Category Archives: Birding

What’s in a (corvid) name?

Most people know various corvid species by their common names but have you ever wondered what etymologies inform their scientific names? Turns out it’s a pretty fun little exercise to find out!

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Before we get to breaking down individual corvids though, a quick word on scientific names more generally.  Scientific names always have the format: Genus species. Meaning, the first word in the name tells you what genus the plant/animal belongs to and the second tells you the species name specific to that organism. So for example crows, rooks, jackdaws and ravens are all in the same genus so their scientific names will all start with the same word: Corvus. The second word, however, will be unique to each species. This system of binomial nomenclature was first developed by Carl Linnaeus in the 1700’s.  By looking up the roots of an animal’s scientific name we can learn a thing or two about what he, (or whoever named it) was trying to highlight. Then again, sometimes they’re just fans of Beyoncé or Jonny Cash.

One more note: although scientific names are often referred to, informally, as Latin names, their roots may actually pull from many languages.  Though by far the most common languages are Latin and Greek.

As it happens, I have an old book of  root words I inherited from my late grandfather, Richard Swift. Something about having that book in my hands begged for this exploration in a way that having the breadth of the Internet at my fingertips never did. What can I say, a childhood spent in the library of my grandfather’s office has made me a sucker for old, smelly books. So let’s get started!

Common raven: Corvus corax
Common ravens are the biggest of the corvids (and in fact, the biggest of all the songbirds) so it makes sense their name might be the yardstick by which other corvids are measured. Cora literally translates to “crow, raven” so the common raven’s scientific name essentially just means raven.

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GO, the American crow

American crow: Corvus brachyrhynchos
Turning to American crows, we can see that yardstick I mentioned coming into play. Brachy means “short” and rhynch means “a beak or snout.” So the American crow’s full scientific name basically translates to the “short-beaked crow.”

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Jungle crow, photo c/o Anne Kurasawa

Jungle crow: Corvus macrorhynchos
At this point, the meaning of the jungle crow’s name probably needs no explanation. The bird looks essentially like an American crow but with a more pronounced bill. Macr rhynch = large beak.

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Pied crow, photo c/o Frank Vassen

Pied crow: Corvus albus
Alb means “white.” No mystery here.

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House crow, photo c/o Benjamint444

House crow: Corvus splendens
Splen means “a badge or patch.” With grey sweater they sport, it’s likely the person who named them was trying to highlight this physical distinction.

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Thick billed raven, photo: Ignacio Yufera

Thick-billed raven: Corvus crassirostris
Sometimes, scientific names are precisely their common names. Such is the case here. Crass means “thick” and rostr means “beak.” This is a good example of where we see different languages influencing the names.  In this case, thick-billed ravens got the Latin root, whereas American and jungle crows got the Greek root for beak.

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Rook, photo c/o Pam P.

Rook: Corvus frugilegus
This one is less clear to me. Frugi means “useful, fit” and legus means “lie down; choose; or collect” depending on what language you pull from. My guess is it’s supposed to be ‘collect’ and the name refers to the more specialized bill they have for collecting insects.

Finally,

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The grey or bare-faced crow, photo c/o B.J Coates

The grey crow: Corvus tristis
Trist means “mournful; sad.” I have a feeling I know the backstory for this one but I’ll leave it to my readers to see if they can figure it out. Leave me your best explanation (made up or researched) in the comments!

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Filed under Birding, Corvid trivia, Crow curiosities, Uncategorized

Corvid of the month: Rooks

In honor of last week’s #CrowOrNo photo, I wanted to spend some more time spotlighting a corvid perhaps less well known to my fellow North Americans, the rook (Corvus frugilegus).

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Photo c/o Pam P.

Among corvids, adult rooks might be one of the most unmistakable species. Their naked, chalk colored chin, lores, and bill base gives their face an appearance resembling no other bird.  The grey crow, or bare-faced crow (Corvus tristis), shares a similar facial pattern but is easily distinguished by its rather blushing appearance and blue eyes.  In addition, whereas the grey crow is known mainly to the peoples of Papua New Guinea, rooks have one of the widest distributions of any corvid species, breeding from Sweden all the way to China.

(Hover over tiled photos for captions)

Of course, what made last week’s #CrowOrNo submission such a challenge was that the photo was not of an adult, but rather a first year bird.  With their nasal hairs intact, first-year rooks look something like a crow/raven hybrid. Although bill shape is, I think, the best tell, one other field marker to look for are their notoriously shaggy “pants” (belly and leg feathers) in contrast to crows and ravens.

The transition to bare-faced adult occurs during the bird’s first complete body molt when they’re around 10-15 months old.  This process can take as little as 25 days but for most birds occurs over the course of several months1.  The evolutionary reason for this loss may have something to do with their foraging habits, which consists largely of probing for worms, though this remains unclear.

Unlike many Corvus species which are more general with respect to their diet, rooks are fairly specialized to feed on the small worms that live among the roots of plants.  One consequence of this diet is that there are distinct boom and bust seasons.  In April and November, wet conditions make worms plentiful, but in other times of years drier conditions drive worms deeper and out of reach.  Since access to food can be precarious, rooks have adopted a rather unusual incubation strategy compared to most birds.  Rather that commencing incubation when the entire clutch is laid, which promotes the same hatch date, rooks start incubating the first egg as soon as it is laid.  This chick is born earliest, giving it a clear advantage over its future siblings.  If food becomes sparse only this chick will survive. If food remains abundant, the parents can provision enough to supply the larger, more dominant chick, and its younger siblings.2

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Photo c/o Danny Chapman

Rooks are distinct from other corvids with respect to their behavior as well.  In contrast to crows or ravens, rooks are essentially non-territorial.  During the non-breeding season they are most commonly found in large foraging groups (much to the chagrin of local agricultural farmers, I imagine).  During the breeding season they nest in colonies, rather than individual territories, though they will defend the area around their nest and their mate as necessary.  A nest is often reused by the same pair year after year until it is razed by weather, or the pair is forced for some other reason to construct a new nest.  Like many other Corvus species, they maintain a socially monogamous life-long mate.3

Cognitively, rooks demonstrate many of the same skills that have brought some of their peers into the global spotlight. For example, when in the care of humans, rooks have demonstrated an astounding alacrity for tool use, though they are not known for manufacturing tools in the wild. For example, captive rooks have been shown to bend wire into hooks to extract food out of a tube like New Caledonian crows, or work together to solve problems like chimps (though unlike chimps, they do not appear to understand when cooperation is necessary or how it works).4,5

Taken together, these snippets of their biology and behavior demonstrate what unique members rooks are to the Corvus genus.  I envy my counterparts across the Atlantic and Pacific and encourage them to take a second look at the rook whenever opportunities present themselves.

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Photo c/o Paul Wilson

Literature cited

1.  Dunnet GM, Fordham RA, Patterson IJ. (1969).  Ecological studies of the rook (Corvus frugilegus) in North-East Scotland.  Proportion and distribution of young in the population.  British Ecological Society 6: 459-473

2.Green P. (1996). The communal crow.  BBC Wildlife 14: 30-34

3. Coombs CJF. (1960). Observations of the rook Corvus frugilegus in southwest Cornwall Ibis 102: 394-419

4. Bird CD, and Emery NJ. (2009).  Insightful problem solving and creative tool modification by captive nontool-using rooks.  PNAS 106: 10370-10375

5.  Bugnyar T. (2008).  Rooks team up to solve a problem.  Current Biology 18: R530–R532

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Filed under Birding, Corvid diversity, Corvid of the month, Diversity, Uncategorized

Are you playing #CrowOrNo yet?

Crows, ravens, magpies, even blackbirds or other non-corvid species can be tricky to distinguish from one another if you’re a beginning or even experienced birder given the right angle or blurry photo.  While some of it is a matter of learning key field markers, a big part of effectively learning to distinguish these species is an eye for the subtle differences in portion or appearance that comes with practice.  I believe learning these skills is not only fun, but makes us more informed corvid lovers and birders.

To that aim, I’ve started a weekly #CrowOrNo “quiz” on my Instagram (@swiftcrow) and Twitter (@kswift_crow) accounts.  Every Wednesday at 11:30 AM PST, I’ll post one photo and it’s up to you to decide whether or not it’s really a crow.  At the end of the day I’ll share the answer and any tips or tricks that would have helped to discern the true species.  Play, share, or simply spectate.  Whatever you’re comfortable with is fine for me, as long as you’re enjoying the process and learning more about these wonderful animals!  Check out the photos below for examples from past weeks.  I hope to see you there!

Oh, and have photos you think would make good fodder for the game?  Send them my way!

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Filed under Birding, Corvid trivia, Just for fun

New research on the cause of the AKD outbreak

Since the nineties, Avian Keratin Disorder has been an increasingly common disorder among Alaskan and PNW crows, chickadees (~17% of northwest crows1, ~6% of black-capped chickadees2) and a handful of other species, that causes gross deformities of the beak such as elongation, curvature or crossing.  I’ve written previously about the details of this disease before, but at that time there was little progress in determining the underlying source of the outbreak.  While AKD can be caused by a variety of things, at the scale it’s being observed now scientists questioned if there was a more consistent underlying factor.  Since AKD can cause discomfort or even death (primarily through the inability to feed or preen) understanding what might be the source of this outbreak has clear management and conservation implications.

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An AKD-afflicted American crow in Seattle, WA.

Among the initial suspects were environmental contaminants such as heavy metals, organic pesticides, and toxic environmental pollutants like PCBs, PCDDs, and PCDFs.   Blood work done on afflicted Northwestern crows, however, showed no significant difference in the 30 blood elements tested compared to unaffected adults or juveniles3.  Fortunately, new research may finally be shedding light on what’s going on.

Disease can be an easy thing to rule out if you know what you’re looking for, but new to science pathogens can evade traditional diagnostic techniques.  To account for this, a team of USGS and university scientists conducted a sequencing study comparing pooled RNA of healthy and AKD positive chickadees, crows and nuthatches in attempt to identify a candidate pathogen2.  Their work appears to have paid off, revealing evidence for a new picornavirus (a family of viruses previously known to science) they are calling poecivirus.  Whereas 100% of AKD-affected birds (23 subjects) tested positive only 22% of the 9 control individuals did.

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Alaskan black-capped chickadee with severe AKD. Photo c/o Martin Renner

Given these small sample sizes, it’s too early to throw our hands up in complete relief of having identified the cause of the AKD outbreak, especially since there’s still much to be done in understanding the potential relationship of this new virus to the environment.  Nevertheless, these findings offer some insight and hope that scientists are on the right track.  With more dedicated work we may soon have a much better understanding of this novel pathogen, its link to AKD, and management options moving forward.

Literature cited

1.  Van Hemert C, & Handel CM. 2010.  Beak deformities in Northwestern crows: Evidence of a multispecies epizootic.  The Auk 127: 746-751.  doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/auk.2010.10132

2. Zylberberg M, Van Hemert C, Dumbacher JP, Handel CM, Tihan T, and DeRisi JL. 2016. Novel picornhttps://wordpress.com/post/corvidresearch.wordpress.com/3363avirus associated with Avian Keratin Disorder in Alaskan birds.  mBio 7 doi: 10.7589/2015-10-287

3. Van Hemert C, Handel C. 2016.  Elements in whole blood of Northwestern crows (Corvus caurinus) in Alaska USA: No evidence for an association with beak deformities.   Journal of Wildlife Diseases 52:713-718 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.7589/2015-10-287

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Filed under Birding, Corvid health, Crow curiosities, Crow disease, Crow life history, Ecosystem, Uncategorized

15 of the prettiest corvids from around the world

When most Americans think of corvids, the color palette that probably comes to mind is black, grey, blue, white and iridescent.  Together, these colors have certainly assembled a handsome collection of birds, but there’s an awful lot more pigments in the corvid family than that.  Even among those colors, some of the more topical corvids exploit them in dazzling ways.  Unlike American or New Caledonian crows though, these birds have not gotten their fair share of the corvid limelight and it’s time we change that.  The following is a sample of just some of the corvid diversity more folks should know about.  If you really want to have a little extra fun, ignore the scientific names and see if there are any birds you would group together in the same genus (reminder: Family>Genus>Species).  Then you can go back and look at the first part of the scientific name to see if you were right!

These photos were primarily sourced from some of the generous and talented photographers that can be found on Flickr.  Please click on their names to see more of their great work.

1. Common green magpie (Cissa chinensis).  Found in parts of India, China and Indonesia.  A flocking corvid often found low in the canopy where they can be very difficult to spot among the vegetation.  According to the International  Union on the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) their populations are considers stable and of least concern.

2. Taiwan Magpie (Urocissa caerulea).  Endemic to Taiwan, these are flocking corvids that feed mostly from tree canopies.  Their populations are stable.

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Photo c/o Dave Irving

3. Lidth’s jay (Garrulus lidthi).  The only jay endemic to Japanese islands of Amami-oshima and Tokunoshima.  In the fall they can gather in groups as large as 100 birds where they feed mainly on acorns.  Habitat loss and predation have this bird listed as declining and vulnerable.

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Photo c/o Mark Curley

4. Unicolor jay (Aphelocoma unicolor).  Ranges intermittently from western Mexico to El Salvador and may have as many as 5 subspecies! They are considered of least concern, though populations are declining.

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Photo c/o Maynor Ovando

5. Green jay (Cyanocorax yncas) can be found from southern Texas throughout central America and as far south as Peru.  Although they are a solitary breeder, they are very social in the non-breeding season.  Populations are increasing they are considered of least concern.

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Photo c/o Wade Strickland

6. Spotted nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes).  Native across Europe and Asia, theses birds are monogamous and generally hang out only with their mate.  Like the unicolor jay they are considered of least concern but trends point towards decline.

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Photo c/o Dave Irving 

7. Ceylon magpie (Urocissa ornata).  Another Sri Lankan endemic.  These birds can be seen in pairs or small flocks where they noisy work the tree canopy.  They are considered vulnerable and declining.

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Photo c/o Dave Irving 

8. Black-throated magpie jay (Calocitta colliei).  This bird is limited to northwest Mexico where it can be found in open woodlands chatting loudly and waiving their tails.  They are common and populations are stable.

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Photo c/o Ahmed Eldaly

9. Turquoise jay (Cyanolyca turcosa).  Can be found in the humid forests of Ecuador, north Peru, and south Columbia.  Overall this species is poorly documented.  Right now it is considered a least concern species but it’s possible that’s due to lack of data.

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Photo c/o Dave Irving

10. Rufous treepie (Dendrocitta vagabunda).  Found across India and southeast Asia.  These birds are generally wary of people but have been known to enter houses to look for geckos.  Would love to find one in my house!  Populations are stable and they are considered least concern.

11.  Gold-billed magpie (Urocissa flavirostris).  Endemic to Taiwan, these birds keep their tails erect when on the ground, possibly to prevent the feathers from being damaged. Populations are stable and they are considered of least concern.

12. Bornean green magpie (Cissa jefferyi).  Found only in Indonesia and Malaysia, these birds look (and act) similarly to the common green magpie.  Relatively little is known about this species as they are hard to access high in the mountain forests.  It’s listed as of least concern.

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13. Eurasian jay (Garrulus glandarius) Found throughout Europe, Asia and Northern Africa.  This bird is common to most birders outside of North and South America.  Although these birds remain with their mates for extended periods they do not keep much contact throughout most of the year. Eurasian jays are in no danger of global population decline.

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Photo c/o Simon Forster

14. Azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyana).  Native across Asia and as far north as Mongolia and southern Siberia*. They form small family parties during the breeding season but amass into large groups during the nonbreeding season.  Populations are increasing and they are of least concern.

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Photo c/o Crotach

15. Finally we have, literally, the beautiful jay (Cyanolyca pulchra). Found only in the Andes of Columbia and north Ecuador.  They can be found alone or in pairs but are not believed to interact in large social groups.  Little known about reproduction, social behavior or predators.  Populations are declining and near threatened.

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Photo c/o Andrew Spencer

Did you pick out a favorite bird?  Let me know in the comments and I’ll try to dedicate a post to it!

Literature cited

*A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the Azure-winged magpie spread as far west as Spain and Portugal.  Although this was true at the time the reference guide used to write the post was written, since 2002 these western birds have been splint into their own species called the Iberian magpie1.

1Fok KW, Wade CM, Parkin DT (2002). “Inferring the phylogeny of disjunct populations of the azure-winged magpie Cyanopica cyanus from mitochondrial control region sequences.”. Proc. Roy. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 269 (1501): 1671–1678.doi:10.1098/rspb.2002.2057.

All other species descriptions were based on: Madge, S. and Burn, H. 1999.  Crows and jays.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 1999.

 

 

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Filed under Birding, Diversity

Everything you want to know about crow nests

Spring marks one of my favorite times of year.  Cherry blossoms abound, the rain smell sweet and the birds get busy putting their carpentry skills to good use. Starting early March, the silhouettes of crows with bill loads of timber or wads of soft material dot the skies as they shuttle back and forth to their nest tree. Like a townhouse development, these construction projects are over in the blink of an eye and soon, their bill loads of twigs will be replaced by food for their mate and, eventually, their insatiable young. Spotting these nests is both a great way to observe and engage with your local crow family and avoid unpleasant conflicts with protective crow parents.  With a little knowledge and a bit of practice, tracking down your resident crow nest will become one of your favorite spring traditions in no time.

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Nest construction and site selection

Nest construction begins in early March and will continue (as nests fail) through about June. It takes 1-2 weeks to finish a nest after which the female will lay a clutch of 2-6 eggs. Unlike similarly sized squirrel nests (aka: dreys) which are made of leaves, crow nests are made mostly of pencil-width twigs. A new nest is usually about 1.5 ft across and 8-10 in deep.  After the bulk of construction is complete, they’ll line the cup of the nest with soft materials like grass, tree bark, moss, flowers, paper or fur. Once we saw a crow ripping out the hair of an outdoor manakin, no doubt to use as lining material.

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A crow gathers moss off the branches of a big leaf maple to use as lining material.  


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This bird toyed with this branch for a few minutes before rejecting it and letting it fall to the ground.  


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A sidewalk littered with twigs is good evidence that the nearby deciduous tree is a favorite among the local crows to pull branches from.  I’ve only once seen a crow try and retrieve a branch it dropped, so these are all rejects.  

 

Crows will nest in an astounding array of places, from the eaves of skyscrapers to the crooks of well concealed tree limbs. They can tower in the sky or be almost within reach. Most commonly, I see them built close to the trunk in the top third of Doug fir trees, but this is, of course, specific to the PNW.  Both partners participate in nest construction. Helpers will aid to some degree but most of the work is left to the parents.

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Differences among corvids

Crow, jay and raven nests are similar in shape and material but differ in overall size in accordance with the size of the bird. The main standout are magpies,  which build incredible domed-shaped nests the size of a large beach ball.  The nests require so much material, they can take as much as 40 days to build.  Japanese jungle crows are another species of note, as they have a (relatively) new and problematic habit of building nests out of wire hangers and causing massive blackouts.

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A Jungle crow nest in urban Japan. Photo: Götz


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The magpie’s nest is the big clump in the middle of the tree.

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The life of a typical nest is only about 9 weeks (1-2 weeks of building, 6 days of laying, 20 days of incubating and 4 weeks of nestlings) though they are hardy structures and can remain intact in a tree for years.  After the young fledge, the crows will not return to the nest.  Crows will only use a nest once, and generally only fledge one brood a year. They will, however, build on top of an old nest particularly in areas where nest trees are especially sparse like downtown Seattle. This also appears to be more common in the Midwest.

Avoiding conflicts

Most breeding related dive bombs occur as the result of a person being too close to a fledgling, but some crows get feisty around their nest too. Crows in areas where they are less persecuted (like cities) tend to be more aggressive than their rural counterparts. If you know where a nest is and can avoid it, do so and save everyone the aggravation. Otherwise carry an umbrella or paint eyes on the back of a hat. Crows rarely attack from the front so having eyes on the back of your head can be an effective deterrent!

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Putting all this together to actually find nests, is one of the most rewarding moments an urban naturalist or crow enthusiast can have.  Be warned though: crows are wary of potential predators (including people) spying on them and they have a few tricks for throwing you off, so don’t be surprised if a nest location you were certain of turns out to have been a ruse!

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Can you spot the nest? 

Have more questions? Let me know in the comments!

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Filed under Birding, Breeding, Crow behavior, Crow life history, Crows and humans

Australian magpies are not corvids

Ah the Australian magpie.  With its glossy tuxedo plumage, heavy bill, and charismatic reputation it’s no wonder it’s a favorite among corvid lovers.  Why then, do scientists keep insisting that it’s not, in fact, a corvid?  This insistence of ours can feel arbitrary, even perhaps insulting, to a bird that superficially looks and acts like the corvids we know.

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A still frame from the infamously cute video of an Aussie magpie and a puppy play-wrestling together.  

To address this question, corvid expert and my colleague, Jennifer Campbell-Smith, recently penned a terrific piece to lay the confusion to rest.  I recommend everyone take the time to read it in full.

If you do not have time, the short version of the story is that physiologically, Australian magpies, like the other butcherbirds they are classified with, lack the nasal bristles indicative of corvids.  Genetically, DNA work done in the late 80’s also showed that, while they share a common ancestor, are are phylogentically  distinct from other corvids.  There has been some back and forth since then on the details, but there’s no scientific evidence that we should be lumping them in with corvids.

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The nasal feathers are those thin, wire like feathers covering the base of the bill on the crow to the right, but conspicuously absent on the Aussie magpie to the left.  Australian magpie photo: Guy Poisson

Why this bums so many corvids lovers out is a curious mystery to me.  Personally, I find the convergent evolution with respect to both appearance and behavior much more interesting than if we simply made a taxonomic mistake.  As for whether corvid lovers should continue to find joy and fascination in observing these birds well, I’ll direct you to this video and let you be the judge.

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Filed under Being a scientist, Birding, Crow curiosities, Crow life history, Taxonomy