Along with cooler temperatures and the spectacular change of color, autumn always brings to my mind crows and turkeys. I don’t know why.

Actually, turkeys are a no-brainer. But, perhaps, the crow comes to mind because dried corn and scarecrows are used as fall decorations, and I see that often.

Many people view crows in a negative light. They are often depicted in eerie Halloween decorations and even as props in scary movies. Heck, somebody even decided a group of these birds should be called a “murder.”

Many people may not know that crows are extremely intelligent birds that can solve complex problems. According to researchers, crows can recognize the faces of different people. They can then let other crows know what humans to watch out for if they are determined to be a threat.

Scientists believe crows are as intelligent as human children. For birds, they have large brains. Crows have one of the highest brain-to-body ratios, second only to parrots.

The PBS series “Nature” produced an episode titled “A Murder of Crows,” in which they showed an experiment involving a New Caledonian crow. Researchers placed a piece of food in a box. The food was out of reach of the bird. In another box, they placed a stick which, if used, would be long enough to reach the food. However, it too was placed out of reach of the bird.

Researchers then placed a short stick within easy reach of the bird.

Amazingly, the crow knew the short stick would not be long enough to reach the food, but it would be long enough to retrieve the longer stick. Within seconds, the bird used the small stick to retrieve the longer one, then used the longer stick to acquire the food. 

“It’s one thing to use a tool to get food, but to use a tool to get another tool to get food requires much more cognitive (prowess),” the show’s narrator explained.

The act is known as meta-tool use.

In a town in Canada, the mayor tried to rid the city of a crow infestation by having a shooting competition. But after one crow was shot, other crows warned each other, and the birds figured out how high to fly so the pellets shot from guns wouldn’t reach them.

That’s pretty smart.

This week, I am featuring one species of crow in particular — the American crow. It is one of several species of crows which inhabit the United States.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American crows can work together, devise solutions to problems and recognize unusual sources of food. The Lab’s website states, “Some people regard this resourcefulness and sociality as an annoyance when it leads to large flocks around dumpsters, landfills and roosting sites; others are fascinated by it.”

Although the American crow is wary of humans, something we’ve done for quite some time has actually increased this bird’s population. But more on that later.

Description

The American crow is as large as a medium-sized hawk, between 16 and 20 inches in length. It is all black with iridescent feathers and has a fairly long tail.

It resembles the fish crow. However, the fish crow is smaller and has a shorter beak and smaller feet. The fish crow is also usually found near water and would be a very rare sight in the Ada area.

Food

You name it. Crows will eat just about anything that is edible — from seeds to garbage. They are omnivorous.

Their diet includes seeds, nuts, acorns, corn and grains. They will also hunt insects and small animals — mice, frogs, lizards, small snakes, etc.

Crows also eat carrion.

With acorns, crows will hold one with their feet and hammer away with their beak to break it open. But with harder nuts such as walnuts, crows will fly into the air and drop the nut on a hard surface such as rocks and roads to get them open. And crows know just how high to fly when dropping a nut so that cracks open the nut without it smashing it into pieces.

Crows have long been known to visit crops — hence the creation of the scarecrow. However, according to Animal Diversity Web, although American crows can be harmful to crops, their impact is now believed to be less than what it was previously thought to be. Damage to crops is offset by the amount of damage prevented because the crows eat insect pests.

One thing I don’t like about crows is they often raid the nests of other, smaller birds and eat the eggs and nestlings. However, crows also fall prey to hawks and owls.

Crows will visit yards and feeders. They will eat almost any seed offered; however, during my observations, they’ve seemed to enjoy cracked corn and milo seed the most.

They will also visit landfills and dig into garbage in places. In fact, in the “Nature” program that I wrote of previously, it was stated that crows in neighborhoods even knew trash pickup schedules, often showing up a little while before the garbage collector to get the best pickings.

Nesting

American crows are monogamous. Couples work together to build nests, the majority of which are constructed in trees.

The female will lay three to nine eggs, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Eggs are incubated for about two to three weeks with a nestling period of three to five weeks.

But crows won’t just fly away once they are able. They have complex social systems and not only will a pair of crows raise their young, but often their young will stay around for several years and help raise future siblings.

Some crows will stay with their parents for up to five years, the longest natal period amongst birds, according to researchers.

Habitat

Just about everywhere. American crows prefer open spaces with at least a few trees in which to perch. They tend to avoid wide-open spaces and deep woods.

Human development — particularly the clearing of woodlands — over the last few centuries greatly benefited the American crow.

Range

The American crow inhabits all of Oklahoma and most of the United States. The only exceptions being southwest Texas and portions of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California. Think of desert areas with no trees.

Sounds

Most people know the typical “CaaW!-CaaW!-CaaW!” of the American crow. However, crows use two different dialects — one for the crow community and one used between family members.

Odds and ends

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American crows will congregate in large numbers in winter to sleep in communal roosts. The roosts can number from a few hundred birds up to 2 million! Some roosts have been forming in the same general area for well over 100 years, according to the lab.

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.