For the Birds Radio Program: American Crow: Our First Sign of Spring
This time of year, when some people are wrenching groundhogs out of hibernation holes hoping the groggy rodents somehow have a clue when spring will come, others look to birds. Of course this year, as some Northlanders still patiently await proof of winter, some birds are already acting like spring is just around the corner.
Some of our surest signs that spring is coming are related to crows. In late winter, crows start collecting in noisy flocks , dancing and hopping on branches and making throaty rattling sounds. Like young teenagers at a dance, they’re showing off and making the earliest overtures toward what will eventually lead to courtship. We usually start seeing these collections of crows in February, but this year they’ve been seen in courtship flocks even in far northern parts of the state early in January .
Crow pairs that are already established are focusing on courtship, too. Crows, cranes, and some other birds that mate for life go through most of the year in companionable pairs, feeding and resting together but not thinking about sex at all. Suddenly the lengthening days in mid-winter cause their honnone levels to surge, and their interest in romance is renewed. Great-great grandparent crows are suddenly kicking up their heels and making the same romantic rattling sounds as those young teenagers, and taking as much interest in starting a family as younger adults. They’ll build their nests, incubate their eggs, and raise their chicks in a matter of months, and by late summer their hormone levels will drop to a resting state again. But for now courtship is the order of the day.
Besides dancing and making an odd assortment of courting vocalizations, crows also start carrying sticks in late winter. Even experienced pairs virtually always build a new nest each year, usually high up in a spruce, too close to the trunk to be easily visible. Pairs doing romantic aerial maneuvers together and noisily declaring their love for everyone to hear are quieter and more secretive close to their nest, so most people never realize they have crows nesting in their backyard until much later in the season, when the babies are squawking to he fed.
To discover where nests are in your area, watch for stick-carrying crows and following them with your binoculars. It’s trickier than it sounds, because when they get close to the nest site, they often land in various trees first, warily making a roundabout approach. But knowing that they virtually always nest in a big old spruce and making careful observations, you can sometimes discover the nest before the eggs hatch. One May when spring was late, I discovered a crow nest in one of my backyard trees completely by accident, only because Twas scanning the top branches through my binoculars for warblers when I saw the blue flash of the incubating bird’s nictitating membrane as she blinked. From my second story bedroom T kept my spotting scope trained on her for the next couple of weeks, and was amazed at how very still she sat, sometimes staying on the nest for hours apparently not moving a muscle except to blink.
Crows are far more numerous in the metro area than is healthy for robins, but there’s something noble and beautiful about this intelligent, socially advanced bird. Henry Ward Beecher wrote, “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”