A marvel of crows

Crows. You’ve watched them mob large raptors like eagles and hawks, chasing them with angry caws; you’ve heard their complex, high-decibel chorus at dawn or dusk. If you’re lucky, you’ve looked up and marveled at the sight of hundreds of them at sunset, all heading in the same direction to their nightly roost sites.

If you live near the water, you’ve probably seen them digging for clams or other shellfish at low tide, black silhouettes outlined against the sand. And I bet you’ve seen them picking at fresh road kill; you may have also despaired at the mess they make when they go through your garbage looking for scraps.

And perhaps you’ve become friends with a few of them, especially if you figure out what they like to eat (hint: just about everything—crows are confirmed omnivores). A friend near Joemma Beach reports that the first time she put out cheese in addition to peanuts for the crows in her yard, the regulars must have spread the word to the rest of the flock; the next time the cheese came out, the number of birds had doubled. She often puts out food in grids to prevent fights when large flocks show up for lunch.

I have developed a bond with a pair of crows at the Herron Island mainland ferry dock. They love the pistachios I share while I wait for the ferry; they’ll swoop over and land next to my car, which they recognize by now, and look up at me, cawing expectantly, heads bobbing with every caw, until I toss them a handful or two of nuts. They get every single one and often hide the stash into temporary caches in the sand or feed them to their young if it’s breeding season.

Crows belong to the corvid family (Corvidae), a large group of social, inquisitive and very intelligent birds comprising approximately 120 species found all over the world except the southernmost parts of South America and the polar regions. In addition to crows, the other species that occur in the Northwest are common ravens, the largest birds in the family; Steller’s jays, Canada jays (formerly gray jays) and California scrub-jays (one of the three species that Western scrub-jays have been split into); Clark’s nutcrackers and, east of the Cascades, black-billed magpies. Like other corvids, these species have thick, comparatively hefty bills and similar harsh, raspy calls.

Field guides and birding websites also mention the Northwestern crow. Smaller than the American crow and found in tidal areas of the Olympic Peninsula, Puget Sound, and the coast up into Canada and Alaska, Northwestern crows hybridize readily with American crows.

There has been considerable controversy for decades regarding the status of the two species in Washington. If you’re a birder, you may have been justifiably confused, since the two and their hybrids look very similar.

The Advanced Birding Club of Tahoma Audubon recently shared exciting DNA-based work by Dave Slager at the University of Washington, which determined that ‘pure’ Northwestern crows only occur in Alaska and maybe northern British Columbia. In Washington, ‘pure’ American crows exist only east of the Cascades; Western Washington is home to hybrids of the two.

Crows prefer a mix of fields and, in our region, intertidal or riparian areas for feeding, with woods nearby for nesting and roosting. Most crows don’t migrate, but many, especially crows from Canada, will often fly south of the  border in search of food. Crows and other corvids are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (“On The Wing,” Key Peninsula News, May 2018); hunting or killing them is illegal.

Corvids are classified as songbirds, which may come as a surprise given their harsh calls. Listen carefully in the spring, however, and you may hear soft coos, rattles and other sounds they make during courtship. And when they gather in early evening, ready to fly to their roost site, listen closely and notice the types of sounds they make, alternating between solo and ensemble parts.

A species that is smart, interesting and unafraid to interact with people: If you want to study birds, you can do worse than starting with crows.

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist and avid birdwatcher. He lives on Herron Island.

On the Wing