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Nature Notes: American Crow

Ed Robinson
December 1, 2014
Curt Chipman photo

The ancient Greek writer Aesop told of a thirsty crow which came upon a pitcher half full of water. The crow knew that his beak was too short to drink, yet he understood that if he tipped over the pitcher, he would not benefit from the spilled water. The crow proceeded to drop pebbles in the pitcher, causing the water level to rise until the crow could slake his thirst. Aesop clearly knew his local crows, generally regarded as one of the most intelligent creatures on earth.

The American crow is a member of the genus Corvus (from the Latin word for “raven”) which includes roughly 40 related birds around the world, including ravens, jays and magpies. Crows are marvelous adapters, comfortable living in open forests or in more urban centers, where they can expect humans to make available a wide variety of food, including road kill. You may see one or two crows on a tree in your yard, but you could equally find many thousands of these highly social birds flocking together in a “murder.”

We all recognize crows with their nearly complete black plumage and skin, with only the eyes being dark brown. Measuring up to 20 inches long, an adult weight of one pound and a wing span up to three feet, crows are powerfully built with a heavy bill. From a distance you can recognize a crow by its slow, methodical wing beat that yields a series of up and down movements, with very little gliding. They also have strong legs, handy since crows spend a great deal of time on the ground, hunting for food and tearing flesh from scavenged carcasses.

Crows are omnivores, willing to eat almost anything that offers calories. Their diet includes fruits, worms, seeds, amphibians, eggs, birds, rodents, shellfish, nuts and grains. Their willingness to raid farmers’ fields has brought many crows to a bad end, despite their taste for insects that may cause crop damage. Crows are aggressive in guarding food sources, ganging up on larger birds and even chasing away foxes and raccoons. These clever birds have even been observed dropping hazelnuts on roads, and then waiting for passing cars to crush the shells.

No lilting songs will you hear from a crow, their basic calls mostly variations of a hoarse, guttural “caww.” When the birds are excited or threatened, they can become quite raucous and large numbers of birds will flock to the scene. Scientists are keen to learn more about crow communication, both to better understand interaction among family groups, but also because crows clearly can learn to respond to, even to mimic the calls of other birds. Crows can also be trained to speak a few human words.

Crows begin breeding around three to four years of age, and since they can live as long as 20 years in the wild, they can create large numbers of offspring (the oldest crow in captivity lived to 59!). The birds tend to nest in large trees with a great deal of foliage, presumably to make their nests less visible to predators. The female lays three to six eggs and incubates them for an average of 18 days. The chicks will remain on the nest for about four weeks, but the parents will feed them for another month after the young are flying. Crows are migratory, and colder weather will find them coming together in large numbers. The small city of Auburn, NY began attracting large numbers of wintering crows in the early 1990’s and in some years the population exceeds 50,000. Attempts to scare the birds away or to lower their numbers via hunting have been mostly unsuccessful.

Humans and crows have a long history of interaction, with the birds playing a role in many ancient myths. In Australia, aboriginal mythology labeled crows as tricksters or ancestral beings. The old Norse legends included two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, that ranged the world, bringing information to the ruling god, Odin. Hindus believed that the call of a crow near your house presaged the arrival of special visitors. The Irish associated crows with death and destruction, while the English, more pragmatic, encouraged crows and ravens to inhabit the Tower of London in hopes that the birds would bring bad luck to the hated French!

Readers’ note: HHLT member Curt Chipman, who provided the garter snake photo in our last issue, sheepishly admits that he became rather fond of the snake over a couple years. Having repeatedly observed the snake near his door step, Curt resorted to calling the snake “Oscar.” Curt has nothing for which to apologize, since naming wild animals, even endowing them with imagined powers, is quite common. Have you developed a relationship with a wild creature, even naming your special friend? Please send me an email with your story at erobin77@gmail.com.

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