I’m sitting in the backyard of a farmhouse in the Mojave Desert, a Sarsilmaz 12-gauge auto loader in my lap. The tall pines and sycamores reaching above are favorite roosts, and the clouds of hundreds of ravens keep trying to reach them, swirling in from every direction. The farm was under attack by an unkindness. ( Unkindness is the collective noun for a group of ravens.)
Hunting these predators is more than just calculating trajectories, speed and lead. I’m shooting 1-ounce loads at 1,500 fps, so I have to factor fast shots, but at longer ranges. These orchards are like alternating squares on a chessboard, with neighboring farmhouses scattered about. I can take a low shot at that pair quartering across from the northwest, but too high, and I risk the shot falling on a 1964 Mercury across and down the road.
My arcs of safe fire are mentally charted off like the .50-caliber gun tubs on PT-109, with rails to prevent blasting the radio mast while suffering from target fixation on that strafing Zero. Shoot here. Don’t shoot there. Don’t shoot at grounded birds under the trees. If I do, I might tear up the irrigation drip lines we’re trying to save from pecking ravens. I’ll use the .22 Hornet for them.
As a raven arcs in on a gentle curve, it flies in front of the sun, alerting me that another target is coming in from behind. I try to calculate where it will appear, but it’s two birds. A mated pair emerges from behind the sycamore leaves. However, they’re in front of another distant house, so I pause, adjusting my footing. The lead bird sees me move and sideslips 8 feet, ruining the now-safe shot.
The second one is slow to react and flies into 144 #3 steel pellets. Remember, this is California, and even while culling on a federal depredation permit, one must comply with the state’s no-lead laws. The Federal steel Flight Stopper pellets look like little models of the planet Saturn and do wicked things to avian anatomy.
The Black Cloud box wears a slogan: “Drops ducks like rain.” It’s true for hard-to-kill ravens, as well. Hard hit, the second C.c. sinuatus subspecies folds up like an AAA map. Before it can hit/slap into the hard caliche, I’ve topped off the magazine.
The quick-witted first bird disappears from view and then suddenly reappears: In a touching display of loyalty, it’s hovering 15 feet above its late spouse. I quickly snap off a shot at about 40 yards and see the helicoptering bird shed several flight feathers as the Federal wad sails past it. As the widower ducks away behind the sycamore, I notice it’s dropped a leg. We’ll find it in the orchard the next morning, and one more baby tortoise will reach adulthood.
But then, more birds are flying over the fallen comrade. They fly just high enough to enter a no-shooting zone. This is not the kind of shooting for absent-minded hunters, because you have to have a mental safety map in your head at all times—sort of like the range cards prepared by crew-served weapons gunners and Swiss farmers.
The ravens, scared off from distant corners of the 29,000-tree farm, come in waves. I can hear one of the owners as she fires a plastic “whizzing rocket” pistol to scare the birds. They simply leave one area and go to another, eating the rich nuts and, in the 105-degree heat, peck into the irrigation lines for a drink.
OUT OF CONTROL
Dr. William Boarman, founder of Conservation Science Research & Consulting, reports that between 1975 and 1999, numbers in the Mojave increased by 1,000 percent and in California’s San Joaquin Valley by an astounding 7,600 percent. In an ironic twist, the federal government protects the same ravens that are the main cause of tortoise predation … meanwhile, it is spending millions on silly projects to protect the vulnerable tortoise.
A Bureau of Land Management ranger here, in the Mojave, said that this valley should have about a dozen ravens, but that it now struggles to support about 1,500. Depredation permits are issued to hapless farmers, providing some relief. Many government officials are sympathetic to the righteous frustrations of environmentalists, hunters and farmers. However, to date, there has been no pressure put on legislators to change the law.
I spoke with a hunter who claims a Nevada game warden told him, “If it’s in the sky, it could be a raven, or it could be a crow. If it’s dead on the ground at my feet, it’s a crow.”
ITALIAN DESIGN, TURKISH MANUFACTURE
I bought my Sarsilmaz Excel Auto when it was being imported by H&R 1871 back in 2005. It’s a Turkish copy of the veteran Franchi 912 but is built on CNC machines. I never thought it would hold up, but it’s probably had 8,000 rounds of trap and skeet loads put through it and has only been put out of action by a shredded rubber O-ring and a primer that got lost in the action—not bad for a $400 gun; and the balance and proportions are the same as a Remington 1100, which I love but can’t afford.
The Excel Auto needs the O-ring with low-base loads, but when the collar is reversed for high-base loads, it runs fine without one. Oh, and it’s chambered for 3-inch shells, if you prefer. I’ve been told by competitive crow hunters that they use cylinder bore or skeet chokes, but the ravens in the Mojave have gotten used to moderate velocity and heavy payloads of #1s, and their effective adding-machine brains know just how far they have to be to stay out of range. With Federal’s fast Black Cloud #3s, I hit them fatally out to around 80 yards using a full choke.
There has been a Dead Mule recoil attenuator living in the front of the magazine since just after I bought the gun, and my rotator cuff thanks me every time I pull the trigger. The Dead Mule (“A dead mule can’t kick,” says the corny ad) is built in South Dakota by 100 Straight. I prefer it more than mercury recoil reducers, because it uses a weight between heavy springs. It works even when the gun is pointed downhill, as with bunnies or that damned running hare disk on 5-Stand. You can put the Dead Mule in the stock-bolt hole, but I like its added weight out front, where it encourages my swing and follow-through.
Sarsilmaz still makes this gun but calls it the “Magic.” The company has changed its styling to a more peppy, modern look. If it is still as well made, I’d buy one again.
For this kind of frantic wing-shooting, the most important trait of a shotgun is fast handling. A big, heavy over-and-under that is superb on the trap field would be at a disadvantage, and an autoloader offers the one extra shot that can be the difference in bringing down a mating pair.
Depending on how the permit is written, culling ravens can be done several ways. I have three blown lumbar disks, so a chair is essential. I put it in the shade with a wide view of the groves. Predation is at its worst in late summer, so a bottle of water is necessary.
A canvas Kolpin belt bag that was long abandoned by someone at the trap range now lives in my truck. It’s not as classy as my Galco leather bag, but it has several pockets for essential gear: Ammo for shotgun and rifle, water, shades, a Gun Tool multi-tool, Skeet choke for dense brush and oil.
Ravens come into range at 20 mph or better, so keep your ears open and your head on a swivel. And I always keep the safety on.
With a network of PVC irrigation drip lines running the property, for ravens on the ground, it’s necessary to trade in the shotgun for a rimfire. Unfortunately, it seems every time I acquire a .22 rimfire, it soon becomes a rent check or SiriusXM (essential out West) subscription. But for myT/C Encore, I found a .22 Hornet barrel and threw on one of my favorite utility scopes: a Leupold 2-7×33. The result? An excellent, affordable, ravenson-the-ground rifle.
To stay California legal, I sent mixed brass and a box of 35-grain Hornady NTX lead-free bullets to Bob Shell in Apache Junction, Arizona. Bob will hand load any round for any gun that ever used a centerfire cartridge (yes, he knows how to build proper casings and safe loads for anything in your closet). The wonderful stuff he sent back went over the Oehler 35P at 2,910 fps and yields a hair over 1 MOA. Bob uses 10 grains of 2400.
I really like the Encore for hunting, especially for varmints or pigs, for which you are constantly in and out of the truck. It’s very easy to press-check: Just crack the action, and there’s either brass or an empty chamber, so you can easily see if the primer has been struck. A drawback to the Encore is that it’s weak at the small of the stock.
SUCCESS, SORT OF
After a weekend of hard and exciting shooting, I wanted to keep pressure on but not exceed the permit limit, so a bird every day or so did the trick. Sadly, the vast “unkindness” just went to a less-defended neighboring farm.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on the March 2017 print issue of Gun World Magazine.