Exploring North Carolina 'As the Crow Flies'

Ben Fortson

Looking up from his tiresome, axe-swinging labors, wiping the salty sweat from his brow and squinting into the sun, Robert Redford observes a bird, flying west, toward the Musselshell River, Montana Territory.

Speaking to his young side-kick, Redford looks wistfully toward the western sky and
remarks, “Hawk. Going for the Musselshell; take me a week's ridin', and
he'll be there in... hell, he's there already.”

It’s not the most memorable line from the film, Jeremiah Johnson—I’m partial to Bear Claws jab, “You sure are cocky for a starving’ pilgrim”—but Redford’s pensive observation is well-taken: Hawks move from point A to point B in a rather efficient manner. Typically, in a straight-line.

The same could be said for a native species of North Carolina; especially when it finds itself over a large body of water, which is particularly unpleasant for Corvus Brachyrhynchos, the short-billed American Crow.

In fact, the common crow is so driven to get land under its claws, it will get there as fast as possible, in as straight-a-line as possible. Hence the phrase, “As the crow flies”—an old-timey way of articulating linear distance—is still in use today.

This knack for finding land, and getting there in an orderly fashion, would explain why seafaring ships of old often kept a land-loving black crow on-board.

According to naval legend, the Vikings were the first to figure this out, and utilized the dash-for-turf tactics of the crow to help them navigate toward land (which also offers a reasonable explanation for the ubiquitous Crow’s Nest lookout found on the Black Pearl and other sea-going vessels, imagined and real, of the 17th and 18th centuries).

All this to say… American crows usually don’t fly in a straight line.

Which, of course, makes everything I’ve stated thus far, seem somewhat awkward.
“Where am I going with this?”, you say. Hopefully, to an intriguing newspaper column.

The truth is—hang with me here—crows do fly straight over water, but
typically don’t fly straight over land. They fly in sweeping arcs. Which makes the statement, as the crow flies, seem a bit impertinent for landtraveling, long-distance linear guesstimates; which is usually the way the phrase is referenced (this is why I ultimately chose to avoid a career in linguistics).

Confused? Don’t be. It’s all a subversive strategy to explain the title of this column… and to inform the reader that this writer hopes, like the crow, to take you from point A to point B (Murphy to Manteo) on a sometimes straight-forward, sometimes round-about journey through the state of North Carolina. A journey that may hold a few unambiguous, straight-line observations… but more likely, a crows-nest-full of tangents, digressions
and bold, sweeping contradictions.

Take the contradictory crow, for example.

Naturally inquisitive, the American crow, in complete disrespect of the “as the crow flies” platitude, typically flies over its home terrain in rambling, drifting flight patterns. Avoiding large bodies of water, the crow travels and searches for food the way most people search the internet; in a distracted, incongruous, expansive, probing, indiscriminate, sweeping sort-of-way. A way that is not "in a straight-line."

Along with this frustrating discrepancy, the crow offers a surprising array of tangent-worthy reading material.

The crow is said to be convincingly smarter than your average 5-year old child (this may not be saying much, but still… it would be interesting to explore). It is capable of using tools to accomplish tasks (could a crow be taught to peck-out a newspaper column on a computer?).

The crow of North Carolina—which strongly resembles the crow of the entire North American continent—will plan ahead, storing food for the winter (this is a big step ahead of some corporations). The common crow can not only recall places where other crows have died, but recognize the cause of death and avoid those places and devices (why can’t Americans stay away from gun shops?).

Corvus Brachyrhynchos also employs a very complex language, consisting of dozens of tonal variations of the familiar “caw” (why is this so irritating on Saturday mornings at 6:00 a.m.?).

These, and other digressions, are all fair game… and may even lead to stories.

As a teenager, my uncle once took me out in the woods at the crack of dawn to hunt crow (incidentally, there was no mention of eating crow). We crept quietly through the forest, hid behind trees, wore dark clothing, utilized an expensive hand-made crow-call (mimicking a hurt crow) and spoke in hushed-tones. You would’ve thought we were tracking Rambo.

After luring and firing at the scout (the designated reconnaissance crow… and the one my uncle missed), a series of caws quickly alerted the remaining flock, and they were gone, despite our attempts to coax them back (I later learned our botched attempt was illegal; unless poaching agriculture, crows are protected by the Migratory Bird Act).

Despite our brilliant, forbidden strategy, we ate-crow and returned home empty-handed, with nothing to crow about. Out-crowed by the crows. Sad, but true.

If I’ve convinced you that the crow is extremely interesting—perhaps even smarter than my uncle—and that contradictions, tangents, hunting laws and crow-related-idioms are curiously appealing, then I hope I’ve convinced you to keep reading my column.

It will, most likely, include similar anecdotes about our beautiful state, its people, its history and its fascinating animals.

The tales you read here may logically traverse from point A to point B, but there’s a slight chance they’ll sweep along in wide, curious paragraphs, as the crow flies.

Ben Fortson, the author of A Nutshell History of North Carolina, explores the history of the state in his weekly column 'As the Crow Flies'