Clever, adaptable crows are here to stay
BY RUSSELL STUDEBAKER In Our Gardens
Saturday, January 19, 2013
1/19/13 at 5:28 AM
Throughout North America the crow is equally admired and disliked for its mischievousness, its clever antics, or its diet of farmer's crops. Pet crows are notorious for their pranks, stealing and hiding shiny objects, teasing dogs and cats, and playing.
Crows are one of the easiest birds to recognize with their shiny, jet-black color from head to tail, large size, and their strutting and swaggering gait. Also well known is their familiar voice of "caw, caw." Everyone who saw the Hitchcock movie "The Birds" remembers the scene with all the attacking crows.
Crows are members of the large family of Corvidae birds which includes ravens, jays, magpies, rooks, jackdaws, nutcrackers and choughs. All members have large heads which accommodate large brains, giving them greater memory and intelligence over other birds.
They are known to be able to count up to seven and use tools or fashion tools to collect food. Crows cache food but are careful to hide it from the sight and knowledge of others in the group. They post sentinels to warn of danger, and they are problem solvers as demonstrated by dropping nuts on roads for vehicles to crack them. Thousands of years ago, crows learned to scavenge after wolves and other predators, and that human camps were also beneficial because of food resources from hunting spoils. As man developed more intensive agriculture, crows made the adaptation to this new life style.
A few years ago, an OSU professor of ornithology spoke to the Tulsa Audubon Society about her research on Oklahoma crows and how they were moving and nesting in more urban sites because of better food resources. As a consummate opportunist, they eat most anything: invertebrates, carrion, human garbage, eggs, frogs, mice and other small animals, nestlings, and various grains.
Eating corn, wheat and other grains is a cause of their dislike among farmers. My grandfather in central Oklahoma farmed his whole life with a team of horses and always planted corn for livestock feed. He taught me the old farmer's adage about planting corn seed which goes, "One for the black bird, one for the crow, one for the cut worm, and one to grow."
In the winter, crows depend on grain, nuts, acorns and carrion. Sue Gray says, "They are one of the three major pests in pecan orchards." And they are a big threat to peanuts when they have been dug. Their family life is monogamous with life pairing. The young of the previous year often stay to help rear the current year's siblings. Life span in the wild is about seven to eight years.
After the young fledge in the autumn, crows gather in communal roosts at night. I have recently observed a small roost that forms about dusk near Utica Avenue and 21st Street. With migration to Oklahoma in winter, there are more crows in the state than in any other part of the country. Winter populations of up to 4 million birds have been estimated in Caddo County and near Fort Cobb.
Other than man, enemies are red-tailed hawks, great horned owls, peregrine falcons and eagles. When you see and hear a large concentration of crows during the day, it is most likely that they have discovered an owl and are mobbing it. The collective noun for a group of crows is "a murder of crows."
But their most sinister threat is the West Nile virus, spread by mosquitoes. They easily succumb, and an infected bird will die in less than one week. Crows can not transmit the virus to humans directly. It has been reported that since 1999 crow populations have dropped by 45 percent due to the virus.
Crows and ravens have been incorporated into more words than for any other wild animal. A few of these are: crowbar, crow's nest, crow hop, scarecrow and crow's feet. Also used in our language is "straight as the crow flies," And "eat crow" is when we have to admit wrong since crow meat is believed to be unpalatable. When we enter into a disagreement or have reason to argue, we say, "have a crow to pick." We learn from Aesop's fable of the fox and the crow that listening to flattery has a penalty.
Crows - love them or dislike them, but they are smart and are here to stay and are now a part urban life.
Original Print Headline: Clever, adaptable crows are here to stay
Russell Studebaker is a professional horticulturist and garden writer in Tulsa and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crows now live in urban neighborhoods because more food resources are available. RUSSELL STUDEBAKER /Courtesy