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American Crow

By Dennis Hester

Who has not seen a Crow? If a person can identify only a few birds, one of them no doubt will be the Crow. It is well known because it is large, black, ubiquitous and noisy. In fact, the American Crow probably ranks with Turdus migratorus and Sturnus vulgaris (American Robin and European Starling) as the most observed and identifiable birds in North America. But it is certainly not loved like Turdus (how odd to be loved with a name like this) and in fact is another of our bird species that seems to be unloved mainly because of its color, noisiness, and its propensity to congregate in large numbers. For example, every fall, as many as 100,000 American Crows choose to winter in Terra Haute, Indiana, leading that city to have established a Crow Patrol which uses pyrotechnics to disrupt roosting behavior and dilute concentrations of the birds. Crows are well known for pulling up and eating newly sprouted corn seeds thus engendering the hostility of farmers which has over the decades led to extensive control efforts leading to the killing of tens of thousands of birds. “Humans have tried to keep crows away since forever. They have used scarecrows to feign human presence. They have hung sulfur-dipped rags to remind crows of gunpowder. They have mounted dead crows on sticks. They have sent out hawks, banged pots, laid out strychnine, shot off guns, paid bounties. Still the crows come, as if to peck away at our sense of superiority. Crows are too intelligent to fall twice for most tricks.” And so the American Crow has not only survived it has flourished.

So gimme the facts.

The American Crow is a large (17 ½”), long-legged, thick-necked bird with a heavy, straight bill. It is all black, including legs and bill. In sun light its feathers take on a glossy sheen. It is found in small groups and occasionally large flocks in many habitats, including urban/suburban areas, parking lots and athletic fields, scrublands, open woods, roadways and refuse sites. The Crow’s diet is extremely diverse. It is an omnivore who will eat most anything from insects, seeds, bird eggs, small animals, nuts, and fruit to carrion and garbage. It ejects pellets. Based on years of close personal observation I can say, with some authority, that it, like its relative the Common Raven, seems to prefer French fries, Cheetos, and the bottom of soft-serve ice cream cones – clear evidence of its adaptation to human activity and its ability to thrive around people.

In flight, the wings are fairly broad and rounded with the wingtip feathers spread like fingers. The short tail is fan-shaped. With steady rowing wing beats the Crow’s flight is direct, thus the term “as the crow flies” to signify a straight line. It generally flies high, often in small loose groups.

Crows’ nests are well made coarse structures of sticks, twigs and grasses usually built at a good height in conifers or other trees. Parents take excellent care of the young, defend them valiantly against enemies and feed them long after they are fledged. After leaving the nest, the young keep their parents busy for a long time, as the stomach of a young Crow, much like that of a teenage boy, seems to approximate a bottomless pit constantly requiring food.The Crow is a remarkably cleaver bird. In comparison to the common pigeon which has a similar body mass, the Crow’s brain mass is nearly 5 times larger. They display a thieving propensity amounting to what would be considered kleptomania in human beings. And like other members of the family Corvidae (Ravens, Magpies and Jays) they seem to have a special passion for stealing and hiding anything of bright color or made of shiny metal.

The PBS television show Nature featured an informative and intriguing program, A Murder of Crows (2010). A “murder” is the term for a flock of crows. The show presented the following facts based primarily on a study conducted at the University of Washington giving insight into Crows’ intelligence:

• They are capable of individual human facial recognition after only one trial experience;

• They remember harmful/dangerous deeds done to them and retain this information for up to 2 years;

• They pass the information on to their offspring who have not actually experienced the harmful deeds;

• Scientists have identified 250 calls used by Crows;

• Additionally 2 distinct dialects have been identified – one for within the family unit, one for large groups;

• Crows rank at the top for intelligence even though they don’t have the biggest brains; brain size relative to body weight is comparable to the great apes;

• The New Caledonia Crow not only fashions hooked tools from branches but also in an experiment obtained a tool and used it to get a 2nd tool to get a 3rd tool which it used to obtain food.

What is the difference between Crow and Raven?

Crows and Ravens, though in the same genus Corvus, are different birds. In general, the biggest black species, usually with shaggy throat feathers, are called Ravens; the smaller species are considered Crows. So think of the Crow as the little brother to the Raven. American Crows can be distinguished from Common Ravens by a couple of features. Ravens are as big as Red-tailed Hawks, and Crows are smaller and, well, crow sized. But size difference is only useful when there is another bird near-by for comparison. Ravens soar more than Crows so if you think you see a “crow” soaring for more than a few seconds, check it a second time. Crows are shorter necked in flight than Ravens. The tail is a good distinguishing characteristic. As Linda de Kort helpfully points out – The shorter more squared-off tail of the Crow makes an easy to remember phrase: Square-crow.

If you get a good look at a perched bird, then the huge bill and shaggy throat of a Raven are diagnostic. While the upper and lower edges of the bill of the Crow are parallel for most of their length, there is a downward curve in the bill of the Raven which starts about 2/3 of the way out for males, and about halfway for females. There are large Crows and small Crows. They all make the familiar “caw-caw” sound but also have a large repertoire of rattles, clicks, and even clear bell-like notes. But they never give anything resembling the most common call of the Raven — a deep, harsh, croaking or “gronk-gronk.” Occasionally a Raven will make a call similar to a crow’s “caw” but it is much deeper than the Crow’s.

There is no sound as haunting as either bird’s call reverberating through silent gray damp woods on a late fall day.

While Crows are present in NW Montana, Ravens have become more abundant. This trend is reflected in population studies in Glacier Park.The word “crow” appears in Old English before the 12th century but has no real taxonomic meaning. Interestingly, the name Crow was given to our Native American neighbors residing in Southeastern, Montana. According to their official website, the Crow Tribe was originally called “Apsáalooke” which means “children of the large-beaked bird.” White men misinterpreted the word as “Crow.”

Now that you know more about them, when you find and identify American Crows, closely observe their activities. Are they communicating with each other or maybe even talking about you intruding into their space? Spend the time and enjoy what these intelligent birds have to offer.

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