Crows have long been associated with the trappings of autumn and the harvest. We place scarecrows — in vain — in our gardens and fields to ward off the crows and others birds that wish to share the fruits of the harvest. We invent lore and superstition, mostly inspired by the crow’s dark plumage and some rather unsavory eating habits.
One prevalent superstition in many cultures is the belief that if a crow lands atop a home’s roof, the inhabitants will suffer ill fortune or can soon expect death. Of course, people have also tried to invent ways to avoid such calamities. For example, in the West Country of England, people once carried onions with them to ward off crows. Exactly how toting an onion about on one’s person offered protection from a crow is not explained. I’ve never been concerned personally with keeping crows, or any bird, for that matter, at a distance. I always try to stay alert for any surprise these winged creatures bring my way.
So, on a recent autumn stroll around the campus at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee, I got a welcome surprise when I added a new bird species to my Tennessee state list. I made the observation that added a new bird to my list quite by accident.
For months, I’ve read with interest postings about the presence of fish crows on the campus of the Mountain Home Veterans Administration adjacent to the ETSU campus. I’d heard about the fish crows from some of my birding friends, too. I had not stirred myself to look for these slightly smaller relatives of the American crow. So, when I heard a familiar “caw” that was a bit too nasal for an American crow, I stopped for a closer look. I heard the vocalizations again and found a couple of fish crows perched atop the parking garage located behind the Carnegie Hotel, which is located between ETSU and the VA campus. With some surprise and delight, I realized that the birds were fish crows.
I’m familiar with fish crows from trips to coastal South Carolina, where these members of the corvid family are quite common. Fish crows have expanded inland away from coastal areas in recent decades. The fish crows showing up here in our region originated from that expansion, which likely followed river systems like the Tennessee River.
The easiest way to detect a fish crow’s presence is to keep your ears open. Fish crows make a distinctive vocalization that is quite different from the typical “caw” of an American crow or the harsh croak of a common raven. The website All About Birds describes the call as a “distinctive caw that is short, nasal and quite different-sounding from an American crow.” The website notes that the call is sometimes doubled-up with an inflection similar to someone saying “uh-uh.”
Although their name suggests a fondness for fish, they’re not finicky about their food and will eat about anything they can swallow. Fish crows are also known for raiding nests to steal the eggs of other birds. They will also dig up sea turtle eggs, which are buried in sand dunes by female turtles. Fish crows don’t scruple at stealing food from other birds and have been observed harassing birds ranging from gulls to ospreys. Fish crows also harass American crows and, if they are successful, don’t hesitate to skedaddle with the morsel they force the slightly larger relative to surrender.
I once kept a flock of ducks at the fish pond at my home, feeding shelled corn to the ducks during the cold months. The crows soon got wise to the daily handout and would arrive to glean any corn uneaten by the ducks. Eventually, the crows became bolder, arriving and trying to drive off the ducks almost before I got back indoors after scattering the corn on the ground. I could watch from a window as the stubborn ducks held their ground and the crows had to be content with the scraps.
The fish crow ranges in various coastal and wetland habitats along the eastern seaboard from Rhode Island south to Key West, and west along the northern coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve noted that many fish crows appear to exhibit a fondness for rooftops. On Fripp Island, South Carolina, they’re fond of perching on the roofs of seaside homes. These perches offer them a good view of both the surf and sand that comprises their preferred environment. So, discovering the fish crows in Johnson City hanging out on a rooftop wasn’t too surprising.
It’s not been easy for crows in recent years. The West Nile virus has been particularly hard on American crows, which seem to have very little immunity to this mosquito-spread disease. The fish crow, however, is more resistant to the virus, with close to half the birds exposed to the disease able to shake off the effects and fully recover.
Adult crows don’t have many enemies, although owls and hawks will not hesitate to prey on young crows still in the nest. Perhaps it’s the survivors of these nest raids that keep alive the innate hatred of crows for raptors of any sort. The presence of a raptor in the vicinity will often inspire a mob of screaming crows that will proceed to harass the offending hawk or owl. Red-tailed hawks and great horned owls appear to draw an intense ire on the part of crows.
Crows belong to the genus Corvus, which also includes ravens, jays, magpies, rooks and jackdaws. Many members of the genus are known for being highly intelligent. Some have been documented solving problems and using tools, areas of thought once believed to be reserved for human beings. Other crows found around the world have had descriptive names bestowed on them, including such species as pied crow, little crow, hooded crow, slender-billed crow, brown-headed crow, grey crow, white-necked crow, collared crow, piping crow, violet crow and white-billed crow.
Now that you know that the ubiquitous crow actually belongs to a rather diverse family of exceedingly intelligent birds, I’m confident you’ll not look at them the same way in the future.