Category Archives: Corvids

Despite its dark and misunderstood reputation, American crow one of nation’s success stories

Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS • American crows — large, intelligent, all-black birds with hoarse, cawing voices — are familiar over much of the continent. Crows are common sights in treetops, fields and roadsides and in habitats ranging from open woods and empty beaches to town centers.

While seeking birds far afield, I have occasionally spotted some innovative scarecrows standing sentry in gardens and agricultural fields. I’m not sure if anyone still erects these human effigies for their original purpose of warding off crows and other feathered agricultural pests. These days, scarecrows likely serve an ornamental purpose and are often part of a yard’s whimsical Halloween or autumn decorations.

Regardless of the intention behind them, scarecrows have never been effective at driving crows away from human fields and crops. To put it simply, crows are too smart to get spooked by the human invention of the scarecrow. The bird with one of the smartest brains among all birds is more than a match for the brainless friend of Dorothy standing vigil in the proverbial cornfield.

The intelligence of this bird has long been known. Early American naturalist William Bartram wrote about a crow named Tom in a highly entertaining essay titled “Anecdotes of an American Crow.” Bartram, who lived from 1739 to 1823, brought humorous observations and keen insight to his subject as he wrote about the joys — as well as tribulations — of living with Tom, a crow that enjoyed tormenting Bartram’s dog and purloining the writer’s spectacles and trying to hide them.

William Bartram

The essay demonstrates that almost as soon as Europeans arrived in North America, some of those with a bent toward the natural world recognized the intelligence and amazing adaptability of the American crow. As well as writing about the natural world, Bartram earned widespread acclaim for his drawings of botanical and ornithological subjects. Tom, the featured crow in Bartram’s brief essay, certainly exhibited intelligence of an impressive degree. Not only did the crow steal his owner’s eyeglasses, he foiled Bartram’s first attempt to reclaim them. The story makes very humorous reading. To read Bartram’s account, visit http://www.geocities.ws/jswortham/crow.

What else have crows done down through the ages to gain such a dark and much undeserved reputation? It probably doesn’t help matters that a flock of crows is known as a “murder.” Ancient Greeks considered crows as omens, which often foretold death and other disasters. The warrior goddess known as the Morrighan from Celtic mythology often appears in the form of a crow or raven. She is also often portrayed as being accompanied by a group of these black-plumaged birds. Many Native American tribes revere crows as communicators between worlds. Crows have been documented using tools and solving problems, which shows an uncanny ability to analyze and strategize. The early Celtic people also noted and admired these traits in crows.

Photo by Bryan Stevens / A trio of American crows forages on a grassy lawn.

Crows are very social birds, often forming family flocks. They may also form much larger flocks for the purpose of roosting. When nesting, this social behavior comes in useful for a mated pair. Offspring from previous successful nesting efforts often serve as helpers. In addition to gaining their own life experience on successful nesting and caring for chicks, these older siblings may protect the nest site from predators or even deliver food to fill hungry beaks and bellies.

While famous for their associations to humans and our agriculture, crows forage far beyond the cornfield for their food. Many crows scavenge road-killed wildlife, such as squirrels, opossums and rabbits. While they certainly don’t turn up their beaks at the notion of eating carrion, crows do so less often than birds such as turkey vultures, black vultures and the crow’s fellow corvid, the common raven.

Photo by Bryan Stevens / Wary American crows survey their surroundings.

The kinship to the raven is evident, but even moderately experienced birders rarely confuse these similar species. The raven is a large bird with a heavy beak, a distinctive profile and a wedge-shaped tail. In a direct comparison with a raven, a crow looks downright puny. Both are members of the corvid family, which consists of 120 species including jays, rooks, magpies and jackdaws. Some of the world’s other crows include the descriptively named little crow, hooded crow, carrion crow, collared crow, long-billed crow and violet crow. While most of the world’s crows are thriving, the Hawaiian crow, has been extinct in the wild since 2002, although the species still exists in captive-breeding programs in various zoos.

Thanks to its resourcefulness and intelligence, the crow is deserving of more respect and even admiration. The American crow is a uniquely American success story. Think more of Bartram’s story of Tom the crow and not the dark, misguided myths and legends about crows this Halloween. Long may the crows fly.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this American crow.

Crows show intelligence yet can’t shake dark reputation

Crow-Waxwings

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Red-winged blackbirds mob an American crow. In turn, crows often mob large raptors,           such as red-tailed hawks and great horned owls.

There’s something rather autumnal about watching a flock of American crows glean the last scattered kernels of corn from a harvested field as a sentry stands guard ready to utter the alarm with some guttural “caws” should anything potentially threatening appear on the scene. Crows are such a part of the landscape that they would almost escape our notice if they didn’t come with centuries of accumulated baggage that makes us distrust them and suspect their every action.

The crow, largely thanks to its black plumage, but perhaps also with a nod to its avian intelligence, has long been associated with Halloween. Greeting cards and decorations for the holiday often feature depictions of bats, owls and black cats, as well as the inevitable crow and the accompanying scarecrow. It’s not like the straw-filled sentries that stand guard over a farmer’s fields do anything to intimidate or even discourage crows. With a brain about as big as a man’s thumb, the crow is renowned among ornithologists and other scientists for its keen intelligence. Crows are not fooled for a second by the masquerade of a scarecrow propped in a field.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / Wary American crows survey their surroundings.

The intelligence of this bird has long been known. Early American naturalist William Bartram wrote about a crow named Tom in a unique naturalist essay titled “Anecdotes of an American Crow.” Bartram, who lived from 1739 to 1823, brought humor and insight to his subject as he wrote about the joys, as well as tribulations, of living with Tom, a crow that enjoyed tormenting Bartram’s dog and stealing the writer’s spectacles and trying to hide them.

The essay demonstrates that almost as soon as Europeans arrived in North America, some of those with a bent toward the natural world recognized the intelligence and amazing adaptability of the American crow. As well as writing about the natural world, Bartram earned widespread acclaim for his drawings of botanical and ornithological subjects. Tom, the featured crow in Bartram’s brief essay, certainly exhibited intelligence of an impressive degree. Not only did the crow steal his owners eyeglasses, he foiled Bartram’s first attempt to reclaim them. Noting Bartram’s attention to his efforts to hide the purloined spectacles, Tom snatched the eyeglasses a second time when Bartram made a premature attempt to reclaim them. The situation makes very humorous reading.

What else have crows done down through the ages to gain such a dark and much undeserved reputation? It probably doesn’t help matters that a flock of crows is known as a “murder.” Ancient Greeks considered crows as omens, which often foretold death and other disasters. On the positive side, many Native American tribes revere crows as communicators between worlds. Crows have been documented using tools and solving problems, which shows an uncanny ability to analyze and strategize. Early Celtic people also noted and admired these traits in crows.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this American crow.

In addition, crows forage beyond the cornfield for their food. Many crows scavenge road-killed wildlife, such as squirrels, opossums and rabbits. While they eat carrion, they do so less often than birds such as turkey vultures, black vultures and the crow’s fellow corvid, the common raven.

The kinship to the raven is evident, but even moderately experienced birders rarely confuse these similar species. The raven is a large bird with a heavy beak, a distinctive profile and a wedge-shaped tail. In a direct comparison with a raven, a crow looks downright puny. Both are members of the corvid family, which consists of 120 species including jays, rooks, magpies and jackdaws.

Many years ago I fed a flock of ducks that took up residence at my fish pond. Before long, the crows arrived within minutes after I tossed shelled corn on the ground for the benefit of the ducks. If the ducks took too long consuming the corn, the impatient crows crowded closer and competed directly with the ducks for the kernels. The crows that live around my home are usually too cautious and wary to visit feeders situated near my home. Feeders set farther from the house receive occasional hurried visits by crows.

Crow-Trio

Photo by Bryan Stevens / A trio of American crows forages on a grassy lawn.

American author and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher summed up the American crow in the frequently quoted remark, “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” It’s an apt tribute and comes from the man whose sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book often credited with helping to launch the American Civil War.

Crows, perhaps more than any other North American bird, have learned to co-exist with human beings. Make an effort to get past some pre-supposed superstitions about these interesting birds and learn to appreciate them for their many good qualities.

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To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, send an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s raven much like the real-world bird

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                      A Common Raven turns a fallen log into a perch.

From the opening refrain of “once upon a midnight dreary” in his poem, “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe established a somber mood and also helped cement the dark reputation of one of North America’s most misunderstood birds.

 

The common raven seems an apt bird for this week’s column since we will be celebrating Halloween this coming Saturday. Poe’s poem offers a dramatic introduction to a bird that has once again become rather common in the region, particularly at higher elevations. This bird is well-known for nesting on inaccessible cliffs. However, this past year a pair of ravens chose a more unusual location when they built a nest beneath the grandstands at Bristol Motor Speedway. Ravens have nested annually at this location at least since the spring of 2013.

Poe’s well-known poem, first published in 1845, is often cited as evidence for Poe’s genius for rhyme and his ability to create a believable supernatural universe populated by dark forces and one particularly persistent raven.

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Edgar Allan Poe, author of “The Raven.”

Poe describes the bird that provides the title of his famous poem with adjectives such as “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous.” His raven also speaks, although it has the limited vocabulary of a single word, “Nevermore.”

How closely does the real common raven resemble the “bird of yore” in Poe’s classic poem?

Establishing the raven’s closest relatives is helpful. The raven is a member of the corvid family, which includes birds such as crows, magpies, nutcrackers and jackdaws. The common raven is the largest bird among the corvids. This bird can achieve a wingspan of almost four feet. The average raven weighs about two-and-a-half pounds. Large individuals have been recorded with a weight of slightly more than four pounds, making the raven a contender for the title of world’s largest songbird.

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John James Audubon painted the Common Raven as part of his ground-breaking “Birds of America.”

It’s also an intelligent bird. Authors of a scientific study conducted about 10 years ago posited the claim that ravens and crows are just as intelligent as some of the great apes. Although parrots are more famous for the ability to mimic human speech, captive ravens have proven capable of learning more words than even the most impressive vocabulary-endowed parrots. So, Poe was not wide of the mark when he gave the gift of gab to the raven in his poem.

In the United States, the raven is quite common in Alaska. In the lower 48 states, raven populations are somewhat more sporadic. These large birds have established strongholds along the Appalachian Mountains and in the American Southwest. The raven is a cosmopolitan bird known to range from North America and Greenland to Europe and Asia, as well as North Africa and the Canary Islands.

The common raven is mainly a scavenger, but this bird is also an opportunistic predator and will prey on a wide variety of animals, including arthropods, amphibians, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and carrion. Ravens are attracted to carrion and are not finicky eaters. They adapt quickly and are known to even consume garbage.

Its black coloration has undoubtedly contributed to the raven’s sinister reputation and its affiliation with many dark superstitions. According to Laura C. Martin’s book, “The Folklore of Birds,” notes that the raven is “loathed throughout Europe as a symbol of impending death and war.” She explains that the raven probably acquired these connotations because these birds fed on battlefield corpses. As indicated earlier, the raven is not a picky eater.71GJJF6G3WL._UY250_

Martin also points out that legend maintains that England will remain a powerful nation as long as ravens live in the infamous Tower of London.

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Noah release a raven prior to setting free a dove.

The Bible offers a rich source of tales involving ravens. The prophet Elijah, after falling afoul of a wicked king, went into hiding and was provided food by cooperative ravens. In the story of the Biblical flood, Noah first released a raven to determine if the waters had receded. When the raven didn’t return to the ark, Noah next released a dove. This bird later returned to the ark clutching an olive leaf, which proved that the flood waters had subsided.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service The Common Raven, like most other corvids, is known for intelligence.

Many cultures also consider the raven as a “bringer of magic,” and the bird is associated with many creation stories in Native American cultures. Unlike the European custom of designating black as an “evil” color, Native Americans teach that black can hold various meanings, including resting, healing and prophetic dreaming, but evil is not one of them.

Ravens and crows are similar, but ravens are much larger birds. In addition, ravens have wedge-shaped tails and crows have fan-shaped tails. The common raven also has a well-developed ruff of feathers on the throat, commonly called its “hackles.”
A “murder of crows” is a fairly well known collective noun for a flock of these birds. On the other hand, a group of ravens has many collective nouns, including a “bazaar,” “constable” and “rant” of ravens. For its alliteration, I am fond of “a rant of ravens” and think it’s a shame that Poe’s raven was apparently a solitary bird.

Other species of ravens found around the world include dwarf raven, thick-billed raven, fan-tailed raven, brown-necked raven, little raven and forest raven.

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Doves, by virtue of their light plumage, are often associated with good, while dark-feathered ravens are associated with darkness and evil.

If you hear the guttural, low caw of a raven this Halloween, beware of this bird’s long history of association with the darker niches of the world. Here’s one final tidbit regarding this bird from Martin’s book. Cherokee tribes believed that ravens would visit villages to seek out ill or dying people. In the absence of a village shaman to drive away the bird, the raven would invariably snatch the life of the ailing individual. It’s something I wanted to make you aware of in advance of the year’s most spooky holiday.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.