Sneaky Beak

The street-smart American crow


By Susan Campbell

The crow is an oft-maligned bird, even feared by some. It is both smart and sneaky. Historically, crows were considered a bad omen: a common familiar of witches. Groups are still referred to as “murders.” Today the species remains the bane of farmers, being a large bird with a big appetite that tends to arrive with “murderous” intent when it comes to their crops.

Our common, year-round crow is the American crow. However, for a good part of the year we also have fish crows in the area. They, too, breed here but move east (and probably south) in the fall in large groups. Interestingly, they are often one of the first migrants to return to the Sandhills by early February. Although not noticeably different, fish crows are a bit smaller than their American cousins and have not a one- but a two-syllable call that is a very nasal “a-ah.” And as their name implies, these birds are drawn to wetter environments where they may feed upon the remains of fish and other aquatic creatures. (Ravens are a bird of a different feather and deserve a whole column of their own one of these days.)

Crows are more scavengers than they are predators. Without hesitation, they will take advantage of defenseless young birds and animals, but are more likely to be found picking at prey left by others or feeding on roadkill. They lack talons and the raptorial grip of hawks and owls. Their bills are very strong, however. Crows can bite, tear and dig through a variety of materials.

Vision is the one of the sharpest of their senses. In wet habitat, they will seek out female turtles laying eggs and lie in wait until the nest is complete. Even though the turtle may carefully rearrange the vegetation or leaf litter to disguise the nest’s location, the crows aren’t fooled and after the female turtle has crawled off, they’ll make a meal of the eggs buried in the soil.

Not only do they possess tremendous visual acuity, crows have demonstrated the ability to remember familiar patterns, such as the faces of people who feed them, or, conversely, torment them. In feeding experiments, not only were American crows able to remember where food was hidden, but in what order investigators left a series of treats. They have also been observed using tools: deliberately manipulating sticks with their bills to pry insect prey from cracks and crevices.

For large birds, crow nests are well-concealed. In our area, they often use abandoned hawk or squirrel nests. When they do create a nest from scratch, it is most likely a stick-built affair, hidden at the very top of a tall pine. The only hint of its location tends to be parents chasing away intruders. Watch for a soaring hawk that is being harassed or a squirrel being pursued as it makes its way from tree to tree. But finding a nest’s exact spot requires the sharpest of eyes and may take some time, especially after the arrival of the young, prompting parents to make frequent trips in and out of the nest.

American crows often gather in loose aggregations to breed. Two or three nests may be close to one another. That results in not only better protection but more eyes on the lookout for food resources. Also, adolescents — young from the previous year — may act as helpers during their first spring. It comes as no surprise that crows tend to be rather successful breeders.

With our gardens, henhouses, bird feeders and compost piles, humans are a major source of food for crows. Given their patience and perseverance, they have figured out how to take advantage of us. Maybe the time has come for us to step back and appreciate them for the amazing creatures that they are.  OH

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