A FEW WORDS ABOUT CROWS (March 14/16)

Most people hardly ever think about crows, not seriously anyway and not a lot if they do.

Yet crows are everywhere (ubiquitous is the word); if you live in a city or town, in the country, near dykes, around farmland, tidal waters, lakes or woods, crows likely will be somewhere nearby.  Oddly, for such a large bird they’re almost invisible and we’re barely aware of them as they go about their daily foraging; unless, of course, crows suddenly decide to move en masse to roosts where people live; which occurred a few years ago (for reasons still unfathomable) in several Valley residential areas, causing a great public uproar.

Biologists and conservationists often think about crows, sometimes seriously.  A while back, the biologists pondered about crows and decided they were a menace to other wildlife, waterfowl and songbirds especially; then for a long time crows were listed as one of several unprotected species and anyone could kill them year around.   Then the biologists and other government people thought about it some more; they decided we couldn’t have people with guns running around the countryside willy-nilly 12 months of the year shooting at crows, so they arbitrarily set September 1 to March 31 as the only period when wide open warfare on the bird was permissible.  In other words we then had a crow season.

As well as ubiquitous, crows are omnivorous; in other words, they eat everything – vegetables, carrion and unimaginable numbers of destructive insects.  This eat everything appetite of the crow isn’t all negative, as Robie Tufts explains in Birds of Nova Scotia:  “All of the crow’s deeds are by no means ‘bad’ as judged by human standards.  He destroys innumerable meadow voles and great quantities of grasshoppers, crickets, other noxious insect pests – this is what he is doing when seen on the farmer’s fields in summer and fall.  These beneficial activities often pass unnoticed.”

This constant foraging makes the crow as valuable as other birds so why it isn’t more protected is a mystery.  Well, not quite a mystery.  On major North American waterfowl nesting areas crows earned the reputation of being extremely destructive nest robbers – not only of waterfowl nests but the nests of songbirds as well – and were widely condemned continent-wide as a result and left entirely unprotected.

It was estimated that at one time about 30,000 crows were using a single roost along the Minas Basin.  From what I’ve read about winter roosts, this is a small murder (“murder” being the traditional name for groups of crows).   In the Birder’s Handbook, for example, mention is made of winter roosts holding hundreds of thousands of crows. I don’t know how this number was determined but dynamite was used to destroy some of these massive roosts, apparently because they were near waterfowl nesting areas.

Crows have a “language” all their own, greeting calls, anger and alarm calls, for example.  Apparently that simple “caw” we hear is used to express a variety of emotions. Also, various studies giving crows problems to solve involving food determined they’re adept at reasoning.   Much more adept than previously realised since the birds studied in some experiments solved one and two-step problems.

In other words, old Corvus, that black, thought of as a villain bird is a lot more complicated and smarter – and more beneficial – than most of us realise.

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