Monday, November 18, 2013

As the Crow Flies

I am exhausted at the mere thought of writing about crows despite the fascination they hold for me. These intelligent, intriguing birds have been so thoroughly and splendidly covered in recent years, online and in books, by authors and scientists that I think the best thing to do is simply refer people to these sources and just add my own poor anecdotes and images to the growing body of literature and imagery.

It's almost impossible not to notice crows in late summer, autumn, and winter in our area: They appear as an endless frieze of silhouettes streaming across the sky at sunset to communal rookeries, where they settle in for the night while making a huge ruckus.

In Seattle, the crows flew east over our house in the evening en route to a rookery on Foster Island in the botanical gardens near the University of Washington. Here in the Woodinville area, more than 10,000 crows flock at the UW's Bothell campus. Clearly these are brainy birds if they feel most at home in the vicinity of institutions of higher learning. (Video here.)

I've noticed that crows in Seattle are much less suspicious of humans than crows here in rural King County. In Seattle my dog and I could stroll within five feet of a foraging crow and it would merely pause in its poking at the ground to keep an eye on us.

Crows in Cottage Lake, however, fly off when we're still 20 feet or so away. With fewer people per block, and even fewer walking on local streets, I guess the crows haven't had as many encounters with people as city crows. (It's not farm country, so it's not that they've learned to associate humans with gunshot.)

Just about everybody has a crow anecdote. My first one involved attempting to rescue a blue-eyed baby crow fledgling who was sitting in the road right under my friend C.'s car tire, gazing up at us trustingly as we tried to shoo him to safety while his parents screamed overhead. I finally had to scoop up the little guy to deposit him on the sidewalk.

My thank-you consisted of being dive-bombed by the furious pair of crows and having my head pecked and my hair pulled. Plus they yelled and cawed at me every time I returned to that spot, which I had to do just about every day since it was outside my kid's elementary school. (Crows have been shown to have keen facial recognition skills.)

Another story involves coming home to find about 75 crows perched on the roof of our Seattle house and in the branches of our trees, all hollering their heads off. Unfortunately, I eagerly shot pictures of the bald eagle sitting on a telephone pole across the street calmly eating a pigeon (the focus of the crows' fury) instead of the crows. Looking back, I think the mass of crows would've been a far better picture.

Just a scant few of the crows harassing the bald eagle.
Crows also enjoyed sipping water out of the gutters of our home and prying up wads of moss on the roof to eat the dainties hiding beneath it. They also discovered that the weephole in our curb, which channeled a rivulet from an underground stream into the street, was a great place to dip food items to soften them and congregated there regularly.

Crows are always on the lookout for easy pickings, and city crows learned long ago that local playgrounds are full of untidy children and untended picnics. When the Resident Teen was small, she stood aghast in the playground near the Woodland Park Zoo, watching as a crow grabbed our paper bag containing a bagel and flew off with it. Bagels are heavy, however, so I became the lunchtime hero by chasing the crow, which dropped the bag so it could gain elevation and escape.

This one seized upon some unguarded pizza at the playground
during an elementary-school picnic a few years ago.
Crows nested in our old neighborhood, and when their babies fledged and spent a few days shuffling around on the ground as they learned to fly, the parent birds would attack us in our garden. We learned to go outside holding a broom above our heads, not to swat the protective mom and dad but just to keep them at bay. Everybody was much happier when the youngsters learned to fly. Then they'd sit on the power lines, where the young birds would wail pathetically for food and generally torment their parents.

Junior is the blue-eyed bird on the right
with the gaping, insatiable red maw.
My most recent crow encounter was a bird who defied my earlier statement that Cottage Lake crows are more wary than Seattle crows (exception proves the rule, and all that). This one landed on the handle of my grocery cart when I returned to my car with my purchases.

"What did you get? Anything for me?"
Then he jumped into the back of the station wagon when I opened the hatchback to load it. He pecked up some spilled grain and then proceeded to try and open the grocery bags, at which point I shooed him out. He sat on the hood waiting for me to come back after returning my cart. Once I was in the car, he hopped on to the side mirror to pierce me with a gaze and see if he couldn't stare me into giving him some handouts.

We've had lots of lovely birds visit our new garden, but so far crows have only dropped in once. I hope they'll be paying us some more visits because I find them endlessly entertaining.

Crows bravely whooping it up at Woodland Park Zoo,
pilfering pumpkin right from under the noses of the grizzly bears
Some great crow books:
Bird Brains by Candace Savage
Gifts of the Crow by John Marzluff and Tony Angell
In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John Marzluff, Paul Ehrlich, and Tony Angell
Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys by Candace Savage
Mind of the Raven [the crow's cousin] by Bernd Heinrich

Some cool crow videos:
National Geographic "Clever Crows" 2-minute film
Nature's "A Murder of Crows"
Crow fashions hook out of hairpin to get food from a tube

Crow winkling critters out of shells, Carkeek Park


  1. This is great. I love crows, they are brilliant. Sadly, we have very few in our area; the population was decimated by West Nile Virus.

  2. institutional learning! like that! have you read "The Hopes of Snakes" - in it the author has a great chapter on a crow roost.