Tweetings, fellow birders! Thanks for flying in to read this column! This week I’d like to discuss a very interesting neighbor which you might take for granted, that being our old pal and farmer’s favorite, the Crow. While you may not realize it, they are intelligent, intriguing and downright clever, and really deserve an honorable mention here. So put those spooky scarecrows back in the barn and let’s have a glimpse at this gallant and gifted gawker!
There are two types which breed in Massachusetts and which can be found regularly in the New England area. These are the Common Crow and the Fish Crow, and both are very similar in appearance (with the Fish Crow being a bit smaller). A fairly large bird with full black plumage, long legs and thick bill, the Common Crow can always be recognized by their “caw-caw!” call, while the Fish Crow’s vocalization is more nasal and blunt, sort of a squawking “waw-waw!” Both species are omnivorous, feeding on fruits, grains, insects, crustaceans, small mammals, reptiles, even other birds and their nestlings and eggs. They will also eat roadkill and even invade garbage bags (so keep those barrel lids tight!). They cache food, meaning they hide it away for later use (perhaps they should be referred to as squirrel birds!) and they also congregate in large flocks, a group of which is known as a “murder.” (Somebody call Agatha Christie! Quick!).
Breeding and nest building begins in March thru April, the birds using the forks of tall trees to create a comfortable home. Many half-nests will be started and then discarded until the right one is found (house hunting!). Young crows actually stay with the parents for (perhaps) multiple seasons, and even help feed the female while she is incubating. Typically, 3-6 eggs are laid by May-June, with the nesting period being around 4-6 weeks. Within a few months the young are foraging for themselves, learning the business of being a crow. During the night they will join a roost, a large communal area where the birds will sleep for the evening, sometimes numbering in the hundreds or even thousands.
Now I know many people see these visitors as pests (especially farmers) and I admit that they can be a handful, but I did previously mention their intelligence, and I’d like to talk about that in greater detail. Through tests administered by scientists, it’s been discovered that crows can distinguish both specific objects and colors, as well as individual faces. They are also even able to count, and can perform various complicated tasks, like retrieving food from mazes and using sticks as tools. They have a great knack for memory and can recall if you’ve been bad to them or good (like Santa Claus!). Hence, if you get a heckling from a band of boo-birds, maybe you should issue an official apology! Their intelligence has been equated to that of a young child (5-7 years of age) and they exercise abstract reasoning and thought, and they even “discuss” you when you’re not present, passing on information to fellow crows! (This is getting scary!).
A few additional tid-bits:
Crows and Ravens are from the same genus (Corvus), with the Raven being much larger and more terrifying (just ask Edgar Allan Poe).
Crows are said to hold funerals, gathering in large numbers around a fallen friend (but never touching the body).
Crows have been known to gauge traffic lights to crush walnuts, using the cars to crack open the treats by placing them on the road during red lights. After the green lights expire and the red lights return, they swoop down to claim their pulverized prize.
- Crows in the suburbs may memorize garbage truck routes, finding the best times to forage (every Thursday morning!).
- Bonus fact— The cartoon characters “Heckle and Jeckle” are not crows, they are Magpies.
So what to make of them? Feathered friend or feathered foe? Odds are the answer lies somewhere in the middle, depending upon your location or given vocation. However, regardless of such debate, one thing must be said by all: Crows are an interesting and amazing animal, and we still have a lot to learn from them. One thing is pretty much certain for the future, and that is that crows are definitely here to stay. Try to appreciate them if you can. They might surprise you in the end.
And now, quoth the Raven (or in this case, the Crow), comes the bad joke:
Q: Why are crows the best dancers on Broadway?
A: Because there’s no business like “crow” business!
Yes, I know. I’m probably going to be attacked from above for that one!