The Crow: The Smartest Bird You Know
By Samantha Kinsman
I’d say if there is any bird that everyone knows, it is the crow. They’re big, black, and noisy which makes them easy to spot and identify. Maybe that is why for as long as I can remember, they have been my favorite bird. Many find crows to be obnoxious or a nuisance, but once carefully observed, their intelligence and prominent role in nature is uncovered.
The crows seen year round at Kankakee Sands and most of the United States and Canada are the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). There are four species of crow in the United States and 45 species worldwide. American crows are different from ravens, which are not present in the Midwest. Ravens are larger than crows, and have a diamond shaped tail, while the crow’s tail is shaped like a fan. The American crow weighs one pound on average and has a wing span over three feet in length. In addition to their large, completely black bodies, crows can be easily identified by their distinctive “caw.” Crows can live more than 20 years in the wild, but most are lucky if they live past age seven.
Crows are scavengers and foragers with a diverse diet and are often seen scavenging in groups. Their diet includes seeds, nuts, berries, small animals, insects, carrion, and eggs and nestlings of other birds. Crows help serve as natures clean-up crew by eating roadkill and other dead animals, and at Kankakee Sands there is also an abundance of insects, frogs, and small mammals for them to eat. American crows mate for life and build relatively large nests that can be over a foot wide. Their eggs are a pale blue or olive green with varying brown splotches. They lay 3-9 eggs in each clutch, and may raise two broods a year.
American crows and other corvids, like the blue jay, are very susceptible to West Nile Virus, which they contract from mosquitoes just like humans. Once they contract the virus they survive for about a week before succumbing to the disease. This has led to a noticeable difference in the amount of crows I have seen since the virus was introduced to the U.S. in 1999, though the population of the species is still very strong in numbers.
The crow’s intelligence is a topic that is becoming well studied and can be easily observed in our day-to-day encounters with them. Even seeing crows in the road picking at some roadkill says a lot to me about their intelligence. Once they see a car coming, they casually hop out of the road to let the car pass, and then resume their meal. They don’t seem to be bothered, and have an air of “I know what I’m doing.” Crows are known to use and craft tools in order to obtain food. Candace Savage, a crow enthusiast, writes in her book Crows that the birds have been reported to fashion sticks into spears in order to impale insects hiding in holes. Savage also writes that crows in Japan have been found placing shelled nuts in front of the tires of cars stopped at red lights. The cars move at the green light and crack open the nuts, and the crows retrieve their snack when the coast is clear.
In my previous wildlife rehab work, I was always a little bit thrilled when I had the chance to see an orphaned baby crow at the facility. I found their blue eyes, soft baby cawing and their curious demeanor to be completely endearing. Special care needed to be taken with them, because they could be easily imprinted onto humans, in which case the crow would think it is a human and not be able to survive as a crow in the wild. Hand feeding of and any interaction with baby crows had to be done with a full mask over the persons face (usually a grim reaper Halloween mask) so the crows would not become accustomed to people at such a vulnerble age. The crows’ cages included mirrors, toys, and crow stuffed animals so these intelligent, learning babies would have “company” and stimulation. Just looking into a baby crow’s strangely blue eyes through your stifling mask you could see they were searching for information about the world and were eager to learn.
As a birder, I spend a lot of my free time looking at and admiring birds in my yard. If I had the pleasure of having a crow visit my tiny yard I would be enthralled. If you are lucky enough to have a crow or a group of crows (known as a murder) visit your yard, take some time to watch them, and I’m sure you will be impressed and amused with their antics and curiosity. You can also make a trip to Kankakee Sands to see the crows and many other birds that call the prairie and savanna home.
If you are interested in learning more about the American crow, visit Cornell’s All About Birds website for more information. In addition, Savage’s Book Crows provides a lot of stories, folklore, and research about crows which put them in a different perspective besides that of a nuisance animal.
For the chance to see American crows along with many other birds native to Indiana and Kankakee Sands, join the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival from May 5th to May 8th. The festival will include a field trip to Kankakee Sands on May 8th, along with many other great birding destinations. Visit their website to register for the birding field trip to Kankakee Sands today!
Samantha Kinsman graduated from Purdue University Calumet with a Master’s Degree in Biology in 2015. She has worked with The Nature Conservancy seasonally as a stewardship assistant in North Central Indiana for the last two summers, and is now the Restoration Operations Seed Assistant at Kankakee Sands.
The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment. The Nature Conservancy in an international, non-profit organization. For more information about Kankakee Sands, click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.