Wild St. Albert - Noisy neighbours always welcome
A look at one of St. Albert's most vocal residents – the American Crow
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Wednesday, Sep 19, 2012 06:00 am
Black bird with long legs, a thick neck and a heavy, straight bill.
Commonly seen: Atop streetlamps and garbage bags, exclaiming "CAW! CAW! CAW!"
Often confused with: Ravens.
Will often sleep in communal roosts, some of which can include up to two. million birds
When I moved into my new neighbourhood this summer, I was worried that I wouldn’t have any friends.
So I was overjoyed when on my first day in the new place the local welcoming committee woke me up at 5 a.m. with a vociferous “CAW! CAW! CAW!” (Seriously, I was.) That morning murder of crows reassured me that while I may have left my former home, my feathered friends were not far behind.
Crow or raven?
The American crow is one of the most common and infamous birds in St. Albert. Reviled by many as a pest, these black-feathered beasts are everywhere, strutting through lawns, raiding trash-cans and shouting their mastery over the universe from the streetlamps above.
Crows are often confused with common ravens, notes Jocelyn Hudon, curator of ornithology at the Royal Alberta Museum. Ravens are bigger and have more of a croak in their voice. “It’s not the ‘caw, caw’ (of a crow). It’s more like ‘clllah, clllah, clllah.’”
Crows and ravens have been showing up in increasing numbers during St. Albert’s Christmas bird counts over the last few decades, notes former count co-ordinator Peter Demulder. You can tell them apart by their necks, he says: ravens have shaggy beards, while crows do not.
You might see large murders of crows all flying in the same direction at this time of year, Hudon says. Crows will mob together during the evenings after the mating season for safety in numbers as they prepare for their winter migration, often gathering at the same tree each year.
“You can have easily hundreds of crows that get together,” he notes — up to two million per roost, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Many of those crows may be related. Young crows will often hang out with their parents for a year or two to raise their younger siblings before striking out on their own. A typical crow family might include up to 15 birds born in five different years, according to the Cornell Lab.
A lot of people don’t like crows, Demulder says, and associate them with death and carrion. “People don’t like them in their backyards. They’d rather have a robin nearby.” He himself will chase a crow away if he knows there’s a songbird nest nearby – the birds are notorious for eating baby birds.
Some people find the harsh cries of the crow annoying, while others dislike the mess they make ripping open trash bags. Crows can also attack people, which is a legitimate safety concern in places such as Singapore.
But I find their intelligence fascinating. For example, researchers have found that crows can recognize the faces of specific people, obey traffic signals and use trains to smash open nuts. New Caledonian crows can actually fashion their own tools from twigs — a feat once thought to be reserved to primates — and solve complex puzzles.
Intelligence comes in handy when it comes to finding food, notes Hudon, citing the New Caledonian crows – not found here of course – as an example. These smarts likely stem from the crows’ big brains – they’re one of the biggest songbirds around – and their use of spatial memory to remember food caches.
It also helps on defence – you’ll often see mobs of them swarming hostile red-tailed hawks, or dive-bombing people who get too close to their kids.
St. Albert has tried to cull its crow population before. Back in 2009, the city called in an exterminator to shoot crows in Flagstone Crescent after residents complained about them.
But these culls don’t work, says Demulder, citing similar attempts by Edmonton in the 1950s. “When you get rid of a predator of this type, there’s a niche (created) and other ones will get in.” St. Albert’s campaign has had little effect on crow numbers, he says.
Crows play important roles as scavengers, Demulder notes, cleaning up the dead bugs and animals that litter our streets. He’s not a big fan of crows, but says he doesn’t mind them either. “To me, they all have a function.”
I, for one, am glad these noisy neighbours are here to stay.