Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Nature smart: Common and clever crows

Though other crow species exist in other parts of the world, the American crow is unique to this continent. (Photo by Stan Tekiela)

We often overlook or ignore the more common critters in the natural world. The Eastern gray squirrel and chipmunk are examples of common critters we often ignore.

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is an exceedingly common bird that we overlook. It’s found across the Lower 48, most of Canada, and parts of Alaska. This is why its common name includes the word “American,” because it is found only in North America. There are several other species of crow in the Old World (Europe, Asia, Africa), such as the carrion crow and the hooded crow. These Old World crows look similar in size, shape, and color and fill a similar ecological niche.

Those who haven’t been to the East Coast of America might be surprised to learn that we have a second species of crow – the fish crow (Corvus ossifragus). It looks nearly identical to the American crow but is smaller and sounds much different. It’s a coastal bird, from Louisiana to Florida and up the East Coast to Massachusetts.

And don’t confuse them with their much larger cousin, the common raven (Corvus corax). The raven is larger and has a larger bill, more feathers on its throat and around its legs, and sounds different from the crow. Ravens also live in smaller family units and don’t roam around like crows.

Few would argue that the American crow is one of the continent’s smartest birds. It’s inquisitive and has the ability to solve problems and use tools. Humans used to think that we were the only animal that used tools. We even cited the ability to use tools as a demarcation between humans and the animal kingdom.

Well, we were wrong about that. Many animals use tools and have used tools long before people did.

Crows have adapted to people and our city and suburban environments. Not long ago, crows were considered a rural species found on farms and in fields. Now they thrive in cities and suburbs nationwide. In fact, now more crows live in cities than live in rural areas.

Our American crows have the ability to communicate with one another and share with where food sources are located. They can simply tell family members where the food is located and communicate it well enough that they can find it on their own, without being shown. This indicates a high level of detailed communication between individuals.

These birds are considered omnivores, which means they eat everything from insects to nuts to berries. They also eat meat, eggs, and fish. They are opportunistic feeders and will take advantage of any food source they can find. They’re also proficient hunters. I have witnessed crows catching bats in flight and also small, young birds. Crows cooperate to locate food or to catch food. More importantly, they share what they find with the entire family.

American crows are socially monogamous and cooperative breeders. This means that the young birds from the previous year stick around to help raise the young from the current year. They all work together to raise the young crows. They are the originators of the concept of it “taking a village” to raise a baby. Families are often as large as 15 to 20 individuals. Younger birds stay around for several years before striking out on their own. They usually don’t breed until age 2 or 3. Most young birds don’t leave their families until they are 5 years old.

So, when a small family of crows started hanging out in my backyard, I was thrilled to see them. I enjoy watching them taking a snow bath or chasing squirrels just for the fun of it. I like the common critters that we too often overlook. Until next time …

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