Something to Caw About: The American Crow

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Though the crow is often viewed as an annoyance, in myth and folklore, the bird appears as a prophet, a matchmaker, an intellect, a guardian, and a fertility specialist.
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Research done with American Crows in captivity reveals they can count, have the ability to solve intricate puzzles, have visual and vocal recognition, and have an uncanny memory.
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Though crows and ravens are easy to confuse, their physical features, calls and habitats are unique.

Mark Twain described the crow as “a gambler, a low comedian, a dissolute priest, a fussy woman, a liar, a thief, a spy, a professional hypocrite, a conspirator, a rebel, a meddler, an infidel, and a wallower in sin for the mere love of it.” He lists nearly 30 “damnable traits,” explaining “(the crow’s) life is one long thundering ecstasy of happiness, and he will go to his death untroubled, knowing that he will soon turn up again … and be even more intolerably capable and comfortable than ever he was before.”

Twain’s crow is the villain of the cornfield, the horror of Hollywood movies, the coyote of the bird world, a lowly scavenger, and a nuisance. Loud and brash, he’s viewed as an annoyance, yet so common he doesn’t warrant our attention … except when he’s displaying one of his undesirable traits.

But the crow possesses many admirable traits as well. In myth and folklore, the crow appears as a prophet, a matchmaker, an intellect, a guardian, and a fertility specialist. A scavenger and carrion eater, he’s nature’s custodian. We share more basic characteristics with crows than some might care to admit. We’re both social creatures, with strong family ties; we’re long-lived; and our intelligence and adaptability ensures our survival.

Crows and humans have coexisted for thousands of years. Though the relationship has not always been a peaceful one, the subtle influence they’ve had on us is powerful. Crows have affected human culture in every part of the world, appearing in language, literature, folklore, art and music more than any other wild bird or animal. Admire them or loathe them, they’re everywhere, and the most widespread of the bunch is the American Crow.

The Common crow: common in name only

The American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) belongs to the Corvidae or crow family, which also includes ravens, jays and magpies. A large bird measuring 17 to 21 inches, the American or common crow is entirely black from its stout, pointed bill to the tip of its rounded fan-shaped tail. Even its strong legs and feet are black. They walk with a regal strut, displaying an air of nobility as if merely hopping along like other birds are beneath them in status.

Part of the crow’s tarnished reputation stems from his coloring. In ancient times, crows were viewed as dark forces representing evil and death. Not that the crow cares. His glossy, black feathers assist in his survival. They enable him to blend into dark hiding places to escape predators, and black feathers absorb more sun than light-colored ones, allowing him to conserve body heat in cold climates.

Naturally found in forests, shorelines and fields, crows are extremely adaptable. Though some bird and animal populations have diminished due to loss of habitat, crows have thrived in areas populated by humans. Food there is plentiful, cutting their territory to half the size needed for survival in natural areas.

Crows are the ultimate omnivore, eating virtually anything, dead or alive, plant or animal. On any given day, a crow’s menu might include, but is not limited to, insects, spiders, crustaceans, frogs, snakes, earthworms, eggs, snails, small birds, rodents, grains, fruits and seeds, as well as garbage and roadkill. And they may travel 30 to 50 miles a day to find it. Their eating habits have not endeared them to many, but as scavengers and carrion eaters, crows help prevent the spread of disease.

One habit in particular that’s given them their villainous notoriety is their fondness for farm crops. Each year, birds in general cause agricultural loss totaling millions of dollars, and crows have traditionally been the scapegoats. Their raucous behavior, size, color and numbers make them hard to miss, while other birds keep a lower profile. Crows pull up corn seedlings for the kernel buried below ground, eat mature corn and grains, and live through winter on the waste grain left in the fields.

For it, they’ve had bounties placed on their heads, been shot or poisoned, and had their roosts bombed. Despite this, they also do farmers a service. Crows consume an incredible number of insects that are damaging to crops; some experts estimate the good that crows do actually outweighs the damage.

The American Crow call

A crow’s caw is its signature, and it is one of the most identifiable bird calls in the world. The familiar, one syllable “caw” may sound simple, but it has many variations, conveying individual messages. The American Crow uses at least 23 distinct calls to communicate, and there also are crow dialects in different parts of the country. The crows in my yard in Michigan may sound different from crows in the South, and from those in the Plains states.

They are great mimics. That cat meowing in the tree in your backyard or the neighbor’s dog barking might actually be a crow. A crying child, a singing bird, and simple human phrases have all been imitated by crows, and they never seem to lack something to say.

If one cawing crow sounds raucous, and two or three sound argumentative, imagine how a flock of a hundred, a thousand, or even a hundred thousand crows sounds! The noise is a deafening, riotous cacophony that doesn’t quiet until it’s enveloped in total darkness.

Crows are highly gregarious, gathering each night to roost in flocks during fall and winter. Enormous, these flocks can total up to 200,000 birds and are described as being one of the most remarkable sights in American bird life. There is safety in numbers; the flocks offer protection, and its members care for and feed the ill, injured, orphaned or elderly of the group.

Though crows enjoy the sociability of large groups in fall and winter, they prefer to conduct family business in private, breaking from the flock in spring to nest. A crow’s family life is considered unusual behavior in the bird world. They live in nuclear families, consisting of the parents, adult children and their younger siblings. Young crows stay with their families for at least a season, but some spend years with their parents, helping to rear subsequent generations. They feed, care for and act as sentries to protect new family members, sometimes for as long as four years.

Considering a crow’s life span averages six to 10 years in the wild, it’s like having your middle-age children still living at home! When they do leave to find a mate, it’s a lifelong monogamous relationship.

We like to view this as a sign of intelligence because it mirrors our own behavior, and indeed, crows and ravens are recognized intellectuals among birds.

Crow intelligence

Research done with American Crows in captivity reveals they can count, have the ability to solve intricate puzzles, have visual and vocal recognition, and have an uncanny memory.

In the wild, the crow relies on his intelligence and adaptability for survival. Not only do they drop clams from the air to rocks below, cracking the shells, but crustaceans and hard-shelled nuts are placed in roads, letting the tires of passing vehicles do the work. American Crows are known to herd sparrows into the sides of buildings where the stunned sparrows become easy prey. Crows are not such easy quarry; many crow hunters tell stories of being outwitted by the clever birds.

Some scientists are slow to acknowledge play among animals and birds because it has no reproductive or survival value; others recognize that some behavior can be nothing other than play. Crows have been observed repeatedly dropping sticks while in flight, then diving to catch them before they hit the ground, and playing games of chase.

I once watched a crow take an apple from the compost pile to a spot high in a maple. He waited until the precise moment when our Black Labrador was directly beneath, then dropped the apple, narrowly missing the dog’s head. The cackling by the crow and his companion that followed could be described as nothing other than laughter.

Despite being wary around people, games like this are not unusual. Crows have an astonishing ability to recognize and differentiate amicable people from those who mean them harm. It’s the friendly folks that crows often “adopt,” developing relationships with them that last several years.

Love him or hate him, the distinguished gentleman in the plain black suit deserves a closer look, not under scrutiny, but to recognize him as a remarkable creature with intelligence, an uncanny knack for survival, and maybe with a few “damnable traits.” Because, hey, nobody’s perfect, and the crow doesn’t seem to mind one bit.  

Grit Blogger Cindy Murphy lives in a small Michigan town populated by crows and people who admire them. “Her” crow family of three stops by the yard every day.

Raven or crow?

How did the poor, lost soul in Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem know that it was the stately raven and not a noble crow gently rapping, rapping at his chamber door? Both are large, completely black members of the Corvus genus that, at first glance, look alike. Each have distinguishing characteristics that help determine which bird is the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and which is the Common Raven (Corvus corax), at left.

Physical Features: When comparing them side by side, it’s very apparent that ravens are the larger bird — though it’s rare, if ever, that you’ll see them together. More noticeable is the way their feathers lay; crows are sleek and smooth, while ravens have a shaggy “ruff” around their necks, which almost looks like a mane. The raven’s bill is larger than a crow’s and has a distinctive downward curve. A crow has a fan-shaped tail; a raven’s is shaped like a wedge.

Calls: The crow’s caw is unmistakable and unlike any other bird. He never sounds like a raven. A raven’s call is a guttural, almost gurgling, low krock that sounds as if it’s coming from deep within its throat. Both birds will often let loose a series of rattling and clicking sounds, but again, a raven’s is much throatier than a crow’s.

Flight: Often described as a rowing motion, the methodical rhythmic beat of wings is characteristic of a crow’s flight. Their course is as steady as their wing beat; crows don’t dart, rarely soar, and glide only when descending. Ravens are more acrobatic flyers, performing daredevil aerial feats such as somersaults, spirals and flying upside-down. A raven’s primary feathers on the tips of the wings are more prominent than a crow’s; a flying raven looks like it’s spreading its fingers.

Habitat: Ravens prefer a natural habitat and are less adapted to human environments than crows. If a raven ventures into an urban area, he most often sticks to parks. Crows are found just about everywhere humans live, and they are very gregarious, often appearing in large numbers. Ravens prefer to be alone, or with a mate rather than in a flock. A flock of ravens is usually composed of young, “single” birds that haven’t mated yet.

Mistake a stately raven for the noble crow? Learn each of their characteristics, and the answer could only be, “Nevermore.”