October 9, 2015
By: Kathy Kinsey
No other bird reminds me that fall is on the way more than a crow making his caw-caws across the back side of the field on a cold and foggy day. It is just a wonderful sound. And though I may not be one of their biggest fans, I do think they are one of the smartest and most unique birds around.
The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is in the Corvidae family, along with magpies, ravens and blue jays. They are considered to be a social bird, one that is not only smart but one that has a caring nature about it as it mourns fallen crows. Crows are found in North America, all across Canada but not on the West Coast and not in any of our deserts located in the United States. I find this bird has a strut that just tells me they think they are just a tad above the other birds, and maybe they are. What other bird can tell just how close you and your car are to the dead thing waiting for them on the road? And they know just how far to walk off the road – have you noticed that? I am amazed by them and I catch myself watching them around my property. They truly are extremely social and very vocal, having at least 250 calls in their song book.
Their mating season begins in early spring. Many crows do not even mate until they are about three to five years old. Until they reach mating maturity, they will help their parents with building the nest and will protect the mother and her new brood. Then when they are old enough, they will search for a mate. Crows mate for life, but if something should happen to their mate, they either find another mate or they will return home to their parents and assist in raising the new chicks or will help in raising the other siblings that are still living with the parents. As you have guessed – the crow family is a tight knit one. Building a nest can take up to two weeks to complete, though several nests may be started and never finished. They are built high up in a tree using sticks and twigs and sometimes they will use the same tree for two or three years in a row. Nests are lined with mud and grass. Then they gather cedar or grapevine shavings or even animal fur to make a bowl of really soft material for the 3 to 9 eggs. The nesting period is 20 to 40 days. The chicks, oddly enough, are pink when newly hatched. When they are 5 weeks old, they will fledge. But these young do not leave the area – they will stay with their parents. This family will then join another group of crows which will then merge into a large flock, usually over 1,000 birds! As with some of our birds, the only way to tell the males from the females is the male is slightly larger.
Crows are considered to be an omnivore, which simply means their diet includes everything and anything. From road kill to fruit, insects to baby birds. They are survivors. But the crow is susceptible to the West Nile Virus. A large number have died since 1999 but they remain on the Least Concerned Species List by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Though they are considered to be a pest by many people, it is easy to overlook all their antics and unruliness for all the good they do for us. Remember, bugs are on their menu and anything else that may have died on your property unbeknownst to you. Crows have been known to live 20 years though they may live longer. The oldest living crow in captivity died at the age of 59!
So is there a difference between a crow and a raven? There certainly is! What we have are crows. They are smaller than a raven and considered social, while ravens are more private and prefer to live in places we humans do not. Crows hunt in groups, ravens hunt and eat alone. Crows have plain old black feathers – but the raven has shiny black feathers with a tint of purple when the sun hits them. Their beaks are different, too. Crows have a thicker beak though it is sort of flat while the raven’s is curved and powerful which goes with their menacing look. Though the crow and raven are considered omnivores, the raven prefers more of a meat diet, like no longer living sheep! But it was the raven Edgar Allan Poe wrote about in his famous poem…The Raven which is a narrative poem about a talking raven. Once upon a midnight dreary……. A haunting poem if there ever was.
I do think the crow would be easy to make a friend of – though they have a memory of those that have not been so nice to them – so that may leave me out! But in any case, they have a place in my yard and my garden, and knowing them, that is not going to change any time soon whether I like it or not.
The American crow – one cool bird…
Kathy Kinsey is a Master Gardener volunteer with the UF/Leon County Cooperative Extension Office. You may also email us at Ask-A-Mastergardener@leoncountyfl.gov with any gardening questions you may have.