By now, most of us have come across these images of “baby crows” so often it induces more of a yawn than a fit of aggravation.
If, somehow, these images are new to you feel free to check out my post fully debunking them, as I will not dedicate any further time to them here. But there’s a new photo circulating social media, and it makes for a much more compelling crow doppelganger;
You’ve got three, black, altricial baby birds in a nest and really, they’re not terribly un-crow like. It doesn’t make you a complete crow rookie to make this mistake, but there are some key things wrong here. And this is the moment where, as a scientist, these photos elevate from being simply another source of annoying misinformation (which, they are) to the kind detective work that childhood doctor visits fostered a deep love for. Because, not unlike my favorite activity in the Highlights magazines I anxiously parsed through in those waiting rooms, there are 4 things that are different between these two photos and it’s up to you to find them. So take a minute and see what jumps out at you….
Figured it out (or given up)? The first thing to know is that all bird species are very specific in terms of both nest materials and nest construction. Sure, some birds can happily use some ribbon in place of straw (like orioles) or build nests in old shoes just as easily as in gutters (like bewick’s wrens) but the basic style is always the same. Robins will always use mud as a binder and bushtit nests will always look like cozy sleeping bags made of moss. Knowing that, the material used in the nest on the right should jump out as a red flag. Of course you’ll find crow nests with a bit of string, fabric or grass (especially for lining) but the bulk of the nest is always made of pinky-wide sticks. Really, you need look no further at this point to know immediately that the photo on the right is an impostor but let’s keep going because it’s fun.
Next let’s look at the babies themselves, which is where the three remaining differences are. Two of them are color-coded, did you catch them? Ah yes, gape and eye color. See that brightly colored area on the corner of the bird’s developing beak? That’s called the gape, and the bright color that flashes when they open their mouths is a powerful signal that tells parents to “insert food here”. Crows have bright pink gapes, whereas these other birds have yellow gapes. Our other color coded giveaway is the eyes. Granted the lighting is not great, but it’s clear that the crows on the left have light blue eyes whereas these other birds have dark eyes. In some species of crow the babies are born with brown eyes that turn blue as they age, but such is not the case with our American crows and you can expect that nestlings will always have blue eyes. The last clue, which takes more expert level knowledge to notice, is the bill shape. The birds on the right have a slightly more embellished curve to the bill than a typical crow chick.
The final mystery, of course, is what the birds on the right actually are. Unfortunately, I failed to track down the original poster, but as best I can tell they’re black drongo chicks. Black drongos are members of the drongo family (Dicruridae) and are native to Southern and Eastern Asia. Here’s another photo I found that looks consistent with the previous one. If any drongo experts read this blog though and want to correct me, I’d love to hear from you!