The American Crow
“Any day with a crow in it is full of promise.”– Candace Savage
At dawn on the winter solstice, I stepped outside to look for crows. The first raucous “Caw!” came within four minutes of sunrise. One by one, others chimed in. The day had begun, and a new season was unfolding. There was promise in the air.
Over the years, I have watched crows, I have listened to crows, I have hunted them, and I have eaten them. In short, I am a fan. There are plenty of folks who are not. The crow and its cousin, the raven, elicit strong emotions in people, ranging from reverence and awe to loathing and dread.
Why do we react so strongly to these birds? After all, they are fixtures in the Illinois landscape. Why spend time watching them? Why hunt them, and why on earth eat them? The answers lie in the fascinating natural and cultural history of crows.
The American crow, fish crow and common raven belong to the genus Corvus. They’re collectively known as corvids. (That’s corvid with an r.) They share similar traits, and in literature they are often referred to collectively as “crow.”
The American crow is widespread across North America and is one of the most readily recognized birds. Big, black, bold and brash pretty much sums them up, but in specific terms, Corvus brachyryhncos grows up to 20 inches long with a wingspan twice that length. Their sore-throat call is an unmistakable “Caw!”
Similar in appearance and only slightly smaller than the American crow is the fish crow (Corvus ossifragus), which can be found along the coasts and major riverways. In Illinois, the fish crow can be found in the vicinity of the Mississippi River as far north as the Quincey area. Differentiate the fish crow by its distinct, short and nasal caw.
The common raven (Corvus corax) is larger than a crow and has a distinctly wedge-shaped tail. Ravens sport a shaggy ruff of feathers on the throat, and from this throat they emit a hoarse croak. Common ravens are found north of us, in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Canada, as well as west of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast.
Understanding the American Crow
American crows are migratory songbirds native to a large swath of North America. “Migratory” and “song” are relative words in the case of crows. Their annual movements pale in comparison to migratory songbirds like the trans-continental, ocean-hopping blackpoll warbler. In winter, the crows you see may have come from Wisconsin. Crows in northern Illinois often spend the winter in southern Illinois. In spring, American crows make the reverse trip for the breeding season.
American crows are indeed vocal, but they would never garner a Grammy with their un-musical, gruff caws. Crows caw with a purpose. Their vocalizations communicate important information in the flock. Ornithologists have categorized their calls and identified their functions. There are assembly calls and dispersal calls. Most of us have heard crows’ scream calls, alerting other crows to danger—be it a great horned owl or a menacing human. Young crows emit babbling and begging calls.
Each spring, 3 to 9 eggs hatch in a large stick nest secured in a tree. The mostly naked, awkward nestlings spend from 20 to 40 days in the security of the nest. Upon fledging, the young are under the watchful eyes of other family members. They are quick to learn from others and readily pick up survival skills.
The American crow is a highly intelligent species that has learned how to make a living in a variety of habitats. Urban crows are savvy to the ways of humans and forage anywhere they can finagle a good meal. You often see them in parking lots, along roadside, and near dumpsters. Crows in the countryside glean corn from fields, and catch insects and small vertebrates. Just about anything is fair game for crows, even the eggs of other birds. And, of course, carrion.
Crows are known for their communal nature. They gather in large numbers in winter roosts, conjuring images from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, “The Birds.” (Not to worry! These gregarious birds are not out to terrorize humans!) Communal roosts, situated high in treetops, may contain hundreds of individual birds.
As social animals, American crows work together in the rearing of young. This is called cooperative breeding. “Helpers” are offspring of previous years and they assist in caring for new broods. The presence of these helpers to “babysit” increases the reproductive success of the flock.
In spring, mature crows enter courtship. A male will face a female and fluff his feathers, bowing repeatedly. If she accepts his advances, the pair will perch together, touch bills, and make soft, cooing sounds. Helpers lend a hand, or a bill, in building the nest for the new season’s clutch of eggs.
Corvids Steeped in History
Humans across time and distance have connected with corvids. “We know of no other wild animal that so consistently and thoroughly has affected our art, language, religion, and science – literally since the dawn of human history,” wrote John Marzluff and Tony Angell in their book In the Company of Crows and Ravens. Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest tell a story of how the sun, the moon and the stars illuminate the sky, thanks to raven’s liberation of the light from captivity. Prime figures in Norse mythology are raven informants, Hugin and Munin, who aid the war god Odin. The Brothers Grim gave us the story of “The Seven Ravens” in a land far away. There’s Aesop’s fable “Crow and the Pitcher,” in which a thirsty crow figures out that by dropping pebbles into a narrow-necked pitcher of water, he can eventually quench his thirst. LaFontaine’s fable “The Crow and the Fox” humorously teaches a lesson about being “out-foxed.”
The intelligence of corvids may be the reason for their primacy in lore and literature. They are, as Brandom Keim wrote in Bay Nature, “wicked smart.” Among birds, crows are second only to macaws in intellect, and they’re not too far behind primates either. “The brain-to-body ratio of a typical crow is similar to that of a chimpanzee and not far off our own,” noted Candace Savage in her book Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys. Many research scientists, including the famous animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz and renowned naturalist Bernd Heinrich, have documented corvid intelligence. But long before the scientific studies and measurements and data analysis, 19th century clergyman Henry Ward Beecher said it best: “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”
Corvids have an excellent memory, especially when it comes to something that has frightened or pleased them. With such experiences indelibly lodged in their brains, they frequently outsmart would-be captors and evade their enemies.
My interest piqued by stories of crow’s intelligence, I thought I would see for myself. I decided to go crow hunting (see page 37 of the Illinois Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations). Often when the topic of crow hunting is brought up, visions of massive slaughter come to mind. But, as corvid expert and naturalist Bernd Heinrich wrote, “Simply shooting animals is not hunting at all. Not even close.” My intent was not to decimate crows. I wanted to hunt them to get to know them better.
A friend and I obtained permits, donned our camo, readied our 12 gauges and headed out to Green River State Wildlife Area in Lee County. As seasoned hunters, we knew that a large part of hunting is learning to think like the prey. On our first day, we found out that there’s a catch: the crows seemed to think like us. They were on to us in no time. We saw a hundred or so crows that day – and bagged three.
My hunting partner, a firm believer in “If you’re gonna kill it, you’re gonna eat it,” created a scrumptious pie with those three crows. We had envisioned “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” but three were sufficient for a darn good pie.
As many people before me, in cultures around the world, I am enthralled by crows. I’m heading out to Green River soon for my annual crow hunt. The watching, the waiting and the learning is what it’s all about. If, at the end of the day, my bird bag is empty, it will have been a good day – a day of promise fulfilled.
Valerie Blaine has worked as a naturalist for more than 40 years, from the prairies and woodlands of Illinois to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. She earned a master’s degree in forestry and a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois. Blaine retired as the Nature Programs Manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.