For the Birds Radio Program: Crows
This time of year, as ice thickens on my end of Lake Superior and below zero temperatures in the morning make it hard to come out from under the covers to face another day, right when we are desperate for any sign that spring is on the way, in fly the crows. Raucous cawing that will be irritating in May is wonderfully welcome right now. A pair of crows flying through the frozen air stirs something deep within us, their very movement a triumph over frozen stillness, and some essential but mystifying element of their early courtship rituals rekindles our own yearning for romance. Crows carry sticks, which seem to secure the bond between male and female even as the activity serves a practical function in providing the foundation for a new year’s nest. Many crows mate for life and spend the entire year with their mate, but the rites of spring renew their bond so that they enter the new nesting season with their commitment to each other as fresh as when they first mated.
Crows associate not only with their mate but also with their babies from previous years, their siblings, and their neighborhood acquaintances. There are records of birds in this family even taking care of old, partially blind individuals and leading them to water. In my own neighborhood in Duluth, twice there have been crows with a broken wing who have lived for over a year, apparently looked out for by their neighbors. If crows are protective of family and friends, they’re as xenophobic as the most insular human communities toward outsiders. When I was rehabilitating wild birds, I simply couldn’t allow an injured crow brought to me from another area to run about in my backyard, or within minutes the neighborhood crows would attack.
Of all birds, crows are perhaps the most human in their complex social systems, and certainly in their intelligence. Henry Ward Beecher once wrote that if men could fly and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows. They are known to be able to count to six, and in some psychological tests have performed as well as monkeys. One New Caledonian crow (a close relative to our American crow) fashions its own hooked tool to get food items. And our crow’s close relative, the raven, has long been known to use insight to solve problems.
Clever as they are, crows are also very observant. Most of the owls I’ve seen during my 28 years of birding have been brought to my attention by crows. If a crow spots an owl, it makes a loud vocalization that draws other crows in, and they mob the owl relentlessly, their caws resonating and echoing in the loudest “cacawphony” of the natural world. This harassment sometimes drives the owl away, making it less likely to notice where the crows head as evening falls. If a Great Horned Owl does discover the location of a crow roost, it is likely to kill several in a single night. Owl faces and beaks are designed more for swallowing prey whole than ripping meat apart, so when an owl does chance upon hundreds of crows, utterly helpless in the dark, it’s simpler for the owl to kill them one by one and just bite off and swallow the heads. When I took care of injured crows, I discovered firsthand how helpless they are in the dark. If a crow’s wing needed resetting or I had to give it medication or trim its beak or claws, it was a simple matter at night, with one of my children holding a flashlight. I never caught a crow sleeping—they awakened even if I tiptoed in, and their eyes followed my every move, though they were rooted to the perch as if paralyzed with fear.
Despite predatory owls, the crow population had been extraordinarily high for the past decade. West Nile Virus killed a huge number during the past two years. In laboratories, over 90% of crows exposed to the virus die.. Only time will tell whether enough individuals develop a resistance to keep the population strong. Meanwhile, watching them carrying sticks and frolicking in the sky, filled with romantic ardor and optimism, fills us with hope.