Nature News: Crows flock in families, constantly in conversation

published July 7th in the Portsmouth Herald, Foster’s Daily, the York Weekly, etc.

Young crow almost ready for release from the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick ME.

When I was a kid, one of my biggest fantasies was to have a pet crow. I was recently reminded of this by an active family of crows that lives down by the river behind our house.  I haven’t found the nest yet but the young crows are extremely noisy, at least one seems to caw all day, a plaintive cawing that sounds to me like an attempt to get the attention of its parents.  I’ve caught glimpses of these crows while kayaking, they wing away ahead of the kayaks in a cacophony of  harsh cawing and squawking. This is my first experience with such a noisy group. Crows are known to have more than 20 calls.  I can believe it-this group seems to be carrying on constant and varied conversations. 

Luckily I never found a baby crow and tried to raise it-it would have been doomed to forever being a pet, not a wild and free animal.  It requires some expertise to raise a baby crow so that it can successfully live in the wild.  The Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick is currently caring for 9 young crows.  Four were admitted after their nests were destroyed (a great reason to avoid tree work during the spring and summer) and five came in after being caught by domestic cats as fledglings (a great reason to keep cats indoors).  According to Kristen Lamb, executive director of the Center for Wildlife, crows imprint very easily, so it is imperative that they are raised with conspecifics (siblings of their own age and species). Due to their intricate social structure juveniles can be rejected or even killed by non-family members. For these reasons caretakers of young crows at the Center for Wildlife do not talk to them, they are kept with other crows and are given ample opportunity to forage and interact with other crows at the facility.  The hope is that when they are released they will be able to interact with wild crows and not be drawn to humans.

Crows are long-lived highly social birds.  The oldest known wild crow was at least 16 years old and the oldest captive bird lived to be 59 years old!! According to the Cornell Lab “Young american crows do not breed until they are at least two years old, and most do not breed until they are four or more. In most populations the young help their parents raise young for a few years. Families may include up to 15 individuals and contain young from five different years.” I love this.  The noisy flock of crows in the woods along my river has at least 8 individuals, it’s neat to think that some are aunts and uncles chipping in to help with the babies.

Crows are a synanthropic species.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a synanthrope is “an undomesticated organism and especially an animal (such as a mouse, pigeon, or raccoon) that lives in close association with people and benefits from their surroundings and activities.”  Crows do better when we are around.  They like to eat our crops and our garbage.  And so, around here, they are hunted.  I’m not sure how I feel about this, just like humans, crows can be extremely annoying and destructive-but does this mean they should be shot and killed? I find it interesting that American crows are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act but can still be hunted. 

My childhood impulse to want a pet crow is not uncommon.  We humans naturally seem to feel an affinity for these magnificent birds.  Crows have shown up in various mythologies as tricksters, symbols of good luck and of bad luck, symbols of prophecy and creation. I wasn’t raised with any of these mythologies, but, for me crows symbolize a bridge between nature and humans. This sounds hokey, but when I hear crows talking from the trees I feel like nature is reaching out and trying to have a conversation with me in a language that I can just barely grasp, a primeval language I have lost and wish I could relearn.