Backroads: Crows

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Our three crows dining with the chickens. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

Not everyone is a fan of the common crow. Gardeners detest the way they pull up tender shoots of corn before the plants attain enough growth to fend them off. People who feed the birds are annoyed at the aggressive way they hog seed at the feeders and drive the smaller birds away. In general, they are not the most favored in the bird kingdom. One man I know would shoot an offending corn plucker and dangle its lifeless body on a swivel so the wind would catch its wing and twirl it around.  This was supposed to be a detrimental sign to other crows to think again before visiting his garden. I’m not sure about crows, but the macabre vision would make me think twice before snatching a ripe tomato off his vines! Another lady always referred to them as “flying rats.”  Oh, woe, the crow!

I, on the other hand, am a connoisseur of the naughty black birds. They have funny personalities and if watched on a daily basis, can enlighten one in their ways. Currently, we now have three crows that stay within the perimeter of our property. No matter what time of day I go out and summon them with my strange crow call, they come flying in to see what tasty morsels I have for them. If I’m late, all three will perch on the back fence and cackle amongst themselves until I come out with leftovers. The “flying rats” clean up every bite. Kind of like a garbage disposal but more fun to watch. 

These three are the offspring of two former crows; Ezra and his wife, Esther, who showed up one day and stayed until Ezra got so old his blue/black feathers had actually turned gray. One year in early spring, they both came like clockwork for their breakfast until we noticed Ezra was alone one morning.

Old Ezra in his last days. Photo: Lynn Coffey.

He ate whatever we threw out and then would pack his bill full and fly off for a few minutes before returning to resume his feast. This continued for a time and we wondered if something had happened to Esther because crows’ generally mate for life. The mystery was solved when one morning I heard a racket in the backyard and looked out to see Ezra, Esther, and three immature fledglings hunkered down following Mama making a plaintive cry of hunger. When the leftovers came, she carefully fed each baby bird its share. This went on until it was plain the “babies” were big enough to forage for themselves but kept on pestering their mother for sustenance.  She, at the end of her rope, began the process of making them fully independent by ignoring their constant chatter.  

Just by watching their habits, I learned when I heard their incessant raucous cawing in the hedgerow that some type of intruder was eminent. Watching their location, a bobcat, a roaming dog, and once, a mama bear and her two cubs came out from the brambles underneath the heckling crows. I also learned that a soaring hawk or lone raven were no match for the fearsome three. They chased and dove and nipped at the interlopers until they were forced from the crow’s territory. Every now and then the raven would dare to land and help himself to the backyard bounty before the crows showed up, but it was a rare instance.

“Waiting for breakfast.” Photo: Lynn Coffey.

Crows are very clever and one of the most intelligent of all birds. It’s not uncommon to see crows carrying tree nuts and dropping them on the road where vehicles will run over them and then returning to pick the nutmeats from the crushed shells. A group of crows is called a murder but can also be called a horde or a flock. In the wild, the average lifespan is seven to eight years. In captivity, it can be much longer. The normal number of eggs in a clutch is anywhere from three to nine and their tree nests consist of sticks or twigs lined with grass, bark and moss. Eggs are a bluish/green color with brown streaks. Normal habitat is a  wooded area close to open fields. Crows can remember the faces of individual humans and can hold grudges on those who aren’t nice to them.  On the other hand, they have been known to bring “presents” to those who show kindness. It was recorded that an eight-year-old girl who had an interesting relationship with crows had been brought gifts such as buttons, paper clips and shiny nails for her kindness to them. 

Young crows from prior years often help their parents take care of newly hatched babies. They are not picky eaters, and their diet can include fruit, mice, frogs, insects, nuts, carrion, and of course, table scraps. What they can’t eat, they often cache. We have seen our crows eat their fill and then bury the rest. Whether they ever go back and find what they’ve buried we have yet to know. One thing I do know—they don’t seem to like green beans! They will pick them out of whatever we feed them and lay them off to the side.

It’s almost time to be thinking about planting, and as we drop seed corn in the rows, a neighbor remarked she’s noticed that our crows never seem to bother anything in our garden. I told her that’s our reward for feeding them “leftovers!” 

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