History of the Crow
Recently, I came across a glossy, all-black American crow removing fiber from the back of my outdoors lounge chair. It gave me a look of disgust and then resumed its destruction, presumably to use the stuffing to decorate its nest some distance away. Both sexes look alike so I could not determine if the thief was male or female. Crows are smart, social, and resourceful birds, and nearly daily visitors to my back yard, often in family groups that squawk incessantly, feed on whatever they can find, and fly from perch to perch for reasons that are unclear to me. American crows live in tight-knit family units, with young crows staying with their parents to help raise their younger siblings in future years. There are around 30 million of these birds in North America, although in recent years the population has been impacted by the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne pathogen that kills corvids more than any other species of bird.
Even so, the American crow population appears to be exploding, and today the crow is present in many urban and suburban settings, having learned to pick out safe situations and avoid dangerous ones. They are a lot smarter than they look. Records suggest that they spread westwards across North America as European settlers moved from east to west. Back then, they were often unwelcomed guests because of their habit of foraging in cornfields and orchards, and farmers arranged hunts to kill them. They were considered vermin and encountered unrestrained persecution by shooting, poisoning, and destruction of their nests and clutches. In some cases, bounties were paid. An example was in the 1940s and 1950s when the US Federal government paid a bounty for each bird killed in an effort to protect the nation’s grain supply.
In the Old World, persecution of European crows has probably been even more severe over the centuries. Henry VIII in England passed the Preservation of Grain Act in 1532 to respond to a series of poor harvests. The Act made it compulsory for every person in the country to kill as many crows (considered to be the most “cunning” corvid) as possible, along with other vermin such as weasels, stoats, hedgehogs, badgers, and foxes. Parishes raised levies to pay the bounty, and communities that failed to kill sufficient numbers were punished with fines. This persecution continued for the next 250 years.
Supposedly, the meat of a crow is foul-tasting and the term “eating crow” is used for people who admit to humiliating mistakes and errors. Additionally, in Leviticus 11:15, God declares that “ravens of any kind” (the corvid family) should be regarded as unclean and never be eaten.
In the United States, prior to 1972, crows were shot or poisoned at will and not given protection under the 1918 Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act from attack and persecution. This situation was amended in 1972 when corvids became exempt from hunting, as well as eagles, hawks, and owls. However, exceptions were made for landowners to kill crows if they believed the birds were damaging or threatening trees, agricultural crops, livestock or wildlife. Certain days could be set aside for hunting the birds outside their breeding season, but only firearms, bows and arrows, and falconry could be used. California adopted this exemption and issues licenses and permits from December 5 to April 7, with a daily bag limit of 24, although it excludes most of its northern and the eastern counties. Data on numbers killed is limited although, in 2015, hunters apparently reported killing about 35,000 birds in California.
So, if you were intelligent, where would you move for greater safety and protection – probably to either urban or suburban locations where shooting is not permitted? As well as sanctuary from crow shoots, cities provide new sources of food, are warmer, offer an abundance of large trees for roosts, and provide artificial light to make looking for predator owls much easier. In San Francisco, an estimated 122 crows were recorded during 2000, whereas today there are around 900. In Oakland, the population grew from 167 in 2000 to nearly 2,500 by 2018.
Crows remember their experiences and communicate them to others, they protect each other at night by roosting in tight-knit “murders” (a hunting term used since the 14th century for a group of crows), they problem-solve such as opening plastic bags, dropping nuts in front of cars to be driven over, first soaking hard food items in fountains and bird baths, and collecting and storing food for future use. They can recognize individual humans and will behave hostile towards those that threaten them or come too close to their breeding territories.
They cluster in parks and gardens, scavenge and compete for food from dumpsters and bird feeders, and cackle whenever they choose, including early in the morning. They mainly feed on dead animals, fruits, seeds, grain and nuts, insects, amphibians, small mammals, shellfish, and the eggs and chicks of other birds. The latter behavior causes offense among humans, although there is no evidence that it reduces the population of other bird species. Crows increasingly rely on humans and city habitats for their food, safety, and availability of nesting sites. Their breeding season begins in April, with the construction of bulky nests made out of twigs and lined with soft materials (such as the stuffing from chairs!!). Eggs are incubated for around 18 days, and the young remain in the nest for about a month.
The American crow is comparable to the carrion crow and hooded-crow in the Old World, where I grew up during the 1950s and 1960s, although these European cousins are more solitary and stay in pairs, but also have been moving into urban habitats because of the availability of human waste, the lack of predators, and low levels of persecution. They display the same levels of intelligence and are equally as aggressive. For example, in parts of Berlin, Germany, crows have learnt to single out elderly ladies carrying plastic shopping bags as a likely supply of food. More locally, American crows will follow golf carts on the golf course, and look for food while the golfers are putting on the nearby green.
The carrion crow is a glossy, all-black corvid, and fairly common across Western Europe. It was a resident around my rural home near York, England when I was a child, despite the habit of farmers erecting “scarecrows”, skinny decoys dressed in old clothes to resemble a human figure, in many grain fields, intended to frighten away these birds from their crops. The ash-grey hooded crows were occasional winter visitors, but their numbers in Yorkshire have declined. Most resident hooded crows are found in Scotland, Scandinavia and countries between Western Europe and Eastern Asia.
The European rook is more similar to the American crow in that it is gregarious and prefers to live in tree-top colonies. They are relatively large black-feathered birds, distinguished from other corvids by a whitish featherless area on their face. So far, it appears they have been reluctant to move into urban settings.
One of the greatest enemies of the American crow is the raven, a much larger and all-black bird, with large bill, wedge-shaped tail feathers (crows are fan-shaped), and a well-developed ruff on its throat. Its call is more of a croaking sound, or “gronk-gronk”, and unlike the crow, it is uncommon in populated areas. Where habitats do overlap, crows will attack their larger cousin because of the latter’s habit of pillaging the crows’ eggs and their young. Crows also engage in mobbing other birds when they believe their territory is under threat. On a quiet afternoon in California, you can hear the “caw-cawing” of a group of crows chasing a high-flying red-shouldered or red-tailed hawk, and you can hear the hawk’s repeated “kea-oah” call as it tries to avoid being pecked to death by this horde of hostile corvids.
In summary, the American crow has uniquely adapted to cope with a changing environment and an increasing human presence, and so have the equivalent European corvids, but to a lesser degree. Along with sparrows, rock pigeons and starlings, crows have become the fourth “city bird”, but because they are disliked by many because of the mess and noise they create, their occasional “attacks” on humans, the false belief that the West Nile virus is spread by them, and their consumption of other birds’ eggs (studies indicate that this practice has no significant effect on bird populations), there is a desire to control their numbers. However, the writer believes there are less provocative actions than shooing or poisoning them, and destroying their nests. The simplest solutions are to keep crows out of trash (do not feed them), discourage garden visits with netting and inaccessible bird feeders, and do not provoke them. Remember, if you do menace crows, they may carry a grudge against you for a very long time, and possibly communicate it to others. The look I received from the crow that was stealing stuffing from my chair suggested that I had not yet been placed on its enemy list.