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Otto: Something to crow about

Published: Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013 8:34 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo provided)
Labeled as noisy scavengers by some, American crows are highly intelligent and capable of complex problem solving. Social birds, they are rarely seen alone.

Some old friends flew in this past week and, gosh, it was good to see them. As they feasted on what appeared to be a rotisserie chicken carcass, they were rowdy and raucous; it seemed like they hadn’t changed a bit.

Though I had other things I had to do, part of me really wanted to just plop down on the curb and get caught up with my old buds Corvus brachyrhynchos, the American crows.

I’d imagine that not everyone shares this fondness for these big, black birds. They’ve been labeled as noisy, messy and disease-carrying. They are famous for raiding nests, helping themselves to eggs and baby birds alike. They’ve even had a deterrent device designed just for them – the scarecrow.

For all their rabblerousing, though, crows have at least one major redeeming quality: They’re sharp. Really sharp. So sharp, in fact, that scientists rank them right up there with the great apes – chimpanzees and gorillas – in terms of intelligence.

If you’ve spent any time watching crows, you’ll know what I mean. Instead of bypassing a discarded McDonald’s bag, crows will open it up to see what’s inside. Instead of banging away at a mussel shell, they’ll drop it from up high to open it.

They’re also good at getting other animals to do their bidding. I once watched a crow spend several minutes sizing up the contents of an open trash can. Some sort of worthy morsel must have been inside, but the can was nearly empty. Jumping inside the can, and potentially getting trapped, was not on the crow’s agenda for the day. Instead, it waited nearby, busying itself with preening and other such birdish chores.

After a short time, a fox squirrel came along, no doubt attracted by the same tasty morsel. It jumped down into the can, grabbed the tidbit – it looked like part of a sandwich – and took it out, intending to eat it someplace nearby. Like lightning, the crow flashed down from its perch and grabbed the treat. Mission accomplished!

Was this an act of stealing? By our human code of conduct, yes. But from an animal behavior perspective, the crow was simply practicing a widespread foraging technique called kleptoparasitism – taking food procured by others. (Interestingly, research shows this behavior in birds is closely correlated to brain size; the bigger the brain, the more likely the species will be to kleptoparasitize its animal cohorts.) In this sense, it’s not stealing, it’s strategy.

For all their quirks, crows also have a decidedly warm-and-fuzzy side. They’re playful, challenging one another to games like tug o’ war and tag. They’re also great family birds. Unlike most bird species, which push their young from the nest and out into the world, crows let their offspring stick around for several years past fledging. These adult “kids” then help out around the family nest, bringing food to mom crow as she incubates future generations and helping chase away potential threats – not unlike John Boy and Mary Ellen helping Mama out back there on Walton’s Mountain.

In fact, this closeness might have contributed to the crow’s downfall. When West Nile Virus arrived in Illinois in 2002, crows were hit hard. Their family ties and penchant for communal roosting helped spread the virus quickly, and their numbers plummeted.

Denis Kania, a colleague here at the park district and our resident bird expert, recalls how during the year before the arrival of WNV, area crow counts were at an all-time high. Post-WNV, numbers plunged; by his calculations, crow populations fell to a mere 16 percent of what pre-WNV averages were.

But now comes the good news. Crow numbers are rebounding. He’s seen as many as 15 crows at one time here in the Hickory Knolls Natural Area; he’s also observed groups of crows harassing the park’s resident great horned owls.

In the past few days, I’ve seen the chicken carcass crows; another group of crows flying over Route 38 west of Randall; and a third bunch harassing a wandering cat near Davis School in St. Charles. These days, three separate crow sightings in as many days is more than just exciting; it’s (forgive me) something to crow about!

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at potto@stcparks.org or 630-513-4346.

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