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American Crow

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Brilliance in a plain black wrapper

Crows are common; in fact, they are so common that bird guides use them as references for size, as in “crow-sized.”  They are so prevalent that anywhere you go in the United States, from coast to coast, there are crows. This is especially true if people are present as well, as crows have an affinity for human settlements. But don’t let this ubiquity fool you. Just because crows are common doesn’t mean they’re not unique. Indeed, they are. 

Science has demonstrated that crows and their larger cousins, the ravens, are not only among the most intelligent birds, they are among the most intelligent of animals. Bird-brained they are not! These birds exhibit problem-solving abilities that rival the apes, and that’s better than even some people I know. You’d think that crows send all of their children to caw-llege.

The title for this column is correct: American crow as opposed to being labeled the Common crow. This name refers to North America, as the American crow is distributed from Alaska to northern Mexico and from sea to shining sea. There is not one American state or Canadian province that doesn’t have a resident crow.  Even Hawaii has its own native crow, though it is a different species. And contrary to popular wisdom, crows do not originally come from Croatia.     

Crows are often confused with ravens, or is it the other way around? The misunderstanding is common as both species are first and foremost large, uniformly black birds, with prominent beaks and prominent noises. But these noises the birds make can help to differentiate between the two species. Crows caw-caw whereas ravens croak. Also crows do not soar, but fly in a steady mechanical beat. Ravens frequently soar. And note the tails of each bird in flight: the spread tail feathers of crows form an arc, while those of the raven come to a soft, tapered point. Ravens are also quite a bit bigger, but this is not always obvious. Crows have a narrow pointed beak, whereas ravens have a distinctive “roman-nose” hump at the base of their top mandible. Another interesting point: crows and ravens do not intermingle. It is as if crows and ravens have a pact between them: “you stay on your side of the line and I’ll stay on mine.” 

Crows are also famous for mobbing. Interestingly, the word for a flock of crows in British English is mob. Crows attack in groups when they feel threatened, as directed toward an owl or other raptor. This mobbing action can be quite spectacular and appears to be always successful. It is also very noisy! 

This coordinated group action reflects the fact that crows live in large extended family groups of a dozen birds or more.  That is why you’ll almost never see a single crow; where there is one there is another close by.  They always keep within hearing range of the other. But I suppose if one got lost, he could always perch on a telephone line and make a phone caw.  

The birds themselves are omnivores. They’ll eat just about anything, or at least give it a try. This is probably one of the keys to their success. And as stated above they prefer to, indeed might only, live near human habitation. Again this suggests another reason why they are so successful as a species. Like the American robin, the House sparrow, and the feral pigeon, some species of birds have benefited from the movement and expansion of humans across the landscape. 

But life is not without its dangers. Crows typically build large nests toward the top of tall trees. A summer ago I watched a pair of resident crows in my neighborhood construct a very large nest in a nearby conifer. From my back deck I watched the family build the nest, brood their batch of eggs and chicks, and could even see the young fledglings jump about on the branches. One afternoon I heard a ruckus as these crows made a fuss about something. I looked up in time to see a Red-tail hawk swoop off with one of the baby birds. As the hawk flew overhead I could clearly see the young crow dangling from the predator’s talons. Interesting existential dichotomy: one species’ chick became food for another species’ chick.  

Commonality can be a misconception, as if common means bland, boring, and mundane. This might be true in your world, but not in the world of birds. Common more probably correlates to success. Crows are successful as a species and they surely are not boring. Inside that uniformly black outfit and behind that bold black eye is a brilliant mind. The next time you have an opportunity to spy a crow, just watch it for a while. You’ll be surprised as to what it can do. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

raven, A Bird in Hand, American Crow, crow

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