Jimbo, an American
crow, on a favorite perch
Tallahassee Democrat, September 9, 1996
Crows are curious, smart and misunderstood
When I talk about
crows, I always risk
the scientific sin of anthropomorphism:
ascribing human characteristics
to other species. However, I
will take that risk to shed light
on my favorite bird – exceptionally curious, observant, sociable,
resourceful, intelligent, misunderstood and underappreciated.
At St. Francis Wildlife, many volunteers who
help raise and care for orphaned or injured animals eventually
become specialists. There are Squirrel Mamas, Bunny Papas, and
Possum Mamas. It was in the spring of 1989 that I first became
a Crow Mama.
veterinarian suspected that the
orphaned baby crow entrusted
in my care had injested some type
of poison. The bird was
extremely weak and couldn't lift his
head or move his legs.
The doctor thought that he would never
be releasable but,
with proper diet and exercise, might become
I fed him
moistened high-protein dog food,
insects, a variety of fruit,
and vitamin supplements. He especially
liked blueberries. He
grew stronger and more alert, but still
hadn't regained full
use of his legs. During the next few months,
and I were constant companions. I read everything
find about crows.
members of the family Corvidae,
which includes jays, magpies,
ravens and many varieties of crows.
One of the most
widespread and adaptable of birds, they are found
practically every part of the world except New Zealand.
Many people think the large black birds
they often see alongside vultures pecking at carrion on Florida's
country roads and interstates are ravens. Ravens, in fact, do
not live in Florida. But we do have two species of crows: the
America crow and the fish crow.
It is difficult to tell these two species
Their habitats overlap and, at first glance, they are
indistinguishable. The American crow is about 17 inches from
the tip of its bill to the end of its tail. Fish crows are a
bit smaller. Their call is also a nasal "uh uh," as
if saying "no." However, the juvenile American crow's
begging call is similar, so it is especially difficult to tell
these two species apart during the summer breeding months.
Crows have a big fan club as well as well
as a large number of critics. They have a reputation for destroying
gardens, farm crops and the nests of other birds. Corvids can
and do eat almost anything. Hence the words ravenous,
meaning extremely hungry or greedy, and ravage, meaning
to destroy or plunder.
Crows also have a wicked sense of humor.
are many stories of crows snipping clothespins off lines
to watch the clean sheets fall to the ground. Others like
undo shoelaces. Jimbo, an education crow who lives with us, clearly
enjoys sneaking up behind our sleeping cats, pulling their tails,
then running down the hallway to hide behind the bathroom
He also likes to dive
bomb them from his
roost on the bookcase. We have unusually
tolerant cats. This
comes from being raised indoors, but
that's another story.
are great mimics. Joe imitated my
squeaky laugh. Jimbo calls like
a barred owl, moos
like a bull in heat, and clicks like a computer
This was all accomplished without having their tongues
About 1900 years ago,
a Roman called "Piney
the Elder" wrote that if the tongue of a
crow was split, it could
then learn to talk. Of course, the
only thing this will accomplish
is having the crow bleed to
death. It amazes and saddens me how
many times I still hear
Crows also have their own, highly evolved
language and society. They live in close-knit families of at
least nine birds. The leader acts as a lookout, stationing himself
at the top of the tallest tree while others forage or attend
to other crow business.
leader uses a wide repertoire of calls
to alert his family to
different situations. A scolding call
warns of an approaching
predator, a fox or an owl; a rallying
call, means that the
predator is closing in; and an assembly
call is sounded when
it's time to mob the enemy. There is also
a dispersal call,
the crow equivalent of "scatter!"
In all, 23
different "phrases" have been recorded.
In Florida, crows are protected by the
Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and hunters are permitted to hunt
them only in crow hunting season. There is, however the "Killing
Destructive Birds and Mammals" rule: "Blackbirds, cowbirds,
grackles or crows may be taken when committing or about to commit
depredation upon ornamental trees, agricultural crops, livestock
or wildlife." Read: fair game any time of year.
Few animals in North America have been
as persecuted as the crow. Their roosts are still dynamited and
thousands are poisoned each year.
Fort Cobb Oklahoma, the heart of Oklahoma's
peanut crop, boasts the world's largest crow roost. I learned
this fact in a eye-opening but (mercifully) out-of-print book,
The Varmint and Crow Hunter's Bible, which I picked up
in a local used book store. It also includes chapters on such
"nuisances" as bobcats, coyotes, snakes, great horned owls and foxes.
During harvest season, the Fort Cobb State
Recreation Area drew as many as ten million crows. To coincide
with this event, they hosted the annual Fort Cobb Crow Shoot.
No bag limit.
Red Watt, the
author's "all-time favorite
came all the way from Omaha to score
between 80 and 90,000
each year. Red's pet crow named Judas was
an excellent live
decoy. Red also mimicked a young
called Ft. Cobb recently to ask
if they were still planning
their crow shoot for this year, the
park ranger said,
"You know, it's the darndest thing. We
haven't seen a
single crow in these parts for six years now."
There's no doubt
that great flocks of crows
descending on an orchard of
ripening fruit or a field of corn
or peanuts could do
thousands of dollars worth of damage in a
few hours. But no
situation is ever totally white . . . or black.
Case in point: A New Jersey farmer hired
marksmen to stand in his field and shoot the crows which landed
on his asparagus field each morning. They shot the crows, but
the asparagus didn't grow. After careful investigation the farmer
discovered a cutworm infestation. When the crows were allowed
to return to return to the field, they resumed their cutworm
feast and the farmer harvested his asparagus.
Henry Ward Beecher, an eminent 19th century
American preacher and naturalist once said that if human beings
wore wings and feathers, very few would be clever enough to be
In the January 1996
issue of the British
journal Nature, there was an
account of apparent tool
use among crows, specifically the
New Caledonian Crow, found
on islands which lie about 900
miles east of Australia.
After spending three years observing these
crows, biologist Gavin Hunt found that the birds used twigs and
leaf spines to impale and extract insects from crevices in trees
and from under loose bark. This activity among New Caledonia
crows was first reported about 25 years ago, and many other mammals
and birds, including several species of corvids, have been observed
using sticks, leaves, stones and other objects to forage for
However, in addition
to using tools, these
birds also appear to manufacture them.
There have been very few
reports of any other species doing
this. According to Hunt, the
New Caledonian crows made two
distinct types of tools. Using
their beaks as scissors and
snippers, they fashioned hooks from
twigs and barbed,
serrated rakes or combs from stiff, leathery
The crows also did
not discard these tools
after using them once but carried
them from one foraging spot
For those who still subscribe to Descartes'
philosophy which separated man from all other creatures by his
power to reason (I think, therefore I am), this behavior
may prove unsettling.
Joe the crow was extremely curious and
observant. He liked to study things -- peanuts, raisins, specks
of dust -- floating in his water dish. Then, for 20 minutes or
so, he used his long beak to carefully sail these objects around
the dish, like a child would move a wooden boat in a bathtub.
It was fascinating to watch him.
During one of these "play periods,"
happened to lock gazes. Have patience, I thought, you'll soon
be standing, maybe even flying. He held my finger tightly in
his beak and gave me a, beady, black stare as he softly gurgled
and cooed deep in his throat.
Joe became the
"hit" of St. Francis Wildlife's education
which we took into the schools. I taught students how
gently lay Joe on their laps and help him with the isometric
exercises that the veterinarian felt might strengthen his legs.
As Joe lay on his back, legs in the air, the students provided
gentle resistance with their fingers as he pushed back with his
During his six-month
the veterinarian decided that Joe's
condition had begun to deteriorate
and that the kindest
action would be euthanasia. I couldn't look
back as I left
I tried to put
Joe's life in perspective
by thinking of the invaluable
lessons this bird taught so many.
All creatures, even crows,
are thinking, feeling beings of intrinsic
intelligence. The Potawatomi Indians, who lived in
eastern forests, believed that crows were risen people.
When I returned home, I found a shiny black
feather in Joe's empty cage. Some Native Americans also believe
if you take a feather from a bird who has died and toss it into
the wind, that bird will fly forever. I stood on the back porch,
blew the feather from my open hand, and watched as the wind carried
it into the woods.
It is illegal to possess a crow or any
wild bird protected by the Migratory Bird Species Act without
proper state and federal permits. If you find a sick, injured,
or ophaned wild bird or animal, please call the St. Francis Wildlife
Association, which possess all necessary permits, at