By Mike Reiter, Polk County Naturalist
Since moving out into the country, our birdfeeders have been full of a wide variety of species taking advantage of our hospitality. Along with feeders, we also have a feeding platform on which we place meat scraps for our crows that come in every morning for breakfast. For the last 5 years, a family of three has claimed the area as their territory. A dozen or more may show up later but the three are definitely our personal family. Lately, a pair of red shouldered hawks has also claimed the area as their territory. I’m greeted with their shrill cries each morning as I make my way to the feeder with the “offering of the day”. The crows at first give the hawks a wide berth but are not above sneaking a choice morsel behind the hawk’s back as they feed.
The American crow has joined the ranks of an animal that can tolerate man and actually prosper because of the human/bird interaction. Not that long ago, the “city crow” was not very common. Crows were inhabitants of woods and fields spending the vast majority of their time making a rural living. In recent years the crow has expanded its territory and adapted to city life. They have increased in number and have even become a nuisance, in some instances, attacking unprotected curbside garbage set outside an enclosed pick-up container.
Crows are considered to be very intelligent animals. Hunters claim that the birds can tell whether or not a human is carrying a firearm. Sighting of an armed human, great care is taken by the crow to keep a safe distance from the gun totter. Unarmed humans are not given that wide of a berth.
Ravens are very close relatives to the crow and reside in the northern parts of Wisconsin. They are, in fact, the largest member of the crow family standing up to two feet tall and weighing up to four times that of a crow. Hearing a raven’s call further differentiates the birds. Crows sound off with a variety of calls from a soft coo and clicking sound to the more familiar caw. Ravens, on the other hand, have a very harsh rasping croak for vocalization.
The average crow can stand up to 17 inches tall and live up to 14 years old. Crows will breed when two years of age. The female will brood her clutch of 3-8 eggs which range in color from light green to brown with black splotches. She will sit on the eggs the whole brooding period and the male will dutifully provide her with food while she is on the nest. The young crows will hatch in 18 days and are fledged at 28-35 days. Young crows have blue eyes and pink mouths that darken to adulthood. Crows will hide or cache food when it is in abundance and eat just about anything including carrion and road kill. They provide a public service by cleaning up the highways and also consume a variety of insect pests. They have been known to prey on smaller birds and mammals. Two behavioral traits associated with crows is their attraction to shiny objects and their propensity to harass owls and hawks. This behavior is called “mobbing” and can involve several dozen crows at a time. Crows are also very sensitive to West Nile Virus and any dead crow should be reported.
Crows are one of my favorite birds. They are not spectacular in color like the pheasant or have a melodious song like the cardinal. They do, however, project a regal presence. They are extremely intelligent, cautious and observant. Their parental care is second to none and they are extremely photogenic.
When I was a youth back in Chippewa Falls, I acquired a fledgling crow from a nest located in a large white pine near the famous Big Eddy Springs on the Chippewa River. There were two young crows in the nest at the time and after climbing up to the nest and dodging the protective efforts of the parents, I dropped both birds to a friend located safely on the ground. One of the birds, however, hit a branch on its way down and became a casualty of the abduction. The other crow appropriately named “Blackie” spent several months at my home within the city limits of Chippewa Falls. It was unable to fly at first but quickly learned to take short flights around the yard and later longer ones around the neighborhood.
Blackie was fearless and caused my Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Cocoa, much mental anguish. Cocoa was a great bird dog and loved to pursue grouse, pheasants and ducks. Cocoa soon realized that Blackie was part of the family. Cocoa had to put up with the ultimate insult of having Blackie jump up on the edge of his food dish and consume his dog food well within range of a fatal nip. The only outward sign exhibited by the dog was a slight lip curl when the bird decided to dine on Cocoa fare.
Blackie began to explore more and more of the neighborhood and became at times more and more vocal when something tweaked his interest. He also developed a bad habit of making deposits in places where deposits shouldn’t be made. The ultimate example of bad judgment on Blackie’s part came one Sunday morning when my Uncle came up to the house just prior to attending Sunday Mass. Blackie, sensing an unfamiliar being intruding on his territory, gave his usual distress caw and promptly lit on my Uncle’s shoulder depositing an offering on the back of his brand new suit. Needless to say, all heck, broke loose and early Monday morning Blackie found himself living in a rural setting. A local farmer had agreed to take Blackie on a trial basis. Blackie’s story does have a happy ending. The farmer enjoyed Blackie’s antics and Blackie accepted the farmer’s hospitality. He lived out his life on the farm and actually raised a family in a grove of pine tree not far from the farm house. Unbeknownst to us, Blackie was a girl crow and nested several seasons.
While things turned out well for Blackie, she was still a wild animal and was meant to spend her time in the wild. Wild animals make very poor pets. It is now illegal to keep crows under the Migratory Bird Act.