Published Sunday, January 20, 2013

Stanley Tate column: Watching crows


Special to The Newnan Times-Herald

My grandfather hated crows. They pecked his watermelons and tomatoes and ate his corn. He would never understand my tolerance of the crow family that spends much of each day in our yard, eating nuts under the pecan tree and cracked corn at the bird feeder and splashing in the bird bath.

I tolerate “my” crows because they are interesting and easy to watch and because I don’t depend on pecans for an income or need the cracked corn to feed mules that pull a plow.

Crows are handsome and canny birds. They are clever and flexible problem solvers. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of looking out a window and asking myself the question — what is that crow doing?

Crows are loud and assertive. They are not shy. They are very watchable and their behaviors are some of the most complex in the non-human world. Like that of humans, their social life is a mixture of cooperation and competition.

It is difficult to catch a warbler or a woodpecker courting without crawling through thickets or driving to far places to wait and watch. But I can just walk out the door in spring and see a male crow in the middle of his wooing. His posture is stooped, his tail is spread, his feathers fluffed; he is bobbing up and down, head lowered, gurgling.

The mated pair will perch close together, talking in crow whispers, gently preening each other. They work together to build a bulky nest of sticks and bark, and together defend their home from other crow pairs.

Unlike other birds, crow parents have helpers — probably the pair’s non-breeding offspring from the previous year. They help the parents guard the nest, mob predators and feed the chicks. This arrangement helps crows to be more efficient breeders.

Crows eat almost anything and they have invented interesting ways to satisfy their appetites. They herd sparrows into walls, use sticks and leaf stems to pry spiders and insect larvae from crevices, and tenderize delicacies like clams, thick shelled nuts, snakes and tough skinned squirrels by dropping them into oncoming automobile traffic. They love Dumpsters and parking lots and will share your McDonald’s hamburger and fries with no concern for fat content.

Crows play. On windy fall days, they take to the sky for no apparent reason beyond delight in flight. They carry sticks into the air, drop them, let them fall, swoop down to catch them in their bills — crow games.

Most days there are four or five crows in my yard: eating, mobbing Ziggy the cat and the resident hawks and crowding into the bird bath. They are never quiet. They seem to have a passion for noise. They are ever present and always busy. It is no wonder that cave dwellers scratched images of them on their walls, Shakespeare included them in his plays, and children through the ages have learned right from wrong by reading about Aesop’s crows.

Spend some time watching crows. Ponder why they do the things they do. Watching crows may make you question the concept of human preeminence and consider how much more there is to know and understand. Returning vet may need professional intervention.

© 2011 The Newnan Times-Herald Inc., Newnan, Georgia. Any unauthorized use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.