Crows: Problem-solvers and Joy-finders of the Avian World
I eagerly admit that the America Crow (Corcus brachyrhynchos) is one of my most favorite birds. Lumped into the order Passeriformes with other songbirds, they form the Corvid (Corvidae) family in which they share with Ravens, Fish Crows, and Blue Jays in the Commonwealth. Crows are not only clever, they have demonstrated intelligence. They use tools; have a range of vocalizations for communication; are able to communicate over much longer distances than other songbirds; can count (at least up to 7); and can problem-solve and trouble-shoot – remember Aesop’s fable of the Crow and the Water Pitcher? Well, research as has shown, the fable is true. Crows will choose sinkable objects to raise the water table to get at something s/he wants, such as a drink of water or a treat. Crows will use sticks to dig for insects, a cross-walk to have vehicles break shells and pick up the meat when the cross-walk is in use by humans, and pull up fishers’ hooks to abscond with fish for dinner. So keep a closer eye on your lines during ice-fishing season.
Crows have a unique family structure whereby the young of previous years return with the parents to help their parents raise the young and learn how to be good parents. Older siblings tend to stay with their parents for up to three years. Ever notice what appears like a gang of crows in the later spring? Those are the teens who have been evicted from the nest. They are too immature to mate and are unsure what to do with themselves so they all congregate together and make a ruckus. Sound familiar compared to our human teens? But when these youngsters do get it together and find their special someone, they mate for life, which can be up to 25 years. Partners will present shiny objects as gifts of endearment to each other. Your lost ring is equally as valuable as a soda tab or a piece of aluminum foil or fishing hook.
Crows roost together at night throughout the winter for protection, company, warmth, and to blend in with the shadows. Great Horned Owls are nocturnal predators and occasionally take a sleeping crow. This is apparently the reason why mated pairs do not slumber together; there is a greater chance at least one of them will make it through the winter. And though both hawks and owls are predators of crows, crows will mob these bigger birds to get them to move off their perch and fly away. This is especially true if there is a nest nearby and they don’t want a raptor taking off with one of their simps (chicks) for a meal.
Crows both cache food and overeat – similar to the human tendencies towards hoarding and gluttony. They will also steal from one another because of their predisposition to coveting shiny objects. Though there may be some squabbling, there are no hurt feelings as corvids are opportunistic and will simple move on and capitalize on the next best thing that comes along.
A curious rapport between crows and coyotes has been observed. Crows recognize coyotes as carcass openers and will actually caw in predators to a prey or a dead animal. Crows being quite the pranksters and loving to play, will also play tag with coyotes; chasing each other back and forth. Coyote chases Crow and when Coyote tags Crow (by snapping at their tail feathers), Crow turns around to chase and tag Coyote (by nipping at their back or tail fur). And when there is not a coyote to play with in winter, crows will amuse themselves by rolling or sledding down snow-covered surfaces. You can watch videos of crows using yogurt tops to sled repeatedly down a house roof – yes, they will carry their make-shift sled back up in their beak, much like a human child will drag their sled uphill to slide down again and again.
And during the winter months you may notice large flocks of crows roosting in Greenfield or Springfield. Watch the skies as you travel along the Route 91 corridor shortly before dusk and you may see flocks of crows flying overhead to their mysteriously agreed upon roost. And though a group of crows is traditionally called “a murder” – I will attempt to change the masses’ opinion by calling a flock of crows a miracle. So watch a miracle fly over your head this winter and aloft your dreams into the sky.
Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News. This article appears in the November 2019 edition of The Ashfield News.
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