Monthly Archives: June 2016

Crow curiosities: crows without tails

For the most part, crows come in the same general size, shape and color, but every once in a while individuals will deviate from this template in eye catching ways.  These deviations can manifest as color abnormalities such as white plumage, missing or elongated beaks, or for the focus of this post, missing tails.

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Crows missing their tail are fairly uncommon; in a typical year I’ll only spot a half dozen or so.  Why does it happen and what does it mean? A tail-less crows most often indicates that the individual recently escaped a predator or other kind of threat.  Tail loss is also a rare but disappointing outcome of a too stressed bird in a field biologist’s mist nest or hand.

Just like a skink, many bird species can drop their tails as a last resort to avoid being injured or killed.  In fact, tail feathers require less force to detach in contrast to other feathers on a bird’s body.  In addition, the force required to remove tail feathers decreases with how vulnerable a species is to predation1.  

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Fortunately, while tail loss makes them a little less acrobatic in the sky, they can still fly and land just fine.   Provided the follicle wasn’t damaged when the feather was pulled out, the feathers will being to regrow immediately*.  Until then, they’re stuck looking like a little black football with wings, but that’s certainly better than being hawk food!

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*The time until regrowth has been edited from the previously published version.  My thanks to Mikal Deese for providing the expertise and teaching me something new.

Literature cited

  1. Moller, A.P., Nielsen, J.T., Erritzoe, J.  (2006).  Losing the last feather: feather loss as an antipredator adaptation in birds.  Behavioral Ecology 17: 1046-1056

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5 reasons to leave baby crows alone 

Those blue eyes, that awkward gate, their seemingly constant precariousness, they’re all calling to you to intervene. Here are 5 reasons second guessing that instinct might be in the bird’s best interest.

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1) The vast majority don’t need your help. It’s totally normal for baby crows to be on the ground and flightless as long as they’re covered with feathers and appear otherwise alert and mobile. Even nestling crows are usually on the ground on purpose. Not because they are ready, but because their parents have intentionally rejected them for one reason or another. They will die and that’s ok. Part of coexisting with wildlife is giving them the agency to be wild. The story is different of course for species where the survival of individuals may mean the difference between population survival and extinction, especially because these situation are almost always driven by human activity.

2) It’s hard to tell when they’re stressed.  Recently, I saw a video on Facebook of a Steller’s jay fledgling in the care of a very well intentioned good samaritan.  She was giving it gentle strokes with her fingertips, each touch resulting in the young bird turning its head towards its back and opening its mouth.  The comment thread filled with ooo’s and awww’s and general comments of encouragement or gratitude for her actions.  For me it was like watching an alien attempt to care for a human child, the child recoiling and screaming while its caretakers congratulated themselves on how kind they were being.  Having handled baby corvids before, I know what that kind of posturing means, it means “I’m scared and stressed.”  To an untrained eye though, it may not look much different than the kind of gaping that means ‘feed me.’  Being stressed to death is a reality for young, or even adult animals, so any handling best be done by experts whenever possible.

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3) It’s illegal to rehab crows without a license. You can provide temporary care until you can get them to a licensed facility, but do not attempt to rehab them on your own.  Mistakes like the one I just described are a prime example of why the law seeks to protect animals by ensuring they are only raised or rehabilitated by experts.  For more information on how to handle them until you can get them to a facility visit my previous post.

4) Imprinted crows do not survive well in the wild.  Even if baby crows are receptive to being treated like a pet, doing so is both a legal violation and I would argue a violation of their right to be a wild animal with a healthy fear of people.  Of all my daydreams, at the top of the list is having a wild but imprinted crow that follows me around.  I even have a name picked out.  This fantasy of mine will forever remain just that, however, because it’s too dangerous to allow a crow to become that comfortable with people.  All it would take is one cranky neighbor with a pellet gun and it would be over.  Not to mention being imprinted on people, instead of crows, denies them access to skills and relationships with other crows that will help them survive into adulthood.

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Killing them with kindness is a real risk.

5) It may do more harm than good.  The conventional wisdom suggests “well, worse case scenario is I try and rehab this baby crow and it dies, which it would have done anyway so really, nothing’s been lost.”  The more we study death in social animals the more we are beginning to realize there may be a cost to prematurely removing ailing or dead animals from their groupmates, however.  Being able to interact with their dead may serve an important role for social animals, and denying them this opportunity may have serious implications in their ability to process that death.  So be thoughtful about how slim the chance of survival is.  It might be that the kindest, most responsible action is no action at all.

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