Crows get a bad rap.
Their larger, more rural cousins ravens get the lion’s share of the mythological attention, not to mention being much more rarely considered vermin. Much as with rats, the fortunes of the crow rise and fall with the humans around them; both rats and crows exist in a mutualistic to parasitic ecological niche with respect to human beings, relying heavily on human leavings for food.
Over the last few months my habit of taking a daily walk at work changed a bit, as I decided to perform an experiment on the local crows. Barb Kirpluk’s book Caw of the Wild: Observations from the Secret World of Crows, along with the various studies proving crows can distinguish individual humans by sight, gave me the idea – what if I were to insinuate myself into the local crow aristocracy?
But first, let’s go over the differences between crows and ravens:
- Crows are smaller than ravens, weighing in at around a pound compared to their larger cousins who average around four pounds.
- Crows have a wedge shaped tail; ravens a diamond shaped tail.
- Crows have adapted readily to human suburban areas in particular, while ravens generally stick to rural and wilderness areas.
- Crows are much more social than ravens, with family groups consisting of offspring from previous years’ clutches helping out before they head out on their own.
- Both exhibit an exceedingly broad range of vocalizations, but in the audible human range crows are best known for variations on their distinctive “caw” while ravens have more of a “croak”.
- The beak of a crow is narrow, while the beak of a raven is much thicker and bulkier.
I started a few months back pretty simply – with a regular supply of unsalted cashews (I did some research to make sure I wouldn’t be unintentionally poisoning the local birdlife, something for which I am sure they are theoretically grateful).
Saw a crow, whistled and tossed a few cashews. Rinsed and repeated. Ad naueseum. I’ve gone through a lot of cashews since then.
Invariably, they spotted me from maybe a hundred to two hundred feet away, cawed and bolted.
Every time. I started to feel disliked.
Over the course of maybe a couple of months, however, things changed. One of the local crows – whom I later named Smoke, just so I could tell them apart – finally let his curiosity get the better of him and checked out what it was I was throwing on the ground.
As it turns out, cashews are kind of like bird candy. Enthusiasm ensued. Promptly followed by addiction, irresponsible behavior, Cashew Anonymous meetings, and eventually getting kicked out of the roost. Kidding. I hope.
For another month or so that was the pattern. I’d see a crow, throw some cashews, and once I had gotten about a hundred feet away they’d (sometimes) investigate.
Many days I wouldn’t see any of them at all; sometimes there would just be one, and only very rarely all three.
About a month ago, something changed: Smoke started waiting for me to leave the building, at which point he would start to follow me from perch to perch.
I would drop cashews, he’d pick them up – sometimes with help from his more cautious mate Samantha – quickly stash them and then catch up to me. I started trying experiments – leaving cashews when I didn’t see them, leaving them near where I had seen them perch, as well as mapping out their stashes and favorite perches.
Identifying individual crows is actually kind of a pain. Determining their sex without a blood test is theoretical at best (unless you, too, are a crow), and their feathers regularly replace meaning that you can’t even rely on feather patterns to distinguish them.
Kirpluk’s book had noted that she could start to tell them apart by behavior, something I admit to being initially skeptical about, but after a while I realized she was absolutely right.
Each of the members of the S Group, as I had started calling them, had their individual roles and levels of boldness:
Smoke barely waits for me to walk by after dropping the cashews before he’ll wing down; often, when he sees me he does a flyby, circling over my head a couple of times before finding a perch. It’s a weird blend of creepy and awesome.
Samantha seems to be the designated sentinel, preferring one of the high lightposts over the Post Office employee parking lot as her preferred vantage. Always cautious, always watching, she’s the last to descend and the first to call out warning, usually humans, but sometimes an occasional hawk.
Socket is around the other two much less; when there’s a pair on the ground it is almost always Smoke and Samantha. Judging from common crow social behavior Socket is probably a hatchling from a year (or more) ago who has stuck around to help out mom and dad. Socket isn’t quite as bold as Smoke, but s/he’ll follow me from perch to perch, beak open as if begging (which might even be what is happening).
One of the main things I was interested in was mapping out the local territories. My walk is primarily through S Group’s territory, though at one end it goes past it and into another group I don’t know as well that I call M Group (not represented on the map, but at the top end – I think it’s a separate group from C Group, but am not sure, ergo the lack of notation).
So how does one tell where a crow family group’s territory begins and ends?
Easy. They tell you.
Crows often roost in large numbers away from their actual territories – territories are mostly claimed scavenging areas rather than places to chill at night.
Like humans, crows can sometimes be kind of assholes, so you will sometimes see crows grouping up to mob interlopers trying to edge in. See this happen a few times, and you can be pretty sure you’ve found a boundary. In this case, the most obvious boundaries were the railway line and a block past the canal.
(Interestingly, the territory lines really do seem to line up with roads, freeways, railways, canals – all sorts of human divisions. This makes sense in a way, though, as it’s an easy way to demarcate as the crow flies).
Speaking of mobbing, the other type of mobbing where you will see two or three (or more) crows mobbing a hawk seems like mean bullying, until you realize what it really means is you’ve just found a nest site. Ms. Hawk is looking for a tasty fledgling for supper, and Mama and Papa crow and any allies they can muster are doing their damndest to make it not worth Ms. Hawk’s trouble.
(But before you start to feel too sorry for Mama and Papa crow, realize that crows are very omnivorous, and are very, very, very fond of meat, meaning they will happily predate on baby bunnies, songbird hatchlings and even mice).Like people, crows plan ahead:
I spoil S Group shamelessly, and there’s no way they can eat all the proffered cashews, so they do what crows always do in such a situation – they stash any excess.
S Group’s favorite stash spot – bizarrely – is actually under the train tracks. Maybe this makes it less likely for rats or squirrels to dare stealing them.
They’re getting bolder, too – a few times, Smoke has flown at the cashews the moment they have left my hands; a couple of times when I didn’t realize he was nearby I suddenly found myself being (politely) mobbed by him. Even the other two, particularly Socket, are edging closer.
As they have become acclimated to my presence, they have stopped making any audible sounds around me at all, suggesting that a lot of the cawing is explicitly warning signals. I originally expected them to call out to the others when food was put down, but for the most part they don’t seem to do this, at least not as I am able to tell; possibly they are simply keeping in close enough sight range, or maybe they are using out-of-human-frequency calls.
So the next time you are bumming around the Gazillion Entertainment studios and see a black shape eyeing you warily from a lightpost, toss them a hamburger and say hello for me.
They might even say something back. Probably not hello. I wouldn’t take it personally, though.