10 July 2013

Crow Summer

The weather and the crows have been splendid this summer. Two pairs -- one for the third summer -- have brought their fledglings to the crow feeder, and we have spent an inordinate amount of time watching their behavior. The fledglings are very nearly the size of their parents, but a bit smaller and more slender. On the first visit for one family, a parent supervised four on the feeder. Three pecked away, while the fourth sat in the feeding pan and screamed to be fed. Time out for a few pecks, then another series of screams for feeding. (The interior of a young crow's mouth is brilliant red.) The parent was admirably impervious.

After a week, the fledglings learned that if they sit near the empty feeder and scream, I would bring out more food. This is probably not good for their sense of ethics.  When the pan is empty, they will go over it carefully and tap at regular intervals, then poke underneath it as far as they can.

When we sit out in the yard with our late-afternoon drinks, several crows, as in the picture above, will come sit quietly on the power-line and keep us company.  Occasionally, one will swoop down low enough to make us duck, and then return to sitting quietly.  Hork, below, seems to be quite solitary, and spends a great deal of time perched above the back yard.

Hork, with a distinctive cere/operculum (can someone tell me?)

It is very good to be able to recognize two individual crows -- they certainly recognize us, and announce our presence outdoors to other crows with 4 caws.  If we walk anywhere in the neighborhood, various crows will give our current position with 4 caws. To us they often give 3 caws, which I hope is a greeting, and sometimes a single caw with a down-turn.  The fledglings  "feed-me" call is a single caw with a hint of a whine, which probably translates more correctly as NOW!   In the mating season, there was a great variety of calls, some quite melodic, some sounding like small wooden bells.

Korax, with the identifying light-colored feathers. This is one of the parents
of the crow I wrote about two years ago. I have a feather s/he moulted. This
year's fledglings also have light-colored feathers, mostly under the edge of the cape.

For a long time, whenever we would put out a new kind of food, the crows would assemble a parliament and discuss it.  One crow would come down and look carefully, then go back -- without eating anything -- and report.  Then one or two would come eat one bite each, and apparently pronounce it safe.  After a several months, this shifted to one crow coming from the parliament and tasting immediately, without discussion, to be followed by all the others in turn -- it is impossible to understand how turns are worked out.  Now the first crow to notice something comes down to eat immediately.  Most of them will call out in the process to inform others, but at least one is content to eat without sharing.  The neighbor across the street knows when I have put out dry bread, because they take the pieces over to his pond to soften them up.

Loading up with meat for the nestlings.

Most days in the winter, there are 12 - 20 crows waiting to be fed when I get up.  Those crows did not consume in a day what two pairs and 7 nestlings have consumed daily this summer.  For a while I was putting out twice as much food as I did daily in winter. Crows, of course, like meat best of all, and nothing makes them any happier than when we discover forgotten meat in a corner of the refrigerator, or have a couple of fish heads for them.

They have a great sense of order and fairness in eating, although it is impossible for me to understand the components of the order.  The fledglings have not learned order yet, or they impose it on each other like young children on the playground.  They come to food and spend more time squabbling about who is first than they do eating.

I used to put out crow food before I went to bed, as crows like breakfast earlier than I do, but the raccoon discovered it.  These days I put food out around 5-5:30 in the morning, whenever they perch outside my window and call to me that they are ready.  Crows  have mortal enmity towards raccoons -- that is just about their only 4-legged predator  -- and attacked this one in force whenever it appeared in daylight.  Now it waits until they have gone away for the evening.  I leave something for the raccoon in the evening down by the garden where it feels obliged to overturn the birdbath every night.  

Raccoon at dusk feasting on crow food. This one is about half-grown.

The crows know that the black cat lives here.  His first two years, they would scream at him unmercifully -- he was terrified by them, and I would pick him up and scream back.  They learned.  They have also learned that I despise the black cat from two houses away, the one that thinks our birdfeeders were established for his benefit, and now when they see him in the yard -- they know precisely the territorial boundaries for humans -- they scream him back to his house.  That has worked so well -- and may have been so gratifying -- that they have taken up screaming at his housemate, the striped cat, who is quite inoffensive.

These birds are astoundingly beautiful. They have a cape over their shoulders, a soft black triangle of small feathers that is a striking contrast to the long glossy black tail and wing feathers.  The feathers are intensely reflective. When they perch above us in the late afternoon, say about 4:30 with the sun just below, they flash platinum, and their beaks glitter. By seven they reflect bronze and copper.  And once, when the sun was low and a crow flew up in front of me past the sun, for an instant that crow flashed a deep peacock blue.


  1. This makes me almost homesick, until I remember the crows that would dive-bomb me walking on UW campus.

  2. You know you have an open invitation to come back, any time.


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