Crows just want to have fun

American Crow

American Crow

Much has been reported of late on the unexpected depth of intelligence that characterizes Crow species worldwide. Several studies have documented the incredible acumen of these avian inhabitants, including their aptitude at making and using tools (http://youtu.be/cpgCQj-sgqk; http://youtu.be/ofjo26O0z_o).  This research is so compelling that even the PBS series “Nature” produced an episode on the subject (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/a-murder-of-crows/full-episode/5977/).

Among Corvidae, I have encountered only two, the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and the Common Raven (C. corax). The Raven is rather rare in my neighborhood, although to my delight one did pay a visit to “The Acre” a few years back taking a rest stop and performing a calling sequence in the Sugar Maple out front.  And a quick trip north to Ontario or south to Pennsylvania provides more frequent encounters with this magnificent bird. The Crow, however, is really the “common” member among corvids in Erie County and its behaviors have fascinated me for years.

Crows are different in many ways than most other feathered folk. In fact, they sometimes remind me more of mammals than birds. Their flocking behaviors provide a good example. They are highly social and live together in small related flocks during Summer. Throughout the day, however, these flocks tend to disperse and individuals “fly solo” or with one or two others as they make their way through the day, much like humans. In Winter several of these “family” flocks will congregate into much larger groups with unrelated populations coming together primarily for evening roosting. Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) behave similarly but it is quite common also to see huge congregations of them mid-day, something that happens far more rarely among Crows, even during the Winter “large flock” season.

American Crow harassing a Red-tailed Hawk

American Crow harassing a Red-tailed Hawk (copyright Jim Herd)

The other characteristic that I’ve observed in Crows that is unlike any other birds in my experience is an apparent sense of humor. Crows play – it’s been documented on film (see below) and I’ve seen it firsthand. Now it’s well known that Crows regularly challenge birds of prey when protecting nests and roosts (as do many bird species during nesting season) and will also challenge raptors for food. I once watched a pair mercilessly harass a Red-tailed Hawk on a sub-zero Winter day in the middle of the city of Buffalo. For 30 minutes I witnessed the Hawk being poked, prodded and side-swiped as it tried to make a meal of a Gray Squirrel. It stood its ground for the most part, which made me think the raptor must have been pretty hungry finding it more important to get some nutrition before taking real defensive action. It was not going to let that Squirrel go for any reason. But I’ve also seen on several occasions Crows conducting “dog fights” with Hawks during non-nesting season (late Autumn/ early Winter) and in the absence of a potential scavenged meal. Perhaps these episodes are practice runs, but the Crows just seem to love picking on the big guy for no other reason than it’s a blast to do. And too numerous to count are the times I’ve watch a Crow play aerial acrobatics along the Lake Erie waterfront during extremely windy mid-winter storms. These birds fly directly toward the lake and into the wind which results (either by accident or, I suspect, deliberately) in a loop-the-loop maneuver that sends the Crow back inland only to begin again with yet another run at it.

This apparent sense of humor likely speaks volumes more about the depth of intelligence within the Crow. Given its proclivity at withstanding millennia of persecution, hunting, poisoning, etc., the American Crow has not only survived, it has thrived. More than likely, its brain power will allow it to outlive humans (we can only hope).

Crow Skiing Down a Roof:

Crow Rolling Down a Windshield:

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