From our elaborate hide of pressure-treated lumber and trimmed branches on the edge of a cut cornfield, he stares at a row of heavy pines a few hundred yards away. “Look at that mob way out there,” he says. A murder of 200 crows sits in the trees. From here, they look like Halloween decorations. Gifford—better known as the Crow Man around here—taps his foot. He picks up his 12-gauge o/u—the stock dipped in a skull-and-crossbones pattern—then sets it down. He does this again and again, his eyes never straying from the birds in the trees.
“A scout!” he says, suddenly.
We hunker down as a lone crow floats in over our spread of two dozen black flocked decoys that Gifford designed himself. I shoot first—and miss. Our mutual friend, Josh Dahlke, follows with his own miss. My second shot finds the bird high, directly overhead, and the crow folds on the wing, spiraling as it falls, and lands a few feet from the blind. A second crow comes in from behind us. I shoot, and again the bird spirals out of the sky.
“Look at that mob!” Gifford says again. The roosted birds flare at the sound of gunfire. They circle above the pines, then settle back into their dark fortress. Gifford goes out to retrieve the dead birds. “See ’em all skagged out?” he asks, fanning out a wing. “Brown feathers. They’re juvies. Dumb birds.” He takes a deep breath, drops the birds beside the blind, and slumps back into his seat. “This ain’t distinguished, man. Feels like Florida.”
I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.
“We got a pretty good wash last night,” he adds.
Then it clicks. He means it rained last night. Everything is wet, the air is humid and 75 degrees at 7 a.m. on this September morning outside Minneapolis. He means it’s as humid as Florida. And our killing of these first two crows wasn’t “distinguished,” or legitimate, because they were easy-to-fool juveniles, not wary adult scouts like he first thought. A flock, he goes on to explain—in an easier-to-comprehend way—will send out scouts to a possible food source. If the scouts return to the roost, the other crows know the spot is compromised. If the scouts don’t return, the other birds assume they’re safely chowing down and flood the zone to feed. Scouts are typically older birds, Gifford says, the wariest and hardest to decoy, but getting them is essential to a good crow shoot. “If you don’t kill the scout, the murder won’t come.”
The bird we killed wasn’t a scout, after all.
An hour passes, then another. Four birds roll by a couple hundred yards away. Gifford silences his electric caller and switches to a mouth reed. They turn and commit. “Let them get close,” he whispers. When they’re at 20 yards, we pop up. The crows rocket skyward. I dump one, and Dahlke hits another. Far up, the two survivors keep climbing. I fire and smash one, then watch the bird drift in another strange, circular spiral to the ground. Crows look dense on the wing, solid. I figured they’d fall like a brick; instead, they fall gently, like a rumpled feather.
“They’re way easier to hit than ducks,” I say.
“And you’re shooting lead,” Dahlke replies.
“And they prefer the afterlife,” Gifford says.
The lanyard around Gifford’s neck is heavy with bands—not from waterfowl, but pigeons. Racing bands from homing birds that got lost, went feral, then fell for his barnyard spread. He has a fishbowl at home full of multicolored avian jewelry, but his most special totem hangs on a gold chain around his neck. The pigeon band is marked 1991—the year Gifford became the Crow Man.
He grew up in South Maplewood, a suburb of St. Paul, but his parents didn’t hunt. Musicians, they played metal shows around the Twin Cities, and the grade-school-age Gifford helped them set up, then rocked out past midnight. His paternal grandfather had passed away before he was born, and the family kept the old man’s things in a barn. Gifford remembers exploring it as a boy, swinging open those rickety barn doors for the first time and finding two duck boats, decoys, shotguns, waders, reloaders—all the gear you’d need to hunt waterfowl in the upper Midwest. He was instantly filled with a compulsion to hunt.
Gifford roamed the farms and creeks of Maplewood with a 12-gauge, but things didn’t get serious until 1986, when the first early metro goose season opened. He and a few buddies “were so amped up for geese, we’d jump the gun, shoot too early, break like a bad dog, miss all over, brother.” They needed to practice, and the crows that used their goose field all summer long seemed like good (and legal) targets. Gifford made black silhouettes from 1-by-6 lumber and put a cassette of Johnny Stewart’s 205 Fighting Crow on a boombox in July. “We annihilated them,” he tells me. “Annihilated them!” And when the second goose season came the following September, his crew killed way more geese too. He graduated high school in 1991 and then worked in the back of a Mexican restaurant. The owners heard he was a hell of a bird hunter and hired him to guide them on a hunt. They smoked a pile of crows. “Son,” one of them told him as they were picking up, “you need to guide full time.” He started booking clients. Before the year was out, he was hosting seminars on crow hunting at the local Sportsman’s Warehouse. Walking in for his first talk, he spotted a flyer on the door: Meet the Crow Man.
“That was the year that everything changed,” he says.
In the off-season, he took classes at Sentry College and earned an associate degree in entomology. Pest control, he figured, was a lot like hunting and trapping. He got a job at the largest pest-control service in the Twin Cities and roamed restaurant basements at night, spraying for roaches and rats. He hated it. (“I still can’t eat out in the city,” he says.) Not too long after he took a position at a smaller company, he was working a daytime bedbug shift when his supervisor asked him, “Do you do bird control?” Gifford immediately answered: “Yes, yes I do.” Pigeons had taken over a parking ramp in St. Paul. He was on it, and a few days later, the pigeons were gone.
“I would obsess about studying a behavior, whether geese or pigeons,” he tells me. “All I wanted was to know what they were thinking, what they would do before they did it. I realized this could be a business. I could do it on my own.” He earned a graduate certificate in pest control from Purdue and left the roaches and bedbugs for good, starting his own company specializing in bird control.
Along with pigeons, he was tasked with controlling crows, which he would soon learn are much harder to eliminate. Crows will eat around the edge of a cornfield, working each ear from the tassel down. They’ll take a few kernels off the top, then move on to the next stalk, exposing the crop to mold and rot. An old buddy of Gifford’s, a farmer, lost a 2-mile edge of sweet corn to crows every year. Gifford and some friends set up hunts and lit into them instead of just razzing them with blanks and dogs like many other operators. Success didn’t happen overnight. Gifford says it took eight or nine years before the crows relented to the heavy hunting pressure and moved to another farm. “We figure we’ve taken 18,000 crows off that property,” he says.
Knowledge of Gifford’s enthusiasm for high-volume wingshooting quickly spread through Minnesota hunting circles, where he’s nothing less than a regional celebrity—a high-strung dictionary of ornithological facts and hunting tactics. His voice is loud. You get the sense he’s yelling at you. He’s not. He’s deaf from 28 years of banging away with shotguns and no ear protection. Under all that bluster and weirdness, he’s dialed in to all things bird hunting. He can explain the reproductive patterns of grackles, or recall a 20-year-old hunt like it happened last week. “I put 25,000 rounds through my SX4 in four years,” he says. “Spend some time with me, brother, and you’ll have a Ph.D. in crow hunting.”
From our blind, we can see that the murder of crows hasn’t left its castle in the pines. They seem to know something is up. Gifford is still anxious, which makes him aggressive on the calls. He picks up one of the e‑caller speakers and holds it over his head. He looks like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, only dressed in summer camo with the opposite of love on his mind. Getting the speakers up off the ground, he hopes, will throw the sound farther afield. The birds don’t budge.
At the edge of the ag complex, between us and the pines, a small flight cruises high. “Spies in the pines, spies everywhere,” Gifford says. “They don’t want to eat in this heat. They don’t want to decoy. They know we’re here.”
The writer Jim Harrison believed crows carry a special significance in the natural world “as the sole bird with any wit,” and anyone who killed them was an ugly sort of barbarian. That didn’t stop many farmers and hunters of his generation from putting them down. But in the last 30 or 40 years, crow hunting has fallen out of fashion, relegated to a kind of oddity pursued with enthusiasm by characters like the Crow Man. Many cultures see crows as harbingers of death—a spirit animal that moves fluidly between this world and the great beyond. To kill them, some believe, brings bad juju. Whether you buy that or not, crows do have an uncanny predilection for death. Crows will investigate a fallen flock mate. Scientists believe they try to figure out how their peer died so they can avoid the same fate. The ratio of a crow’s brain size to body weight rivals a chimpanzee’s, and is not far behind a human’s, but their gray matter is more densely packed with neurons—the thinking bits. They’re one of the few animals that can recognize themselves in a mirror, and they can remember human faces for years. This is what makes crows so challenging to hunt—and that challenge is exactly what appeals to a hunter like Gifford.
Most of the crow shooting Gifford does now is on the clock as part of his pest-control business. Unlike other nuisance birds, crows are federally managed migrators. They can’t be trapped or poisoned in most cases, only shot during a regulated state hunting season. Minnesota, with a wintering population of more than 700,000 crows, is a hotbed of crow hunting, yet it holds only a fraction of the 27 million crows in North America. Here, Gifford tells me, they cause millions of dollars in agricultural damage by picking at cornfields, which is why his clients pay him so well. He sees pest control—at least the way he approaches it with crows—and hunting as one and the same. This is not a widespread view in most hunting or pest-control circles.
Frankly, I don’t know how I feel about all this. I know crows are pests—but so are wild hogs, and I have no problem shooting them. But I’ll also eat swine every day of the week. I have no intention of eating crow, however. Part of the appeal, I guess, is tricking such an intelligent critter to decoy. And when the birds do work, they present interesting shots. They’ll be flying in one direction, then cut hard, seemingly vanish, and reappear. As Gifford puts it: “They teleport, bro. Shoot where they’re going, not where they’ve been. And once they see you and have decided to avoid you, it’s impossible to know where they’re going.”
In the blind, we know where the crows are, and they’re not going anywhere. The murder in the pines hasn’t moved. It’s fast approaching lunchtime. “This fetid air!” Gifford screams, shocking Dahlke and me up from our phone screens. “I feel like someone is holding a pillow over my face!” The heat has become too much for us. We unload guns and pick up decoys. As we near the truck, a couple hundred yards closer to the roost, Gifford takes another look. “Oh, man, that’s a mob of them!” he says. “We could’ve stayed, and they would’ve come.”
“I’d rather kill them in the morning,” Dahlke says. “Way funner.”
Gifford leans back and howls at the crows in the pines: “Tomorrow you’ll decoy like mad!”
The next morning Gifford’s spirits are high. The crows aren’t in the pines, so he thinks they’ve moved to their original roost spot, where there’s a good place to hunt them nearby. We drive to the other side of the field complex and set up in a brush lot. Gifford hangs an e-caller speaker in a tree beside our blind, connected to an old cassette-tape deck. As the sun rises, the scold of recorded crow calls pounds out loud to the roosted birds—and through my head. Before long, I have a headache. My throat hurts. Maybe allergies. Maybe the start of a cold. Maybe something picked up from yesterday’s diseased-looking crows. Or maybe I’m just worn out by the endless sound of crows, and so much loud and indecipherable talking.
“Let’s shoot some noise in the gap,” Gifford hollers, referring to the break in the hardwoods. He turns the caller louder. My head pounds harder.
The hunting is slow, and the mood in the blind tanks. Gifford is more miserable than any of us. He gets jittery, like a smoker twitching for a butt, and starts repositioning decoys, changing the height and direction of the speakers, mumbling incoherent soliloquies about sound and death. An hour into the morning, after a bit of pacing beside the blind, he announces, “This is the worst two days of crow hunting I’ve ever seen.”
My headache is getting worse. Dahlke, meanwhile, is silent, frozen in the screen of his phone. He has short hair under a ball cap and a long brown beard with no mustache. Gifford thinks Dahlke is sulking over the poor hunting, and doesn’t like it. “Honest Abe!” Gifford hollers at him. “My brother. My friend. Cheer up.”
Gifford starts muttering next to me: “Ninja-ing us. Sneaking birds. Mobs and murders of crows. Sneaking ninja birds. Not flying. Not feasting. Ninjas, bro. Ninjas.”
His words slur and loop together, mixing with the racket of the blasting bird tape. Then, silence. The e-caller goes dead. To my throbbing head, this feels like a great relief. Not to Gifford. He fills the void with a torrent of f-bombs. I can’t take it. Under the guise of a bathroom break, I go for a walk. When I return, Dahlke is still in a phone coma, and the Crow Man is mumbling dark poetry about murders and mobs. Then a thought occurs to me, and I start to laugh.
We’ve killed some crows and now we’re cursed.
On our final morning, we drive to a new spot. Everyone is in better spirits. “You ever just see crows sitting all pouty and salty and shit, like Count Chocula, blah, not wanting anything, blah, blah, BLAH!” Gifford says as we drive to the spot. “That’s this week, salty-ass birds. Normally we’d pick our days, two nice days in a row, let them dry out from the rain, get close to the feed for a day, let ’em settle in, then set up the next day and pound them.”
We pull off the highway in the dark, into a green field. After a few hundred yards, we hit the edge of a cornfield, unload the truck, set up decoys, and move into the standing corn. It’s very much like an early-season goose setup designed to decoy birds at the edge. The e-caller is working, but before it’s on, we hear the distant scold of crows.
“Get ready,” Gifford says. The scout comes in from behind us. “He’s tall,” Gifford says, and we come up from our crouch. I shoot and miss. Dahlke misses too. Gifford center-punches the high bird. More crows materialize in the sky high behind us—a thin stream of black dots—not flying so much as hovering. Gifford turns the speakers up. The birds commit, and we exterminate them in waves of doubles and triples. More crows peel off the horizon toward our trap. We send up a volley, and it’s a rainout—nine or 10 birds floating down to the green grass. More birds come in. We light them up. There’s been more action in the first 20 minutes than we’ve seen combined all week. Gifford walks out to pick up two big old birds and holds them high. “The Crow Man still has it!” he shouts.
Back in the hide, I can’t help but ask him about the crow’s mystical connections, the spiritual reverence so many hold for this bird. Gifford tells me again of his buddy’s farm, of the 2 miles of crop damage, of the money lost on small farms that survive on a razor-thin margin.
“Fifteen or 20 crows out in the Black Hills aren’t doing any damage, OK, but out here, they destroy the hell out of a place,” he says. “I mean, I got a pretty open mind. I respect the mystery, man, but I don’t know about all that afterlife stuff. They’re just birds, dude. Pests.” He’s quiet for a second, then slides two more shells into his gun. “I guess I’ll find out one day. I’ve killed 20,000 of ’em, so I may have some explaining to do.”