For the Birds Radio Program: Something to Crow About

Original Air Date: Sept. 23, 1999

Crows may be nuisances in certain situations, but they’re the most human of birds.

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The crow: black as midnight, with starlit eyes–or do they glint with evil? Beautiful songbird, graceful and well-proportioned, or ugly and sinister, its harsh voice the antithesis of melody.

The crow is intelligent or cunning, pleasantly sociable or irritating and murderous. We laugh at Heckyl and Jeckyl even as we shudder to see Norman Bates’s stuffed crow in Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and the crows gathered in ominous silence at the schoolhouse steps in “The Birds.”

Crows are found on every continent except Antarctica, and everywhere they are noticed, figuring powerfully in mythology and folklore. Their numbers are skyrocketing, especially in urban areas where we inadvertently subsidize them, providing shelter in spruce trees and nutritious food in our garbage cans, dog dishes, and bird feeders. Carrol Henderson, director of the Non-game Wildlife Program at the Minnesota DNR, says the next generation of bird feeders will have to be designed with screening to keep crows out. These oversized songbirds are an inescapable fact of life in the Northland–annoying neighbors that you just can’t get rid of or welcome harbingers of spring, all depending on how you look at them.

Like skunks and raccoons, crows are opportunistic omnivores that flourish in edge habitats, providing yet another danger for declining songbirds. They snap up baby robins and other nestlings to feed their own young . But they also clean the landscape by scavenging, eat an array of insect pests, and provide interesting entertainment for people who appreciate their antics.

Crows are legally classified as gamebirds, their hunting season running from July 1 through November 1. But their numbers haven’t been reduced since Minnesota adopted the crow hunt in 1987. If anything, the burgeoning population has become more concentrated in urban areas, as if they actually read and understand local ordinances against discharging firearms.

Although crows are functionally illiterate, they are genuinely intelligent creatures, even capable of enumeration. Research indicates that they can count up to six, which is, interestingly, the maximum number of babies in a normal crow brood.

Crow social systems are startlingly humanlike. Although not tuneful to human ears, their calls serve complex social functions much like our language. Crows are suspicious of strange crows in their midst, sometimes ganging up on them, yet behave altruistically toward family, friends and neighbors. Adult crows will risk their lives defending any young crow against a predator. When a crow loses its mate, it seems to go through genuine bereavement.

Crows share their eye color with many humans. When hatched, nestlings have blue eyes which slowly become brown. Baby crows have high-pitched, nasal voices which deepen and change in quality as they go through adolescence, just like adolescent boys.

People like and dislike many birds, but we reserve our strongest human passions–love and loathing–for the most human of birds. Whether we focus on their opportunism, outspokenness, gluttony, loyalty, or xenophobia, when we see a crow, we look into a mirror of the human soul.