Blane Klemek: The American crow is one of the smartest wild birds
On my return trip to Bemidji from Thief River Falls recently while traveling east from St. Hilaire, I encountered one of the largest groups of American crows I’ve ever observed. The flock of birds was scattered everywhere on the highway, both ditches, and a field. There was no visible food or water source that I could see.
I’m sure I’ve seen larger flocks of crows before, but the sight reminded me of the huge roosting flocks of crows I had enjoyed watching and listening to when I was a boy on the farm. In fact, all those years ago, I recall neighbors talking about “…doing something about those darn crows.”
Nothing was ever done, as far as I know, but I do remember a time when a crow hunter stopped at our farm on a warm summer evening and asked my Dad if he could “hunt” them. At the time it had never occurred to me that anyone hunted crows, because, as I had also thought, who would eat them? As it turned out, the crow hunter was serious. He employed the use of an electronic game caller and large speaker that loudly broadcast the vocalizations of flocks of crows.
Inviting my Dad and me to tag along into the woods near the “crow roost”, I watched as the man set up his machine and motioned to us to be still. When he turned on the game caller’s switch, the machine played the crow calls and in minutes the sky became alive with flying crows just above the treetops and calling everywhere. And minutes later a couple dozen crows lay dead on the forest floor. And that was it.
The next evening the hunter tried his luck again — same woods, same weather conditions, same electronic game caller. But this time no crows came. Not one.
It is believed that the American crow is one of the most, if not the most, intelligent wild bird in the world. Very familiar and abundant Minnesota birds, crows are related to ravens and jays. Save for the common raven, few birds can be confused with the American crow. However, here in the Northland, many people frequently mistake crows for ravens and vice versa.
The differences between crows and ravens become obvious when one learns the telltale traits of each bird. Nonetheless, confusion is inevitable given these two species’ overlapping ranges and habitats, not to mention their overall similar appearance to one another.
First of all, the physical features of crows are smaller than those of a raven’s. The bill of the common raven is heavier, more robust than that of the American crow. As well, a raven is a larger and heavier bird — the wingspan of the crow is about 39 inches, the raven’s about 53 inches.
What’s more, their voices are much different. Typical of the crow is the hoarse “caaw”, whereas the raven includes a much wider variety of vocalizations that range from croaks to bell and twang-like notes and calls. Other physical differences include the relative shaggy appearance of the raven’s throat plumage compared to the crow’s sleeker looking throat feathers.
Despite the crow’s omnipresence and its reputation as a marauding crop damaging, nest robber, and egg thief, I can think of few other native birds more adaptable and widespread. Here’s a bird as at home in the Deep South as it is in the Far North in both rural and urban settings. American crows are distributed throughout most of North America except for Alaska and Canada’s northernmost provinces.
Interesting of crow behavior is their sense of community with one another. It’s no mystery to anyone familiar with crows that these birds tend to form large and noisy flocks. But what might not be common knowledge is how cooperative some populations or “family groups” of crows tend to be when it comes to brood rearing.
For instance, research has shown that even though crows become reproductively mature at around two years of age, they don’t necessarily form pair-bonds, mate and raise their own offspring immediately.
It turns out that some crows will help raise their own siblings, staying within their parent’s territory for five years or longer while assisting with parental duties such as feeding nestlings and acting as sentinels.
It’s believed that strategies such as these help increase nestling survival, though some research suggests that the social system does not increase brood survivorship any more than when a pair of crows raise their offspring alone.
Still, the social system of crows is something to be admired. Crows that are related are known to preen one another, for example. Other obvious benefits of a highly developed social order are protection from predators and finding food sources.
And while the intelligence of crows is not disputed, it is difficult to study and learn just how intelligent wild crows really are. Reports exist that crows can even distinguish between a man carrying a gun and a man carrying a stick.
To be sure, the American crow, a year around rural and urban Minnesota resident, is as interesting a bird as they come as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
(Klemek is a DNR Wildlife Manager. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)