Bird Lore: American Crow

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American Crow (Photo by Carol Riddell)

The American Crow is one of the bad boys of the avian world. This highly intelligent trickster is a bandit, a bully, a beggar, and a thief. It is a successful generalist, living well on its own or adapting to the easy life of cities and towns. Also a sanitation worker, this crow helps keep our streets clean by feeding on roadkill such as squirrels. A thoughtless looter, it makes a mess when it rips through trash bins for table scraps, tossing garbage in every direction and annoying the general populace.

Each of the Lower 48 states hosts populations of the American Crow. It is not found, however, in Hawaii or Alaska. It avoids unbroken dense forest, high altitudes, deserts, and tree-poor grasslands. Crows that breed in Canada retreat south into the U.S. for the winter months. It may be the most abundant bird in Edmonds, admired by many and perhaps hated by more.

Photo by Carol Riddell

The American Crow is always smart enough to serve its own interests. It will take the time to teach humans how to assist it, if it is in its interest. It will remain blissfully silent when it wants to avoid detection. Its intelligence allows it to make and use simple tools, such as shaping a piece of wood and then using it to probe for food. As Henry Ward Beecher, 19th Century preacher and abolitionist, once observed, “If people wore feathers and wings, very few would be clever enough to be crows.”

The American Crow is an omnivore, feeding on practically anything it can find. Its diet includes spiders, snails, insects, earthworms, frogs and small snakes, shellfish, eggs, carrion and garbage. It even eats the young birds of other species. Seeds, grains, berries and fruit also find their way into this crow’s stomach. When scavenging along the ground, the American Crow struts or walks with the rolling gait of a sailor.

In courtship, the male faces the female, fluffs up his body feathers, partly spreads his wings and tail, and repeatedly bows while making a short rattling song. Mated pairs bond by perching close together, touching each other’s bills, and preening each other’s feathers. Their offspring from previous generations assist the breeding pair. The American Crow does not breed until at least 2 year of age. Most do not breed until they are at least 4 or older.

The nest, built by both sexes, is a bulky basket of twigs, sticks, bark strips and mud. It is lined with softer materials such as grass, moss and plant fibers. The nest is located 10-70 feet above ground, typically in the vertical fork of a tree or at the base of a horizontal branch against the trunk of a tree. The female incubates the 4-6 eggs for about 18 days. Both parents, and sometimes the helper birds, feed the young. Hatchlings leave the nest at about 4-5 weeks of age.

The American Crow maintains a year-round territory for its entire extended family, which lives and forages together. In winter this species gathers in large night roosts. Family members will fly together to a flock or roost but then separate in the crowd. Locally, Edmonds crows fly to the night roost in Bothell.

The American Crow is a species of least concern for conservation purposes. The population is estimated at 27 million. Its greatest threat is the West Nile virus that arrived in North America in 1999. Almost all individuals that contract the virus die within a week. In some areas, the loss of crows has been severe. The population in Puget Sound metro areas is robust.

Photo by LeRoy VanHee

The American Crow is a busy body when it comes to owls and raptors. An owl asleep in a tree, or a hawk perched on a limb, will be repeatedly dive-bombed by a flock of crows while they squawk an alarm call. They will chase hawks and eagles in the air, seemingly nipping at their tails and talons.

The oldest known wild American Crow was 16 years and 4 months of age when it was recaptured in a New York State banding operation. The oldest captive crow was 59.

Two good reads about crows were written by John Marzluff, a University of Washington ornithologist who studies crows and lectures about them: “In the Company of Crows and Ravens,” and “Gifts of the Crow, How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans.” Both books are available through Sno-Isle Libraries. In addition to hard cover, “Gifts of the Crow” is available as an eBook and as an audio book.

The American Crow’s simple, call-like song can be heard here: http://www.xeno-canto.org/233496. And these are the scrapes and groans of one flock member harassing a perched raptor: http://www.xeno-canto.org/114559.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I have a love/hate relationship with crows. They make such a racket and make a mess of my sidewalk. But, they keep things clean , acting as scavengers. They are extremely smart, very family-oriented–all in all, a necessary evil. They mimic the call of so many birds that they fool me a good many times.

  2. Crows are also the key to locating owls in Yost Park. Just follow the sound of the crows and they will show you where the owls are….

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