This Week in Birds

Just some commentary, photos and video on avian encounters (real and virtual) over the last week. In addition to the increasing occurrence of bird song and intra-species aggressiveness among males, Spring’s arrival was heralded with my witnessing that lovely Northern Cardinal mating ritual of the male feeding the female. Rumors also abound of Eastern Bluebird and American Robin sightings but I’ve not yet had an opportunity to see if either has returned to “The Acre.” Perhaps this weekend will offer up some time, despite the still Arctic cold that continues to pour into Western New York.

As for more direct encounters, I helped arrange a Birds of Prey program presented by the Physics Department’s Environmental Studies Program last week at Erie Community College (South Campus). Wildlife rehabilitator, naturalist and friend Paul Fehringer, who runs Wild Spirit Education, came by with his volunteers and educational birds to share some wonderful lessons on the Raptors of Western New York. Accompanying the crew were Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks plus Barred and Great Horned Owls who wowed the over 60 students, staff, faculty and community members in attendance. Below are some photos and video from the event.

Great-horned Owl

This Great-horned Owl lost the sight in its left eye due to a puncture wound, possibly from an intraspecific territorial battle.

Barred Owl

This Barred Owl’s wing did not mend quite properly and now works hard at educating us about her kind.

Red-shouldered Hawk with Paul

The Red-shouldered Hawk became human imprinted so is unable to survive in the wild. Paul thinks this imprinting is the reason behind the Hawk’s continual chatter, which you can hear in the video below.

Last weekend, I stopped by Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, NY to visit my dear departed Mother (see my avian tribute to her from last year). Upon leaving the Cemetery, I drove by a large flock of American Crows gathered on the lawn, which brought a great deal of personal excitement due to my very high regard for these super-intelligent birds. Smart phones are a god-send when stumbling across our wild friends so I grabbed mine quickly to snap a couple of photos. However, upon lowering the car window, the flock dispersed (they have excellent hearing along with an excellent brain!). So I had to settle for a couple of shots of them in the trees to which they took flight. Afraid they would disperse again, these images were taken through the windshield so are a touch grainy.

American Crows

Flock of American Crows at Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, NY

American Crows

Flock of American Crows at Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna, NY

Speaking of Corvids, lastly I have to share the video below which has gone viral on the internet of late. Just some additional evidence that we have long under-estimated the intelligence (and wisdom) of our wild relatives. Enjoy your avian encounters and appreciate the wonder of these feathered “dinosaurs.”

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: