By Neva Knott
Illustration provided by Michael Westerfield at crows.net
Crows sit and watch. They are opportunistic and calculating, swooping in a just the right moment to catch prey. They quickly leave the ground for the shelter of a tree branch without hesitation or investigation. Once there, they watch some more. Crows move in two ways, one that is an overall movement from place to place, an orchestration of wing-flap and gliding. The other way of movement is an almost stationary series of head thrusts paired with hops, thus allowing the eye to capture a broad view. Crows are never completely still while awake and out and about. They do not hold eye contact, and are constantly scanning and commenting on what they see with their infamous cawing. They are blue-black and shiny, seemingly impervious to all weather and affronts. Crows build stick nests in trees. In the city, crows seem ubiquitous.
The American Crow. A commonly known characteristic of this bird species is that it is omnivorous. They are not picky eaters, and their diet is astonishingly diverse. According to the University of Nebraska Wildlife Extension Specialist, Ron J. Johnson, crows eat over 600 different food items. They will eat eggs from other bird nests. A year’s crow-diet is about a third animal matter, the rest is vegetable and plant matter. Crows feed during the day, and will fly 6-12 miles from roost to find food. In the ecosystem, the crow is a predator.
It is rare to see a crow alone. Research explains that crows are very social birds. They often scavenge in pairs or small groups, with one bird serving as sentinel. It is a family, even extended family, job to raise each year’s young to fledgling status. Parents are joined by the previous year’s offspring to help feed, watch over, and teach the new brood—usually four to six newborns. Fledgling crows spend several days on the ground before they are able to fly. In the winter, crows gather in extremely large roosts of several thousand. It is documented that crows can live up to 29 years in the wild. It is known that crows will damage crops, pick through garbage, eat road kill, are noisy, and carry disease. Even given these unfavorable characteristics, the crow is a smart and witty bird. Crows rarely are hit by cars even when foraging in the road, can count to three, and will employ such tactics as dropping large nuts for cars to run over and crack for them.
People and crows co-exist, but crows seemed to have earned this disfavor of humans. In Native American folklore, the crow was said to alert buffalo herds to the presence of hunters, and an attempt to burn the crow in retaliation is what caused him to be black. Another legend suggests that the crow brought light from the south to the north. In one legend, the crow is left with the caw, caw, caw because his beautiful voice was stolen by the trickster Raven. The crow’s voice does seem to be the harbinger of human presence—threatening or benign. It seems that, culturally, the crow is disfavored because of the wit and intelligence, traits humans like to acknowledge mostly in themselves. It seems that there is a human lesson to be learned from the biology of the crow, one that teaches more about family and community, more about being smart in the use of the resources around us.