Tweeting, fellow birders! Thanks for flying in to read this column! This week I would like to talk about a very interesting neighbor that you might take for granted, as he is the favorite of our old friend and farmer, the Raven. While you may not realize it, they’re smart, scheming, and downright smart, and they really deserve an honorable mention here. So put those spooky scarecrows back in the barn and let’s take a look at this handsome and talented voyeur!
There are two types that breed in Massachusetts and can be found regularly in the New England area. These are the common crow and the fish crow, and they are both very similar in appearance (the fish crow is slightly smaller). A fairly large bird with full black plumage, long legs, and a thick bill, the common raven can always be recognized by its “squawk!” call, while the Crow Fish’s vocalization is more nasal and forceful, a sort of squawking “woof-woof!” Both species are omnivorous, feeding on fruits, grains, insects, crustaceans, small mammals, reptiles, even other birds and their chicks and eggs. They’ll also eat roadkill and even invade garbage bags (so keep barrel lids tight!). They keep food in caches, meaning they hide it away for later use (perhaps they should be called squirrel birds!) and they also congregate in large flocks, a group of which is known as a “killer.” (Someone call Agatha Christie! Quick!).
Breeding and nest building begin from March to April, the birds use the forks of tall trees to create a comfortable home. Many half-nests will be started and then discarded until the correct one is found (home search!). The young ravens actually stay with the parents for (perhaps) several seasons, and even help feed the female while she is incubating. Usually 3-6 eggs are laid between May and June, and the nesting period is around 4-6 weeks. Within a few months, the young are feeding themselves, learning the trade of being a raven. During the night they will join a roost, a large communal area where birds will sleep at night, sometimes numbering in the hundreds or even thousands.
Now I know a lot of people see these visitors as pests (especially farmers) and I admit there can be a handful, but I mentioned their intelligence earlier, and I’d like to talk about that in more detail. Through tests administered by scientists, ravens have been found to be able to distinguish specific objects and colors, as well as individual faces. They can even count and perform various complicated tasks, such as retrieving food from mazes and using sticks as tools. They have great memory ability and can remember if you’ve been good or bad to them (just like Santa Claus!). So if you get booed by a gang of boo-birds, maybe you should issue an official apology! Their intelligence has been equated to that of a young child (ages 5-7) and they engage in abstract reasoning and thinking, and even “discuss” you when you’re not around, relaying information to their fellow ravens! (This is getting scary!).
Some additional tidbits:
Ravens and ravens are of the same genus (Corvus), with the raven being much bigger and scarier (just ask Edgar Allan Poe).
Ravens are said to hold funerals, gathering in large numbers around a fallen friend (but never touching the body).
Crows have been known to time traffic lights to crush nuts, using the cars to crack open the treats by placing them on the road during red lights. After the green lights expire and the red lights return, they swoop down to claim their powdered prize.
- Crows in the suburbs can memorize garbage truck routes, finding the best times to forage for food (every Thursday morning!).
- Bonus fact: The cartoon characters “Heckle and Jeckle” aren’t crows, they’re magpies.
So what to do with them? Feathered friend or feathered foe? Chances are the answer lies somewhere in the middle, depending on your location or calling. However, regardless of such a debate, everyone must say one thing: ravens are an interesting and amazing animal, and we still have a lot to learn from them. One thing is pretty certain for the future, and that is that ravens are definitely here to stay. Try to appreciate them if you can. They may surprise you in the end.
And now, says the Raven (or in this case, the Raven), comes the bad joke:
Q: Why are ravens the best dancers on Broadway?
A: Because there is no business like the “crow” business!
Yes, I know. I’m probably going to be attacked from above for that!
Happy bird watching!