Ferdinando, who welcomes crow hunters to his farm in Derry. “But you have to admire them for their intelligence.”

Despite his best efforts, Ferdinando loses crops every year to crows that rip out tender corn shoots and peck out his pumpkins and tomatoes.

They’re just as nasty to other animals. Working in pairs, they raid other birds’ nests – as one crow approaches from the front, luring a bird from its nest, another sneaks in behind to nab the egg or chick.

That wily intelligence, plus speed and agility, make the lowly crow a formidable quarry for hunters who like a challenge.

“They’re very clever, they’re always on the lookout,” said Lester. “They are really going to put the moves on you once the shooting starts.”

Fish and Game biologist Ed Robinson notes crows are talented learners, and captive ones can be trained to speak. The state doesn’t keep track of its crow population, but Robinson says there are plenty to go around, despite West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis, which are potentially deadly to birds and people.

Crow hunting once was big in rural America. “Wherever within the Union the laws encourage the destruction of this species, it is shot in great numbers for the sake of the premium offered for each Crow’s head,” reads an 1840 entry on the American Crow in John Audubon’s “Birds of America.”

Crow hunting peaked from the 1940s through the 1960s, but declined after crows became federally protected in 1972. Shrinking numbers of farms and hunters also contributed to the decline, as did the crow’s less-than-savory reputation, said Sean Williamson, director of Fish and Game’s hunter education center in Holderness.

“It’s a forgotten pastime,” said Williamson, a second-generation crow hunter. “A lot of farms went away and the hunter numbers have gone down over the years, and your true die-hard crow hunters have just passed onto the great beyond.” He hoped the recent clinic would spur interest during the fall crow season, which began Aug. 15 and ends Nov. 30. In Maine, the current season ends Sept. 30. Northern and southern Maine also have separate spring seasons.

Fred Allen, 70, a retired veterinarian and president of the Pemigewasset Valley Fish and Game Club, last shot crow growing up on his family’s farm in Durham. “That was 50, 60, years ago,” he said. “When they announced this I thought it might be fun to go out and do it again.”

Hard-core crow hunters read magazines like “Varmint Hunter” and “Varmint Master,” and have devised all sorts of obscure techniques for luring their clever prey.

Lester recommends keeping a dead “tosser” crow on hand during a hunt. Throwing it out at the right moment can be the clincher for crows responding to a simulated distress call, he said. Crowbusters.com has a photo of one hunter’s “crow cradle,” which looks like a metal coat hanger twisted to hold dead crows upright as decoys.

“It’s just a difficult thing to do, to fool a crow,” said Mark Latti of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Shot crows usually are tossed on manure piles, ground into dog food or left for scavengers. Because most states don’t set bag limits for crows, hunters’ bragging rights lie in numbers.

Jerry “the Crowman” Tomlin, of Milledgeville, Ga., estimates 50 kills per trip since he began guiding crow hunts through pecan orchards in Georgia and South Carolina more than 15 years ago. His Web site, thecrowroost.com, shows photos from the “century club” – clients posing with 100 or more dead crows arranged in neat rows.

Experienced crow hunters attribute their success to study. Learn the mind of the crow, its strengths and weaknesses, and respect its abilities, they say.

Those abilities include doing a complete course reversal, “180 degrees within about a wingspan of their body,” in flight, Tomlin said.

In 40 years of hunting, Tomlin said he’s learned that crows can remember for about a month. Hunt in the same place more frequently, and they won’t come.

Williamson appreciates crows’ fearlessness.

“When you’re hunting a duck, you’re hunting an animal that’s looking for a place to hide, and when you’re hunting a crow you’re hunting for an animal that wants to fight,” he said. They hate owls with a passion and respond to distressed crow calls ready to fight.

Lester, whose crow-hunting lesson included shotgun practice and a two-hour PowerPoint presentation, said crows also have excellent spatial awareness.

“Have you ever seen a roadkill crow?” he asked.



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