Friday, September 23, 2011

Brother Crow

Today, walking home from work, I became aware of a dark presence swooping in the pine trees at the side of the path. I paused to look and saw a crow which appeared to be hiding from me. Looking further I saw several crows higher up in that tree as well as a few in the next tree.

I was surprised that the crow seemed to be hiding or secretive, as I have always felt crows are very comfortable around people.

The crows called to one another from their spots in the trees, one or two flew to new higher locations atop the pines. The crow I'd been observing, stayed near, and communicated with the crow in "his" tree. My sense was that this was a special language between crows of a family unit, maybe parent and child, or two mates. The voice was a series of guttural clicking sounds, but also reminded me of the gurgling of a creek. I felt that I'd happened upon a crow family's home, or roosting spot, a private place. Maybe this would explain the crow's reticence, and "hiding" behavior when I'd passed by.

Shortly the crow came out from the tree, and began to walk on the ground, with his companion.These crows appeared to be foraging for insects, and possibly seeds, and this reminded me of something I'd read in the book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, by John Marzluff and Tony Angell. They point out that in the natural world, the main diet of crows are insects, seeds and berries, as well as the carcasses of prey of animal predators, and that it is just when crows are led to the urban areas with easy access to human garbage that they will eat almost anything.

In the smallish city I live in, I have not witnessed the huge populations of  crows that inhabit cities like Seattle, or New York, so I know it is maybe easy for me to love the crow. I love the beauty of the crow, and as well I love the quaint way crows almost hop and bob when walking, with a jaunty air. I love the fact that crows like to be atop tall trees, and posts. I love their call, and also that they are capable of mimicking many different sounds. I once had the delightful experience of hearing a crow sing like a robin.Some people will say that crows do this to lure birds away from their nest, but according to Candace Savage in Birdbrains, this ability to mimick other bird calls is a socialization tool. According to this author crows are quite socially aware, and have been observed to protect other bird species from predators, by leading the predators away, with the call of the bird whi is at risk. Crows have also been know to watch over the young of other species of birds, but maybe this happens more in their natural environment.

Marzluff and Angell have written a fascinating study of crows. I can't do justice to all the information they provided, but would like to offer a few highlights here that I found interesting.

- Their black colour allows them to be stealthy and blend in to shadows to offer protection from  predators. Black feathers are apparently stronger than less pigmented feathers, and as well the black absorbs the sun's heat allowing crows to conserve their body heat in colder climates.The black shows up dramatically, allowing crows to show social signals.(p.47, Marzluff; Angell)

- In the desert, crows forage for food in early mornings, or late in the day, when the temperatures are more tolerable to their dark plumage.

- Crows have a very wide range of calls, for use with predators, their mate, family members, and as well the young have special calls to get attention.

- Crows mate for life.

- Crows watch over their sick and dying.

- Yearling crows often stay with their parents as "helper" crows and help with the care of the next young.

- Crows sun themselves in order to soak up those rays, and they are observed to be blissful when lying with wings outstretched to catch the sun's warmth on every part of themselves.

- Crows play in purposeful. funfilled ways. They will roll nuts over and over again down a slope. They've been observed playing with tennis balls, after watching humans play tennis.Their play may be for practising some skills, but also appear to be primarily for fun.

- Crows and ravens have a brain size, in relation to their bodies, which is more comparable with certain mammal, and primate brain sizes. In other words they have very large brains, larger than other birds, except for macaws and parrots. This larger brain size allows them to have the ability to learn, and they are considered a problem solving, cognizant bird.

- Crows and ravens are "corvids"  - according to the scientists who study crows, they were one of the first birds, and have been on the earth for 35 million years, when songbirds evolved into several prototypes - wrens, thrushes, jays,and crows. (p.82, M & A)

-  Due to the crow's and raven's large body size and the ability to eat a wide variety of food, they could travel long distances and may have been the first bird to find it's way to North America, from Asia, Australia, and Europe. M and A speculate that they may have shown the other song birds the way to the new world.

- Ravens and crows were here before the first people arrived in North America, crossing the Bering Strait; along with other possible entries. They would have followed these people, and their dogs; eating the leftover kill from the hunt. Ravens had been following other mammals such as wolves and eating from their kills before the arrival of people.

- The early people to this continent developed a reverence for ravens and crows.

- When Europeans began to arrive in the 1500's, they had some superstitions about crows that coloured their feelings towards this bird. During the plague in Europe, crows had scavenged from  the corpses of plague victims (there were such numerous deaths, that corpses were allowed to just accumulate unburied), and this had naturally repulsed the observers of this. People began to connect crows and ravens with death.

- Crows and ravens have a commensal relationship to humans, they feed on our waste.Unfortunately, humans are taking over large areas of the natural environments - clearing forests, destroying wetlands, and building suburbs, and shopping malls. We humans create enormous landfills, and so natually the crow is attracted to the urban centers. Crows tend to live where they are born and grow up, so we will be seeing more densities of crows unless some intelligent problem solving takes place.

- Some problem solving ideas that have been tried, and are working are introducing predators of crows, such as hawks and falcons. These predator birds acted as a deterrent in Hull, Quebec which had a serious problem with crow populations. In Japan, some ideas that are being tried are better waste containment, such as waste bins with tops that are fastened; garbage bags with spices such as chili, to deter foraging; and as well huge balloons, with eyes, attached to buildings - a "modern scarecrow".These are alternatives to simply killing crows to reduce populations.

In their preface to In the Company of Crows and Ravens, M&A, asks us to think about the "ethics of killing crows and other cognitive creatures", and as well to think about whether we are "conquerors or stewards" of nature.(p. xvi)

My very basic understanding, in very simple terms, is that as humans we would do well to work to help crows return to their more natural environments; and to use creative deterents, rather than attempting to kill crow populations, According to the authors of the book I've been reading, killing the crows doesn't  work in reducing the population, as more will keep coming if we attract them with poorly designed waste disposal systems.

 One last quite from M&A; "Keeping corvids wild keeps our relationship with them interesting. It may also keep our relationship with nature, in general, healthy. ...people and crows share a remarkable ecological, evolutionary, and cultural history. These fascinating birds may have played a large part in sustaining our connection to nature... Their complex voices, insightful problem-solving behaviors, and curious prominence provide an intriguing and convenient means to link urban people with wild nature." (p. 300)

Can you see the crow atop this pine tree? Can you see the other crow?  Here in the small city where I live, crows tend to live in a more natural way.I think I'm fortunate to observe them as they are meant to live. I think they are also fortunate to live a life as though in the wild.



The Boston Lady said...

Brenda, how interesting this is.... I had always wondered why Ravens and Crows were associated with death (a favorite of Poe) and now I have my answer. Your informative post took me back in time to the little beach near where my parents used to live. There was a small forest of pine trees that were populated by a large group of crows. It was always a delight to sit by the water and listen to them "talking" to each other (probably about us!). The different sounds they made against the quiet of the beach is something I will always remember. Ann

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Hi, Ann,
Thank you for reading here, and for sharing your lovely memory. It's a pleasure to read about this peaceful time. Just now, my windows are open, and I'm enjoying the sounds of crows calling.
Wishing you a great week,

Geraldine said...

this is a lot of information about crows and ravens. I'm not a fan of crows (they kind of scare me actually!) but I was fascinated by the ravens we saw up in the Yukon when we lived there. they were enormous! not the Prairie size I was familiar with. I guess it's all the eating they do. and very tame, sat on people's pickup trucks and just stayed there, even when people came very close.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Hi, Geraldine,
Thanks for checking in here and reading.
Lucky you to see these ravens, I'd like to.

I hope you might have changed your view of crows abit from reading about them, they are a marvelously interesting bird, and we humans are really responsible for their increasing density in cities, because we're pretty wasteful, and leave our garbage accessible to them.

I truly hope that we can learn more creative, responsibile ways of dealing with crow densities in the urban areas, and see the crow as the treasure they are.

If crow populations can slow up in cities, and crows stay more in their natural environments, their population will be lower because there are natural predators in these environments, and the food sources aren't as plentiful. Then perhaps crows would have a more natural way of living, and people won't come across some of the threatening behaviors crows seem to have in cities such as begging for food, etc.

Teri C said...

Wonderful and informative post Brenda. I have a friend that believes crows and ravens are magical creatures and they are very meaningful to her. We have lots of crows and ravens in our yard and boy, they can be very noisy..

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

Thanks for reading!
Interesting to hear that you have ravens as well as crows, I'll bet they would be noisy, with all the different vocalizations they make between one another!

I learned in my reading that people tend to feel either a reverence, and awe for crows; or a definite dislike for them possibly due to their foraging in crops and gardens, or garbage in cities; or their noisiness.

For some reason I've always just loved them from my childhood.

Thanks for your kind comment!