Bird call: crows, glorious crows; smart, talkative, loud | Way of life
Crows, just like squirrels, have always existed on the outskirts for me.
This, although I have always been particularly enchanted by the expression “murder of crows”, or group of crows. Also delicious: committee of vultures, parliament of owls and sip of cormorants.
The big black birds always seemed to be around, tearing the carcass of a poor animal by the side of the road or grudgingly shouting at their buddies as they hovered from lamppost to lamppost. Sometimes I even had the uncomfortable feeling that they were making sarcastic remarks about me as I walked past. I never gave them much thought, although I once read that they could remember the faces of humans who had been jerks to them and then plot with their brethren to harass said humans. This treat stuck and made me treat them with more respect for fear of a reenactment of Hitchcock’s “Birds”.
But last year I learned another juicy nugget of information – that often when you see a flock of crows screaming and flying in a small area, there’s a good chance a hawk, owl, or another bird of prey is nearby. The crows harass the predator and attempt to banish it from the area.
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Since I learned of this, I have seen it happen twice. The first was in the giant old tree right outside my front door. I heard a cacophony of crows, walked out, looked up and saw some sort of hawk digging into its dead bird lunch, which was neatly placed on the branch next to it. Think of me as traumatized. I don’t like birds eating other birds at all. What if humans did this regularly?
The second time was while driving, and I saw a murder of crows flying around a tree. As I got closer, I could see a hawk sitting on a branch, although it looked a little dazed and confused, and somehow swung on its perch. I felt horribly sorry and even cried for said hawk, who looked like only minding his own hawk business, until I got to my destination and looked on Google why the crows might upset the poor guy. It was then that I learned that hawks sometimes eat baby crows and that I can empathize with crows. I really wish I hadn’t anthropomorphized so much.
Come and find out much later that crows are also known to eat the chicks of other birds. Oh, this animal kingdom will be my death. So brutal.
But I’m now officially curious about crow. Cunning birds are part of the corvid family, which also includes blue jays, scrub jays, star jays, magpies, and crows, and we have plenty of them.
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“I’m pretty sure we have more corvids along the Front Range than anywhere else,” said Steve Getty, a longtime bird watcher who leads field trips for Aiken Audubon Society. He is also director of the Quantitative Reasoning Center at Colorado College.
Getty also appreciates crows and corvids in general. They are super smart, communicative, and fun to watch.
“If I see a crow, I’m always curious to see what it’s doing,” Getty said. “They usually communicate with each other, or if they’re alone, they seem to be exploring something. They don’t just sit there sleeping. They are still engaged. It has to do with some of their cognitive abilities compared to other birds.
In a study of the most innovative bird feeding behaviors, the winners were crows, crows and parrots. New Caledonian crows are notorious for taking a stick and making marks that act as barbs, so they can put it in mounds of dirt and pluck out termites and other insects. Crows are also known to drop shelled nuts on roads at stop signs. A car will pass by and act as a nutcracker for the hungry bird. They are also sociopaths who drop stones on the heads of rabbits, securing a fresh carcass for lunch.
“It’s the use of tools,” Getty said. “The other thing that is unique about these higher level birds is the learning that they actually do. You learn a lot of social behavior.
Getty confirmed my previous story on crows and facial recognition. A researcher studying their socialization needed to keep track of them, so he donned a caveman mask, grabbed a couple of them, and banded them. Later, whenever he went out into the neighborhood without a mask, the crows left him alone.
But when he came out with the mask on, the crows would dip the bomb and scold him, even the crows he had not banded.
“It’s not that they recognize people, but if they have a reason to remember something, they will,” Getty said. “What was amazing was the way those who were banded were conveying to others that this guy was a potential threat.”
Nine years later, the same researcher put on the same mask, came out into the same neighborhood, and was assaulted again, this time by crows that were not born the first time. They were able to somehow convey the information, although researchers are not sure how.
Finally, how do you tell the difference between a crow and a crow? If they are side by side on a fence, the bigger one is usually the crow. It becomes riskier if you see a large black bird flying overhead or perched alone in a tree.
If you are in an urban area, this is probably a crow, although we do have ravens in Colorado Springs. Wildlife biologist Joe LaFleur thinks your best chance of deciphering between the two is the tail.
“The raven’s tail is flat at the end,” he said. “The tip of a crow’s tail is rounded. A crow has a thicker beak. The voice may be different. A crow’s most distinctive call is a more low-pitched, hoarse cry. A crow tends to have a higher pitched call, but a crow can also have one. But you won’t hear a crow make a low, hoarse cry.
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