Good Crow – Bad Crow!!

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

When I was just a little tike, I was always being told about the ‘talking crow’ that my grandfather had. I was told this bird had a split tongue and hence, its ability to speak. It had apparently been a pet since it was a chick when our family had a home at a farmhouse in Quaise, across from Folger’s Marsh. Back in the early part of the 20th century, it was not uncommon to keep wild birds as pets, and really this was just a crow after all.

This week’s bird is one of three birds that almost everyone can recognize and name, although I do remember a bird trip where a lady asked me straight-faced, "What is the big black bird that goes caw-caw-caw?" Not only does everyone know the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos, but also they have strong opinions about this species – good or evil. In reality most people think crows to be villains. What’s the story behind this American landmark?

On Nantucket we find crows year ‘round, but they are not the same crows. Scientists have long known that jays and crows have two segments to their population, one which is migratory, the other sedentary. So, some of our crows are with us all year, but part of the summer population spends the winter down south, while many of our winter birds come from Canada. They all look alike – how do they know?

Just in case you don’t know a crow, they are totally black, and vary in size from 17 to 21 inches, from beak to tail. Our American Crows might be confused with Ravens and also Fish Crows, species we always look for but have never found here. Fish Crows are smaller and are common along the coast particularly in the Southeast. They are regularly found on the Cape, so it’s only a matter of time for Nantucket. Ravens are almost twice the size of an American Crow, and they soar like hawks, with a long wedge-shaped tail, but never seen here, and seldom ever in eastern Mass.

So crows are bad guys? Well, yes they seem to be, if you believe that anything that would attack other bird’s nests, eat their eggs and young, is bad, then many crows must plead guilty. They also love corn, and out in Kansas and Oklahoma, they have been declared public enemy number one. Our government actually bombs their winter roosts with dynamite, killing hundreds of thousands of birds at a time. This sounds rather extreme, but consider that the winter crow population of Oklahoma is between three and four million. And that brings up the real paradox and amazing statistic of Corvus brachyrynchos – they still persevere, despite incredible persecution.

How can they survive? Well, Henry Ward Beecher’s quote, "If men could be feathered and provided with wings, very few would be clever enough to be crows!" is quite significant. For it is with guile and cunning that these marvelous, black-clad fellows do persist. Studies of crow’s behavior continually show a wonderful ability to learn and adapt their behavior. We are impressed by our Herring Gulls’ behavior when they drop shellfish from on high to break them on the tarmac – almost all crows seem to know about that. Perhaps the gulls learned from them.

Crow behavior is fascinating to study because they are so social. Crow families seem to hang together. Uncles and aunts of the following year’s progeny often assist in rearing their nephews and nieces.

Perhaps the greatest crow phenomenon is their winter roosting behavior. Starting in August, and then through the winter, crows gather socially to spend the night. In some cases they travel twenty or more miles to get together for their communal snooze. Observing this is fascinating for the bird watcher. They talk about hundreds of thousands of crows coming together. They report hundreds of crows per minute passing a single spot. In some cases, where the conditions have been extreme, the birds end up sitting on the snow all night. In the morning, observers found all the imprints where they had sat through the night, a beak hole in the snow in front, droppings in the rear, attesting to their full night’s presence. In extreme conditions, thousands of crows die when their corneas freeze and they go blind and starve. Nature is a cruel taskmaster.

So, when you are awakened early by the cacophony (perhaps ‘cawcawphony’?) of scores of crows in your neighborhood, try not to be angry. Think of this much-maligned species that somehow manages to survive – even thrive despite man’s persecution. Our American Crow must be admired.

So, we finish our American triad of articles. Next week, we will examine a bird, which is red-white, and blue. Can you guess what that will be?

George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.

The Maria Mitchell Association sponsors bird walks every Saturday, leaving at 8 a.m., and on Tuesday and Thursday, starting at 6:30 a.m., all leaving from the Hinchman House on at the corner of Milk and Vestal St. There is a fee. Call 228-9198 for more information.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.