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A Murder of Crows

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Driving Off The Red-Tailed Hawk

by Jim Marquardt

This past summer, a red-tailed hawk took up residence in a tall pine tree near our house. I tried to photograph it as it soared overhead, but always got outside too late. Then I realized I didn’t need to keep watch. Whenever the hawk left its nest to prowl for victims, a flock of crows in the neighborhood would erupt in vehement “caws.” They would take to the air like fighter planes and “mob” the hawk at a safe distance. Highly maneuverable, a daring crow occasionally would peel off and make a strafing pass at the raptor, veering away at the last moment. Such aggressiveness led some observers to describe a flock as a “murder of crows,” but the term is more poetic than scientific, and far overboard in describing crow behavior.
According to Candace Savage’s book Crows: Encounters With the Wise Guys, researchers discovered that crows are among the brainiest organisms on earth, outclassing most mammals and other birds, with the possible exception of parrots. The brain to body ratio of a crow is similar to that of a chimpanzee, and the crow is near the top of the list of tool-using creatures. Savage cites an experiment at Oxford University where a crow selected the proper length of wire and bent it into a hook to gain access to food that was otherwise inaccessible. In Scandinavia, crows tug up ice fishing lines, holding the tangled line with their feet between pulls, until they can reach fish on the hook. The Smithsonian National Zoological Park calls the crow the “consummate opportunist.” The bird frequently hides food for later dining, and if observed, pretends to hide morsels in a false place to fool other crows. Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology writes that crows recognize individual humans. Since McGowan annoys young crows by banding them, they will pick him out among hundreds of people on a university campus and dive-bomb him.

Dr. David Sagman, a retired neurologist and wildlife photographer in Southampton, tells about a former medical colleague and his wife who live on a remote spread in Northeastern Oregon. Jack and Renee Thompson rescued a baby American Crow that had fallen out of a nest and nurtured it back to health, naming it Razzle for its perky personality. Razz had the run of their house and built a nest on a closet shelf. She came down each evening for Tostitos Corn Chips. Razz repaid their hospitality by providing security. One day when Renee walked outside, Razz flew ahead and suddenly began hovering and squawking loudly. The crow had spied a rattlesnake coiled in the path. Renee disposed of the snake with a shot from her revolver. After that, Razzle made a daily patrol of the perimeter and Renee says it only sounded an alarm for poisonous snakes.

Renee filmed a video of Razz pulling toilet paper from a roll in the bathroom and using it to soften her nest of twigs and brush in the closet (go on You Tube and enter Crowlady1000). Despite their seeming friendship, Razz remained independently wild and pecked Jack on the head if he got too close to her nest. Eggs that she laid didn’t hatch, probably never fertilized. After five years with them, Razz flew off with a flock last October. Clearing out the nest, Renee found socks, shoelaces, bookmarks and credit cards. The Oregon couple never considered caging their black-feathered friend, which is forbidden by Federal Law. Renee says the intelligent bird would become so bored that it probably would sicken and die. They hope she will visit them in early spring.

A flock of crows feeding in a cornfield always watches for danger. Only one needs to caw for the whole flock to take off. Crows communicate with “caws” in a great variety of inflection and pitch. They are particularly threatened by owls, their greatest predator. Crows are somewhat destructive to crops, though they do compensate farmers by eating lots of grasshoppers, cutworms and other harmful insects. Being omnivorous, they also eat carrion and often feast on road kill while narrowly avoiding cars.
There are 100 crow species worldwide. The American Crow is found all over the United States. It is a big bird, up to 21 inches tall, completely black, including bill and feet, though in bright sun you might see glossy purple in its feathers. Blackness helps hide them in tree tops from preying raptors, and makes them less visible at night when the owl is hunting. The crow is of the genus Corvus of the family Corvidae, including jays, ravens and magpies. It is often mistaken for a raven which is a third larger, has a wedge-shaped tail rather than the crow’s short, square tail, and speaks with a deep “gronk.”

Mythology and religion are rich with allusions to crows, usually as symbols for the spiritual side of death, the transition of the soul to the afterworld. The Chinese don’t like crows because they consider black unlucky. Hindus believe that crows carry offerings to the deceased and every year relatives offer food to crows on Shraddha Day. The Tlingits and Haidas in Southeast Alaska believe crows have power to protect warriors, and sought their help to watch over family members serving in WW II and Vietnam. In the Lenape Indian culture in our own region, crows bore messages from the Creator. Lakota Indians consider the crow “the little old grandmother who scolds, but not unkindly.” The Crow Indians of Montana and Wyoming eventually adopted the name because their tribal description translated to “children of the large-beaked bird.”

Crows are popular in the American lexicon. The expression “to eat crow,” forced to admit a humiliating mistake, is said to come from the awful flavor of crow meat, but apparently they taste like any other game bird. Traveling straight “as the crow flies” may not be a good idea because crows fly all over looking for food. And “crowing” about victory or success is socially unacceptable, except of course when your granddaughter graduates with honors from kindergarten.