Counting crows. Or, I should say, corvids.
Is it 18 or 19? I’ve counted multiple times and still can’t decide whether there are 19 or only 18. Just in case, I’ll give you another:
A blue jay isn’t a crow, but blue jays, like crows, are corvids.
Corvidae is a cosmopolitan family of oscine passerine birds that contains the crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers. In common English, they are known as the crow family, or, more technically, corvids. Over 120 species are described.
Blue jays, included. I’ve been reading up on corvids, mostly because we spent weeks of this on-going lockdown watching blue jays build a nest and raise their young in a bush outside our front window. We were fascinated and amazed by their perseverance, devotion, and cleverness. They weathered spring storms and foiled a determined squirrel that tried hard, but failed, to raid the nest of its eggs. Corvids are particularly known for their intelligence.
Corvids are incredibly clever overall, with the largest brain-to-body-size ratios of any birds, but those in the genus Corvus tend to be especially brainy. …
Humans have long recognized the craftiness of crows and ravens, as seen in centuries of folklore casting the birds as thieves, tricksters, problem solvers,wise advisors to gods, or even deities themselves. …
In Aesop’s Fable “The Crow and the Pitcher,” a thirsty crow encounters a pitcher with a little water in it, but is initially thwarted by the low water level and the bottle’s narrow neck. Then the crow starts dropping pebbles into the pitcher, however, eventually raising the water level high enough for it to drink.Not only has research verified that crows can do this, but it shows they can pass the water-displacement test at a level similar to human children between the ages of 5 and 7. …
They can also plan their tool use, according to one study in the journal Current Biology, which found crows could solve a metatool problem when each step was out of sight of the others, planning ahead three behaviors into the future.
You may not want to play chess with a corvid!
Our blue jays also seemed quite canny. I became convinced that they chose the location of their nest because of, not in spite of, proximity to our front window and door. Other birds, squirrels, raccoons, and possums are wary of us humans. The aforementioned creatures abound in our neighborhood and all pose threats to eggs and newly hatched baby birds. Few ever come very close to the bush where the blue jays built their nest, right outside our front door. In that way, I’m convinced, we provided an extra layer of protection for the baby birds.
The jays seemed to have decided early on that my spouse and I weren’t a threat. When we first noticed them building the nest, we feared we’d have to go in and out the back door until the babies fledged or else get dive-bombed, but not so. The parents apparently learned to recognize us. They went about their business even when we stood right there on the porch, watching them fly up, bringing worms and other delicacies to feed their babies. However, when other humans–a neighbor, the mailman–approached, they set up an almighty ruckus.
This story has a happy ending: Both babies fledged successfully. We still see them flying around the neighborhood, in the company of their parents, a gang of four.
Blue jays form life-long, monogamous relationships. Both parents participate in raising the young, with the male even feeding his mate while she sits on the eggs. Then the entire family hangs out together throughout the ensuing summer.
Crows are another particularly interesting member of the corvid family. Ever hear of a crow funeral?
There’s an unusual but known behavior among crows, that they gather around the bodies of their dead. A crow dead on the street or in a field will be surrounded by a few to a dozen or more crows, all seeming to contemplate their fallen comrade. The notion of crow funerals has been documented but not necessarily understood, so University of Washington biologists Kaeli Swift and John Marzluff decided to create experiments to find out what exactly is happening. …
The conclusion? The sight of a dead crow leaves a lasting impression on living crows.Swift and Marzluff suggest that the reason crows pay such close attention is because it’s a learning opportunity for survival, a chance to know which individual humans, animals or situation are dangerous. Gathering together may be a way to share this information with the group, protecting the remaining members of the flock.
Here’s another favorite corvid of ours, the black-billed magpie:
We learned to love them on trips out west. Unfortunately, they don’t live in our neck of the woods, but we’re ever hopeful that some morning we’ll wake to find one in our yard. Other southwestern birds (and animals like armadillos) have made it here, so why not magpies? We have put out the welcome mat for Heckle and Jeckle.
Magpies also hold “funerals” for their dead:
Magpies feel grief and even hold funeral-type gatherings for their fallen friends and lay grass “wreaths” beside their bodies, an animal behaviour expert has claimed. …
Dr Bekoff, of the University of Colorado, said these rituals prove that magpies, usually seen as an aggressive predator, also have a compassionate side. …
Dr Bekoff said he studied four magpies alongside a magpie corpse and recorded their behaviour.
“One approached the corpse, gently pecked at it, just as an elephant would nose the carcase of another elephant, and stepped back. Another magpie did the same thing, ” he said. …
“Next, one of the magpies flew off, brought back some grass and laid it by the corpse. Another magpie did the same. Then all four stood vigil for a few seconds and one by one flew off.”
After publishing an account of the funeral he received emails from people who had seen the same ritual in magpies, ravens and crows.
“We can’t know what they were actually thinking or feeling, but reading their action there’s no reason not to believe these birds were saying a magpie farewell to their friend,” he wrote in the journal Emotion, Space and Society.
Those who see emotions in animals have been accused of anthropomorphism – the attribution of human characteristics to animals.
However, Dr Bekoff said emotions evolved in humans and animals because they improve the chances of survival.
“It’s bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions,” he said.
Well said. I agree 100%.
Watching and researching corvids took our minds off Covid for at least a little while this spring and summer. For that we are ever grateful to our clever oscine, passerine friends. (oscine=songbird; passerine=perching bird)
Happy weekend to all of our non-avian friends. As usual, an open thread.