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Grand Crows!

by Mary Jasch

On a late afternoon walk through a Scranton, Pennsylvania, cemetery with rolling lawn and scattered trees, a cacophony of crow calls resounded over the land.

Hundreds of crows swept non-stop in a flying parade down the mountain-side and up a short rise, swooping loudly above me. They circled and called and still more came and filled the air. They landed in the leafless tops of maples and oaks, calling, calling and swooping again. The sight and sound was awesome! But what was happening? I had to know!

Enter Kevin J. McGowan, Ornithologist, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who has been studying crows for over 30 years. He clued me in on the drama I was fortunate to witness. The crows in the cemetery were joining a “pre-roost gathering,” he says, of many crow families. Crows live in family groups with young of different ages. In fall and winter, the families meet at a predetermined site an hour or so before dark, then fly off to communal roosting grounds to spend the night.

“They get together and do a lot of noisy stuff before going out to the roosting grounds." The birds were mainly local Pennsylvania birds (crows in DIG IT! territory are permanent residents.) and some from Canada. Crows sleep together in communal roosts only in fall and winter.

“Crows have too much to do raising young to spend much time off territory during the breeding season,” McGowan explains. “There often are small roosts of a few dozen birds in summer, and they can get to be hundreds sometimes, but nothing on the order of the winter roosts. Remember, too, that you've got lots of Canadian crows visiting in winter, and they probably all join the communal roosts.”

The winter communal roosts can get into hundreds of thousands. “The largest I know of now in the East is 75-100,000 birds. Some young birds move around a little. Home isn’t as important as it is in the breeding season. Some head out to forage and sleep with big crowds of Canadians to find food, hang out with your family and go to the party.”

Crows group together as a family that moves together. Groups consist of parents and offspring up to 5 years old with 2 to 15 members. They can live to 17 to 21 years old, though most die as nestlings and fledglings. The oldest recorded is 29 years old. Outside their home territory, clusters of families move into foraging areas. “It’s like going to the mall. Little bunches of crows that may not know each other arrive and everyone can eat.” In foraging groups, anyone can come and go.

Crows hold permanent territory. Young crows help defend their food supply and work with the same goals as the rest of the family: watching out for predators and guarding the family. Preferred territory contains a mix of green country foraging land and scattered trees for nesting. “They like what we like,” says McGowan. “They like parks.”

Sizes of territories range based on habitat location such as city, rural or suburban, open land, food sources, topography and nesting areas and are generally 4 acres to a mile in diameter. Crows are omnivores, predators and scavengers, much like humans (we scavenge in the supermarket). They eat waste grain in farm fields, and anything living like mice under snow melt, insects, worms and little fish. They feed in dumps, compost piles and chow down people food.

“Crows follow humans a lot and pay attention to what we do. When we cut down the forest 200 years ago they thought that was awesome, so they came. When we planted a shelter belt in the Great Plains, they came to live in the trees. When we built cities they came. They think cities are pretty cool,” says McGowan.

“They’re fascinating animals. It’s well worth spending your time looking at them. “They kind of like what people are doing to the world.”

Crows "rally" to boast of their family. When I first heard a crow quack like a sick duck, I wondered if it had eaten bad food. But McGowan says “It says a lot about crow family communications that we don’t know. The call is a mystery to me. Announcement calls are aimed outside the group. It’s not a warning call, but is more about a good thing such as: ’We found food’ or ‘We’re a good strong family and no one can trespass.’”

Rally behavior happens a lot in small family units. “In the morning, they get up and advertise ‘We’re still alive and in our territory.’ Those calls can be: 1) In a neighborhood of crows, an announcement of missing family members; 2) Inter-group benefits – to maintain group bonds and friendships, and everybody benefits by knowing they have a strong unit.

These smart birds are federally protected under the Migratory Bird Act but they can still be hunted with limitations in season and methods. Before hunting regulations, crows were wantonly killed.

I have said that crows are much like my family or my dog: they do many things that annoy me, but I love them and am willing to overlook (most) of the annoying things because the relationship is primarily positive on the whole.

Crows do have one endearing characteristic that is apparently not shared by other birds. They will get to know people as individuals. While you can get chickadees to eat out of your hand, any old hand will do, and I suspect that the chickadees do not know you as an individual. Crows will! If you toss them peanuts (I recommend unsalted, in the shell) on a regular basis, they will wait and watch for you. Not just any person, but YOU. If you do this often enough, they will follow you down the street to get more.

I have made a point of getting on the good side of a number of crow families around Ithaca. Some will follow my car down the street, and if I don't notice them and toss them peanuts they will dash across the windshield to let me know they are there. Some of these crows recognize me far from their home territories, way out of context. (It did, however, take some of them a long time to learn to recognize my new car.)

So indulge yourself and makes some personal friends with the crows. That is the preferred relationship, because they also are happy to turn this talent of recognition to the darker side, and treat you as an enemy. (Again, not just all people, but YOU.)

Because I climb to crow nests to band young birds, many crows in Ithaca know me and hate me. Whenever they notice me in their territory they will come over and yell at me. They will follow me around and keep yelling for as long as I am there. Believe me, it's better to be on their good side than their bad side!
-- Kevin J. McGowan, excerpted from http://www.birds.cornell.edu/crows/crowfaq.htm

McGowan has a wealth of fascinating and easily digestible research-based facts about crows and their lifestyles on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website (above and below). Please take a look. If it were in print, you would not be able to put it down.

Next time you look out your window and see a bunch of crows, know that you are seeing a family. My crow family nests in an old apple tree and forages in the cornfield beyond the hedgerow. But I can’t wait to see another pre-roost gathering. When spring comes, I’ll bring the peanuts. I like crows. They laugh at the world.

Kevin J. McGown’s pages about crows: http://www.birds.cornell.edu/crows/crowfaq.htm

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published January 17, 2019

Photos to enlarge

Crows flying in and filling the tree tops; Mary Jasch photo

American crow 5 day old nestlings; Kevin J. McGowan photo

American crow calling on compost; Kevin J. McGowan photo

Americn crow, Tompkins County, NY; Kevin J. McGowan photo

American crow pre-roost gathering, Cayuga County; Kevin McGowan photo

American crow, Tompkins County, NY; Kevin J. McGowan photo

American crow, Cayuga County, NY; Kevin J. McGowan photo

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