The much maligned crow

The much maligned crow

By By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

When I was a boy growing up in north Texas, farmers would always plant four grains of corn in a hill to be sure one would grow to maturity. Frequently they would chant the following ditty:

One for the blackbird,

One for the crow,

One for the cutworm,

And one left to grow.

Scarecrows were erected in almost every field, but I questioned their efficacy, as one would frequently see crows perched upon them.

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is without a doubt one of our most disliked and maligned birds. In the past, they have been shot, poisoned, sprayed with chemicals, trapped, and dynamited in their roosts. Few other animals have been persecuted as much as the crow. Before going any farther, I would like to admit that I like and admire crows.

Crows belong to the family of birds that include jays, ravens and other species that have one thing in common—they are smart Many of us have driven 60 miles per hour, passing within inches of a crow feeding on some road-killed animal, and seemingly not disturbing the crow in the least. Or how many times have we pushed aside a window curtain to focus our binoculars on a crow roosting in a tree some 100 yards away, only to have it take flight as soon as the curtain was disturbed?

The late Frank M. Chapman, one of the best of modern day ornithologists, expressed his opinion of the crow when he wrote, “… there is a price on his head; every man’s hand is against him. Apparently he does not mind this in the least; in fact, he seems to rejoice in being an outlaw.”

In addition to being smart and highly adaptable to almost any type of environment, crows have an additional trait which gives them an advantage over most other wild creatures. They are almost completely omnivorous, which means they can utilize as food almost anything of an organic nature. Some people are repelled by the crow’s habit of feeding on carrion and garbage, but we should realize that by doing this, they are acting as nature’s custodians and recyclers, reclaiming the essential and finite elements of life.

It is true that when crow populations become excessive, some damage may be done to grain and other crops. And crows are certainly not above satisfying their insatiable appetites by feeding on the eggs and young of other birds. According to some bird biologists, the crow deliberately hunts for birds’ eggs during the nesting season, and seems to prefer eggs to other food at this time. Other birds know the crow is an enemy and will frequently attack and harass him in an attempt to drive him away. Frequently, one may observe kingbirds and other species relentlessly diving on and pecking at the hapless crow as it tries to escape to a protected area.

Recently, crows have been maligned as reservoirs of West Nile Virus which may be transmitted to man after a mosquito feeds on an infected crow. Though West Nile causes a form of encephalitis (inflammation of the central nervous system), it is rarely fatal to humans. Crows are not the only birds known to harbor and perpetuate the virus of West Nile in nature, as several other species have been incriminated.

On the plus side of the ledger, crows consume many insects, and instances are cited where the birds were of definite aid in bringing grasshopper plagues under control. Whatever the overall comparative truths, it is probable that crows, when they become too numerous, do more harm than good . .

Years ago, a popular sport in some locales was to shoot crows as they hovered over garbage dumps and landfills seeking waste food. Hundreds of crows would be killed when local “sportsmen” organized crow hunts. The crow is now classified as a migratory species and is protected by federal law, so such massive killing excursions are now prohibited.Open seasons and bag limits are left to local authorities. In Illinois, there is an open season on crows for about a month in both summer and fall with a daily bag limit.

In addition to man, owls, especially the great horned owl, are a threat to crows. Crows are active during the day and gather in the evening to roost in a wooded area. A great horned owl will invade the roost and unceremoniously decapitate a few crows and swallow only the heads. When crows encounter an owl during the day, they will band together and attack and sometimes kill the enemy.

There is no doubt that crows are smart but not as intelligent as my grandmother would have had me believe. She insisted that when she was a girl, growing up in the hills of eastern Tennessee, it was common practice to obtain a crow and “slit” its tongue. This operation somehow miraculously imparted to the bird the ability to speak English. I learned at an early age never to dispute my grandmother when she related some item of folklore she firmly believed to be true.

Though a crow cannot communicate with humans (even if it has had its tongue “slit”), it certainly communicates with other crows. This is one of the reasons the species is so successful. Their calls recognize and indicate danger, food, recognition and contact. Many variations of the familiar “caw” have been described, and Derek Goodwin, in his Crows of the World, has identified at least 13 different calls, each with its own meaning and response.

Crows, as with all other creatures on planet Earth, occupy an important niche in the overall environment. When man intrudes into and disrupts the natural scheme of things, crows and many other creatures, both great and small, may become nuisances and are placed on wanted posters.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of eastern Maryland, with degrees in zoology and botany. He is a former professor of biological science. He has had 30 scientific papers published, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on marine biology of Maryland.

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