Saturday, May 30, 2009

Little Rice Lake and Crows

May 30, 09

Our 40 acre farm lies in a little piece of Paradise in a valley near the headwaters of the Wolf River. Further downstream, the Wolf has been designated as one of the Nation's Wild and Scenic Rivers and is protected. Up here a small historic mill dam creates Little Rice Lake, and it's from this flowage that I supply our household with fresh fish almost year round.

I love that lake because it is so low and boggy that there is very little development around it, so there are almost never any water skiers or jet skiers on the water. Instead there are geese and loons and sandhill cranes. The sounds of marsh birds prevail. The lake is shallow and covers a large area, so it makes a wonderful propagation pond for panfish, mostly bluegill, sunfish, yellow perch, black crappie, bullhead, northern pike and largemouth bass.

The upper end of the lake is dominated by wild rice that is so dense that in a few weeks it will not be navigable by motor. Now you can see the new plants starting to take off just a few feet below the surface of the water.

There are numerous boggy islands in the lake that actually float around sometimes if the water gets high. They aren't stable enough to walk on, so they act as wilderness sanctuaries to all sorts of small wildlife.

One small island up in the wild rice area is called Pancake Island. On it is a tree that has an eagle's nest that must be decades old. The structure has to be six to eight feed deep. The eagles should be nesting there soon. I have seen eagles occupying nests on power poles along the highway recently.

I was out fishing this week in the lee of an island and saw more muskrats than I have ever seen before. When I was younger, living in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, I had a Native American friend that used to trap them and sell the pelts to furriers and the carcasses to a local restaurant. Once in a while he would bring me a few dressed out carcasses, and I would parboil them and then saute them in garlic and butter. There wasn't a whole lot of meat on them, but it was good eating. I'm well enough fed not to be tempted to go out and start trapping them myself, though.

At home, Deb has been doing some yard work and cleaning up. Yesterday, we were trimming a lot of deadwood out of our trees and shrubbery. I put the trimmings in our little utility vehicle and took them into the woods out back where we have a couple of brush piles.

As I drove up, there was a crow perched on the pile, and it hopped down to the ground. I was surprised that it didn't fly away, because crows are usually pretty wary. So I got out and started walking toward it. It kept hopping away, but obviously could not fly. I picked it up and could see no visible signs of injury, so I tucked it into the cab of the truck while I emptied my load. The crow just sat on the seat and remained surprisingly calm.

Back home, I showed it to Deb.

"What in the world are you dragging home this time? You're as bad as a little kid."

"Can I keep him? Please? Please? Pretty please? They're supposed to make great pets."

I really knew better. In the United States, it's illegal to keep crows or ravens as pets. They are wild birds, and that status is protected. But if an injured bird is unable to be rehabilitated and released into the wild, it either will be destoyed, or in rare cases there is a chance that it can be fostered out as a pet.

Corvids are exceedingly intelligent birds. European Magpies have passed the self-recognition mirror reflection test, where a mark (in this case, a yellow spot under the chin) is placed on the bird where it cannot be seen by direct self-examination. When a magpie is placed in front of a mirror it tries to reach the mark on itself either with its beak or its feet to remove it. This is the
only non-mammalian species to show this behavior (so far). In non-human mammals, it has been demonstrated in apes, dolphins and elephants (http://biology.

European rooks can not only use tools, but actually fabricate them to get at food (

Crows can also be deviously smart, too:
George was an orphan crow whom my wife, a wild-bird rehabber, raised and released five summers ago and who hung around for several months after that. George was mischievous. He liked to fly straight toward me and then veer away at the last second; grab my sandwich when I ate lunch on our deck; peck at my newspaper as I tried to read it; and so on. One day I was in the house and heard all this yelling outside. I went downstairs and found Suzie, Mac, Skye and George standing outside this big cage we have in our backyard, a cube of wood and chicken wire about eight feet on each side. The cage has a door with a bolt latch on the outside. Mac and Skye often lock each other inside it for fun. Mac and Skye claimed that they had both been playing in the cage when George had locked them in. Suzie, hearing Mac and Skye yelling, had just unlocked the door and let them out. Skeptic that I am, I found this story hard to believe, especially since my wife and children like to kid me. So I sent Suzie, Mac and Skye to the deck, about 30 feet away. Then, as George watched me, head cocked, I entered the cage. After I turned my back on the door and on George, I heard wings flapping and turned in time to see George fly over to the door, which I had left ajar, and grip the chicken wire just below the latch. He flapped his wings until the door eased shut, then slid the latch over with his beak, locking me in. Then, I swear, I thought I saw George smile. (

Not only that, but like their mynah bird cousins, they can learn to talk ( A friend told me that the old-timers used to split their tongues to allow them to talk, but I doubt that's necessary.

Anyway, I decided to take this guy in to the Northwoods Rehab Center to see what was wrong with it and to make certain that it wasn't suffering from West Nile virus. When I got there, the chief rehab man found that it had a badly dislocated shoulder (wing). He said that they would keep it for a few weeks to see whether it would tighten back up again so that it could be released. In his experience, though, the prospects are not good. If not they would have to put it down. He also told me that it is too early to be seeing cases of West Nile virus.

OK. That gives me two weeks to cajole Deb.


  1. Be careful of West Nile Virus. I know a girl here who has been suffering for years, never quite recovering. It's a tough thing to beat.

  2. Thanks lakeviewer. We worry about that for the horses, dogs, cats and poultry as well. So far it is not a huge problem in this area, but we're always cautious. Up here the vector is the mosquito, Culex tarsalis, and they don't peak in population for a few months yet, so hopefully we are safe for a while.

  3. I am so jealous of your beautiful lake. Here in our little corner of Iowa the closest body of water is the Mississippi river, which, as wonderful as it's not exactly like looking into a crystal clear lake :(.

  4. I love the "wild" lakes- the ones with no houses on them. We had a lot of them when we lived in the U.P.. NOw that we are in the lower peninsula of MI, all the lakes are built up, and full of the annoying jetskis, boats,etc. No more wildlife near them!

  5. How lucky you are to have such a nice place to fish. Glad you don't have the annoying jetski people. You farm looks lovely. I enjoy your writing about your life there. Thanks for sharing.

  6. We used to camp up north (when we were young and thought a tent and sleeping bag was fun). Your description of the little rice is giving me flashbacks of 20 years ago. Thank You Kris

  7. What a beautiful lake, and such a treat for you to have that experience with the crow. I had a recent experience with a fawn that I took to rehab also. The temptation is strong to just keep them and help them! I hope your crow will recover, but if not, what a wonderful educational opportunity it would be for a bird sanctuary. I hope they will not have to put it down.

  8. What a great place to live! So beautiful! I enjoyed reading this post very much. You might like to listen to a TED talk by Joshua Klein about crows and intelligence. He built a crow vending machine to illustrate that we could teach them to do useful things.