Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Edward Scissorbill

Edward Scissorbill is a local crow who stands out from the crowd even if you're not inclined toward crow-watching due to his deformed beak. The upper and lower parts of his beak (the maxilla and mandible, respectively) cross over each other, rather like a red crossbill's beak. Considering how cleverly crows use their beaks to manipulate objects and access food, you'd think such a bird would have a very difficult time surviving.

But I suppose a smart, omnivorous bird like a crow, living in a tree-filled urban enclave where the only predators are free-ranging domestic cats and cars, isn't stymied by a little deformity like this. (Yes, it's true, a bear and a cougar have both been spotted in this part of town in the past two years, but neither of them kept the same hours as the crows.)

I first spotted Edward Scissorbill during a dreadful winter about two years ago while walking the dog up an icy hill a block from home. He was scuttling about in the street with two other crows. I thought, there's a crow that won't survive the winter. But the following autumn, walking up the same hill, I encountered him again. He was sitting on the roofbeam of a garage, fat and glossy and totally unafraid even though the dog and I were only about 10 feet from him.

By this time I'd become aware of a scientist in Alaska who is studying deformed bills in chickadees, crows, and other species, thanks to a tip from a scientist at the University of Washington who studies crow behavior. So I started keeping an eye out for Edward and bringing along my camera while walking. I finally snapped a picture of him as he stood on a rain barrel outside a neighbor's house.

He appears to be thriving and even has a mate--I spotted the two of them perched in a tree a block away, close to their shaggy, basketball-sized nest. There were a lot of young crows squawking and learning to fly in that area a few weeks back; I assume they are his kids. That may be assuming a lot, but then again, I'm assuming he's a he, for starters.

At any rate, he rules the roost in this little area--I often see him sitting on an overhead wire, surveying his domain, and he even occasionally stands on the street sign as if to make it clear exactly what his address is. I know he recognizes me and the dog, too, as he calmly and carefully watches us go by without shouting at the dog or fluttering out of our way. Crows are famous for their facial-recognition ability, so this isn't too much of a surprise. But I wonder what his nickname for us might be.