The American Crow

I love to watch the crows in my neighborhood or on the peninsula going about their complicated lives. The American crow, a stunning bird black from beak to tail, is the observer of all. They watch me from the tops of the pine trees as I do the dishes, make the bed or sit on the porch. Every now and then they catch me watching them or working in the yard and fly off announcing my presence to others, the message being passed on. I take the time to watch and listen. I am amazed by their community.

Crows in general evolved in Asia and have spread to North America, Europe, Africa and Australia.  The lower forty-eight US states are the home to crows year around. There are about forty species of crows. The crows I live with and wish to discuss are the American crows.

The crow shares the family Corvidae with ravens, rooks and jackdaws. The difference between a crow and raven, only size. I recall the ravens at the Tower of London…they were huge and somewhat regal. The American crow may come in a smaller package but packs a punch in the animal world.

The average American crow is 17.5 inches, 45 centimeters from head to tail and weigh 11.1 – 21.9 ounces. Their legs are quite long, necks thick, they have a straight bill and feathers that spread like fingers.   Jet black  feathers, beak and feet make them easy to spot. When a crow molts the older feathers may appear brownish in comparison but are still considered black. Not much is known about their life expectancy, however, a tagged crow was released after recording an age of 16 years 4 months.

Crows thrive around people and are extremely adaptable as far as habitat is concerned. They enjoy treetops, open fields, road sides, open woods, beaches, cemeteries, golf courses, city parks, and towns.  Deserts and thick forests are not attractive to crows. In my yard the crows have several favorite lookout trees.

As omnivores crows are opportunist diners. They will feast on insects, earthworms, small animals, seeds, garbage, eggs, nestlings, mice, fish, small turtles and more. Crows have a habit of hiding or caching extra food. They hide food under the grass, in gutters, in trees or other places they find useful. One family had animal carcasses being deposited in their birdbath. Crows are not interested in bird feeders but may be interested in some of the feeder’s visitors such as rodents.  It is the block and corn I put out for the deer that attract the crows to my yard.

In an earlier blog I spoke of observing a deer carcass  as it provided food for many different animals. I was alerted to the carcass by the sounds of hundreds of crows roosting in the apple orchard. I went to look at what all the fuss was about and found the deer. The crows visited in vast numbers for two days.

As the crow flies…a saying expressing the mathematical concept that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The crow’s flight is somewhat unique for a large bird, they swim through the air, constantly flapping their wings rarely gliding.

Crows are social birds sometimes collecting in flocks or murders of over a thousand.
Roosts occur in the fall or winter. During the breeding season, which begins in March,they prefer to be with their mates. It is thought that during roosting times crows are seeking protection from predators, teaching each other where to forage and about life as a crow in general. These large crow roosts are often considered a problem as the birds are loud and overbearing. The Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects crows from being harmed or hunted.

I am amazed by the crow’s intelligence and problem solving abilities. They communicate with each other with a variety of  calls and patterns most sounding like ‘caw’ to us. They can solve puzzles, use tools and hold grudges against people who mistreat them. A crow never forgets a face and will teach their peers and off spring what they think of you. If the crow finds you to be a bad person they use a particular call to announce your presence. If they consider you a good person they will bring you gifts. If you are so-so they watch you as they do me. Crows hold funerals, perhaps where their collective name, ‘murder’ comes from. They will collect in great numbers to watch the body. It is thought that this may educate the crows as to how this crow died and or about predators in the area.

For the most part crows mate for life. New partners will be found  if their mate dies or if they do not successfully create a family. Their mating season begins in March. It will take one or two weeks to build a nest. The male begins the nest as the female puts on the finishing touches. The outer layer is made of sticks, mud covers the sticks and becomes the glue on which something soft is stuck such as grapevine bark or mulch. Once the female feels comfortable with the nest she will over a period of six days  lay between two and six eggs. Mom will incubate the eggs for 19 days. Not all eggs will hatch. The birds that do hatch will spend up to thirty-five days in the nest before they hit the ground as fledglings. The parents will then spend another six weeks feeding their offspring until they become independent feeders. During this time crows watch for hawks and owls that feed on the fledglings. It is not unusual to see a crow or several crows chasing a much larger bird out of their territory. If a crow makes it through the first year of life it has a good chance of surviving as an adult.

In most cultures the idea of bad luck is attached to the crow and a few see them as good omens. In Japan they are seen as a symbol of death.  In many fairy tales the crow is portrayed as a clever trickster. The Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest see them as the creator of the world . In Sweden they are seen as the ghosts of murdered men.  Perhaps it is their intelligence, their community and control we fear.

Take some time to observe this clever bird and its community. I am sure you will be fascinated and awed by their lifestyle.

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