Shooting crows at the roost is one of the most exciting airgun hunting scenarios I can think of. These large, raucous birds don’t return to the woods until the light has all but gone – and there’s nothing subtle about it when they arrive!
Experienced hunters regard crows as being very wary birds. Sharp-eyed and extremely fearful of man, crows are one of our most cunning adversaries. It takes skill, patience and, very often, an extremely carefully constructed hide to outwit them during the hours of daylight.
But ambush crows when they’re pouring into their roosting sites, and it’s a very different story.
These birds gather in large flocks to bed-down for the night, especially during winter. They’re often joined by jackdaws and sometimes magpies, too. Not only does the local crow population suddenly seem more abundant at the roost, it’s also a lot more boisterous. Their screeching and croaking can be almost deafening and they completely abandon their usual caution as they pile into the treetops.
Crows are a native species which plays an important part in woodland ecology. However, their numbers do need to be kept in check. These notorious nest thieves can decimate wild bird populations, and gamekeepers are all too aware of the impact they can have on pheasant and partridge broods.
The number of crows you cull must be judged case-by-case based on their abundance on your shooting permissions. Rather than hitting them really hard it’s usually best to chip away at them, making regular small bags to keep their ranks in check.
Limiting your tally shouldn’t be difficult, because the window of opportunity is small owing to the fact that the birds don’t start to arrive until it’s almost completely dark. Like most avian quarry you can’t use a lamp or night vision gear when shooting corvids, so you’ll only get a few minutes of hectic sport before it’s too dark to see.
Success hinges on setting up in the right place. Even in very large woods, crows’ roosts don’t tend to cover a very large area. Their favourite roosting sites usually feature several very tall trees, because incoming crows like a high vantage point from which to survey the woodland below before they flutter down to the more sheltered levels.
You’ll find more clues down on the ground than up in the trees, because the undergrowth beneath a busy crow roost is usually splattered with their watery, white droppings.
A lot of shooters believe that crows don’t roost in their woodland permissions because they don’t see them when they’re out after roosting woodpigeons. While that may be the case, it’s also possible that they’ve not witnessed a crow roost for the simple reason that they haven’t stayed late enough.
Crows come in to roost a long time after the woodies have stopped flighting. When I’m culling crows at the roost, I try to get myself into position just before dusk. I don’t build a hide; it’s hard enough spotting crows in the gloomy treetops without having a net in your way, and it’s worth staying mobile just in case you need to shift position to get clear shots.
My preferred cover is a large tree trunk, which provides a backdrop to disguise my outline and a support for leaning shots. Although this sort of shooting is done in the twilight, crows have an uncanny ability to spot the glow of a human face staring up from the gloom, so I’d recommend wearing a head net.
Pick a vantage point in the wood that enables you to take clear shots up into the tall trees that crows will be flighting into. If your birds are roosting in ash trees, then you’re in luck. An ash’s branches have a much more open formation than oaks, which have a lot of fine twigs that obscure your target and can deflect an airgun pellet.
Once you’ve settled on a position, use your foot to shunt any leaf litter and windblown twigs away from where you’ll be standing. Clearing the ground in this way exposes the soft, damp soil beneath and reduces the risk of spooking birds with the crunch of a misplaced foot.
The arrival of roosting crows is usually signalled by one or two birds passing high overhead while letting out the occasional low croak. These ‘scouts’ seldom land until they’re joined by the rest of the flock, which can be anything from a few dozen to several hundred birds.
As night closes in, the swirling cloud of black birds will gather in a screeching mob before they start to tumble into the treetops. It’s quite a spectacle – especially if you’re used to the sight of corvids coming cautiously to decoys in ones or twos.
Even when they start tumbling in, they’re often reluctant to keep still. You’ll see them nervously flitting from branch to branch before the entire flock lifts back up to circle over the treetops before dropping down once more.
This means that shots need to be taken quickly when opportunities arise, but be careful not to blow your cover. Remember to check for any twigs that may get in the way of your pellet. They’re easy to overlook in the half-light.
Expect shots to keep coming until it gets too dark to shoot. Corvids aren’t any good for the pot, but I always do my best to retrieve shot birds because my trout-fishing friends are always grateful to receive their wings. This is because the fibres can be used to tie fly-hooks. You’ll need a torch to recover the evening’s bag… and, possibly, to help you pick your route safely out of the woods.