Category Archives: Corvid health

Crow curiosities: Why their feet don’t freeze

With a peanut visible in my gloved hand, we square off.  The crow eyes me from its snow covered perch, weary of such gifts offered by strangers.  Above us a raven castes a disinterested look, croaks, and flies away.  I toss the nut into an empty parking space and the crow descends to quickly collect its prize.  The space between us must be widened before it will comfortably eat however, so I decide to leave the crow to its snack and return to my car.

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Scrunching my feet in my shoes, I’m relieved for the excuse to retreat.  It’s about 10˚F outside and despite the wool socks and insulated boots between my skin and the snow I can tell that my feet are numb from the cold.  Even stashed in my pocket, my gloved hands are having trouble articulating to their full range.  How is it that my extremities lose function even with so much coddling and yet the crows can continue using their bare toes to steady and manipulate food in such cold weather?

To be clear, birds are endothermic, or warm blooded, just like mammals.  In fact, on average, birds run a little hotter than mammals.  And their feet, like ours, requires warm blood both to function and to prevent the tissues from outright freezing and causing cell death.  Yet despite these needs birds can comfortably walk, stand, or even sleep on ice.

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Glassy ice makes cold footing!

To do so, they can take advantage of two important adaptations.   The first is that the size of the arteries carrying blood into the legs and feet is exceedingly small.  Given this high surface to volume ratio, the blood has already lost most of its heat by the time it reaches the feat, and can’t lose much more to the outside world.  The second is that they employ what’s called a counter current heat exchange system.  Essentially, warm blood traveling away from the core and towards the feet via the arteries comes into close contact with colder blood traveling away from the feet and towards the core via the veins. At this point of contact, heat from arterial blood is transferred to blood traveling in the veins. This heat exchange system allows for the tissues in the feet receive just enough heat to prevent cell death, and can reduce heat loss by up to 90%1.

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A crow wades out across a frozen Drumheller Fountain in search of scraps

As an additional strategy, you’ll see them protecting their exposed legs under their body feathers, as if they’re incubating them.  This is the same reason you often see winter birds standing on one leg.  By switching back and forth, birds can minimize overall heat loss by reducing the exposure to only a single leg.

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A crow covers its feet while it waits (hopes) for a handout

So while I need special clothing to keep my extremities at a similar temperature range to my core, the physiology of most birds is adapted to simply allowing extremities to exist at near ambient temperatures with no tissue damage.  In other words, rather than crows’ feet not getting cold, their feet simply are cold.  That said, frostbite is still a possibility even in birds, particularly for: nonnative species, birds in wire cages, birds with metal legbands, and birds in unseasonably cold conditions.  If frost bite occurs, early treatment at a rehab facility can prevent long term damage2.

Still, the idea that cold-adapted birds can keep their hearts beating away at around 105˚F even while their feet are exposed to freezing temperatures is marvel of adaptation and thermoregulation!

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Literature cited:

  1. Elphick C, Dunning JB Jr., Sibley DA (eds).  (2001) The Sibley guide to bird life and behavior.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf
  2. Wellehan JFX. (2003). Frostbite in birds: Pathophysiology and treatment.  Compendium 25: 776-781

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Filed under Corvid health, Crow behavior, Crow curiosities

Saving the rarest crow

It can be hard to imagine crows as anything but ubiquitous.  During winter across the country, dusk marks the time where some cities see their skies turn black with thousands, even hundreds of thousands of American crows converging to roost.  These crows have taken nearly all that people have thrown at them: deforestation, mass waste, and the urban sprawl that simplifies previously complex ecosystems, and uses it to their advantage.  Not all species of crow have thrived in the Anthropocene, however.

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Thousands of gather accumulate in the skies above UW’s Bothell campus in the winter

Far from being icons of the ultimate adapters some species of crow represent some of the most endangered animals in the world.  Among those, the ‘Alalā or Hawaiian crow, is arguably one of the rarest birds on earth. Once locally abundant in the forests and woodlands of Hawaii’s Big Island, their decline began in the 1890’s following persecution by coffee and fruit farmers1.  Back in September, 2015 there remained only 114, all living  exclusively in captivity giving them the unenviable title of ‘extinct in the wild’.  How can one species thrive with such zeal while another holds on by a thread?

Island species are generally more specialized and therefore more sensitive to human induced changes.  In fact proportionally, islands host a higher number of endangered or extinct species than continental areas2.  In Hawaii alone, 77 different species of endemic birds have gone extinct since the arrival of the Polynesians 2,000 years ago4, all largely for similar reasons: habitat destruction and invasive species.

Unlike their generalist, continental counterparts, the ‘Alalā is more specialized to feed on understory fruits and nuts and in fact were key seed distributors for many of Hawaii’s native plants.  Island living also fostered a similar behavior seen in only one other species of crow: tool use.  Like the New Caledonian crow, the ‘Alalā is a dexterous tool user, though the two species are only distantly related.  Scientists believe this example of convergent evolution is fostered by aspects typical of islands, namely low predation and low competition for embedded food5.

Unfortunately, limited distributions and higher specialization also meant their population was more fragile than that of continental crows.  Logging, agricultural development, loss of native pollinators, and alterations by non-native ungulates challenged both food acquisition and breeding habitat.  Introduced diseases such as avian pox, malaria and the Toxoplasma gondii parasite carried by cats further weakened an already ailing population6,7. Invasive predators including rats, mongoose and cats consumed eggs, nestlings and fledglings.  Finally, humans continued their tradition of persecution, particularly feral pig hunters who would shoot the birds before they could alarm call and scare off their prey2.

Together, these threats set into motion a decline in population we failed to recover despite some increases in research and management starting in the 1970’s.  The last known wild egg was laid in 1996, and the last wild pair was seen in 20022,3.  Some people did recognize the urgency of their decline prior to 2002, however, and a captive breeding population was started successfully rearing over 90 birds8.  Although such a small number of breeders may raise red flags with respect to inbreeding and genetic depression, this is rarely as big of an issue as is commonly perceived.  Unfortunately, light management and depredation by the also endangered Hawaiian hawk (‘io), decimated the released population and reintroduction efforts were halted in 1999 until a larger captive population and better management strategy could be devised.

Since that time, the ‘Alalā Restoration Project (collaboration between the State of Hawaii, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and San Diego Zoo Global) has spearheaded captive breeding programs on Maui and the Big Island culminating in a population of over 100 birds.  An important part of these captive breeding programs is the use of puppets, which help prevent habituation to humans9.  In addition, intensive management operations have taken place to ready their prospective home at the Pu‘u Maka‘ala Natural Area Reserve including the removal of invasive/feral animals, erecting exclosure fencing, and constructing a sort of half-way house to help ease the birds into life in the wild.  These efforts have not been without setbacks, however.  Back in June, 2015 two miles of protective fencing was cut down by vandals, though their motivations remain unknown.

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A human dressed as an ‘Alala feeds captive reared nestlings. Photo c/o San Diego Zoo Global

Finally, after so much work, the end of 2016 marked the first time researchers and managers agreed the elements were in place for a reintroduction effort.  On December 14th, five male birds were released onto the reserve, marking the first time the ‘Alalā set claw into the wild since 2002.  Sadly, within weeks all but two had died. Two were killed by the native Hawaiian hawk or ‘lo, and the third was killed by “natural circumstances” which, I’m guessing, is related to a heavy storm that occurred shortly after their release.  As a protective measure, the remaining two were recaptured until the results from the necropsies are obtained.

While clearly disheartening, early hiccups in a release effort like this are not unusual and conservationists and biologists are not losing hope that success is still possible.  Part of ensuring such success, however, is undoubtedly public support particularly with respect to maintaining the strength of the Endangered Species Act and support of the ‘Alalā Restoration Project.  The perception that all crows are alike or that generous populations of American crows means protections for other corvus species is unwarranted or redundant will be a disaster for these rare birds.  So make your voice heard when funding for conversations efforts come under fire, and share your passion for endangered corvus species with friends and family.  The fate of the world’s rarest crow quite literally depends on it.

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Two newly released ‘Alalas peer around their new surrounding in the Pu’u Maka’ala Natural Area Reserve.  Photo c/o the San Diego Zoo Global 

Literature cited

  1. https://www.fws.gov/pacificislands/fauna/alala.html
  2. Faike, E. 2006. Wild voices in captivity: the date of the ‘Alala. Birding 38: 64-67.
  3. Banko, P. C.; Burgett, J.; Conry, P. J.; David, R.; Derrickson, S.; Fitzpatrick, J.;
  4. National Research Council (US) Committee on Scientific Issues in the Endangered Species Act. Science and the Endangered Species Act. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1995. 2, Species Extinctions. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK232371/
  5. Rutz C, Klump BC, Komarczyk L, Leighton R, Kramer J, Wischnewski S, Sugasawa S, Morrissey MB, James R, St Clair JJH, Switzer RA, and Masuda BM. (2016).

    Discovery of species-wide tool use in the Hawaiian crow.  Nature 537: 403-407 doi:10.1038/nature19103

  6. Maxfield, B. 1998. Wild ‘Alala population suffers major setback. ‘Elepaio 58: 51.
  7. Liebermann, A.; Nelson, J. T.; Simmons, P.; Unger, K.; Vitousek, P. M. 2003. Draft revised recovery plan for the Alala (Corvus Hawaiiensis. US Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland, OR, USA.
  8. Lieberman, A. C., Kuehler, C. M. 2009. Captive propagation. In: Pratt, T. K.; Atkinson, C. T.; Banko, P. C.; Jacobi, J. D.; Woodworth, B. L. (ed.), Conservation Biology of Hawaiian Forest Birds: Implications for Island Avifauna, pp. 448-469. Yale University Press, New Haven.
  9. Valutis LL, and Marzluff JM. (1999).  The appropriateness of puppet-rearing birds for reintroduction.  Conservation Biology 13: 584-591

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Filed under Conservation, Corvid diversity, Corvid health, crow conflicts, Crows and humans, Ecosystem

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

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 an 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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Filed under Corvid health, Crow behavior, Crow curiosities, Crow life history, Crows and humans, Uncategorized

Crows with broken beaks

It hurts to look at.  The physical pain incurred at the time of the injury, the likely chronic pain on the path to recovery, the dubious chance of survival, it all makes me reach for my mouth in horror when I see this bird.  To me, the idea of living on in spite of such a grotesque injury seems impossible.   Yet here this bird is, surviving, reminding me of what life is capable of.

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So now that I had my moment of sadness and awe, let’s get to what everyone wonders when they see a bird like this: Will a crow’s beak grow back if it’s broken and if not, can it survive?

Cracks or complete fractures like this can result from a number of things, though the list could be longer since these accidents are so rarely observed firsthand.  Perhaps it was traumatic run in with a window, or perhaps the upper or lower bill got trapped against a fulcrum point and an opposing surface.

As far as the prognosis is concerned, I asked birds experts, wildlife rehabilitators and veterinarians and the answer was always an equivocal ‘maybe’.  Maybe it would heal back to something resembling normal and maybe it would remain stunted. Maybe it would survive and maybe it wouldn’t.  To fully understand the reasoning behind this ambiguity you need to understand how a bird’s beak is actually formed.

Like mammals, birds have two jaws bones that form the upper and lower mandibles.  These bones are surrounded by the nerves and blood vessels that support the beak’s functionality and growth. Protecting these layers is the outer lightweight layer of keratin called the rhamphotheca.  Like our fingernails, this layer is always growing and being replaced.

Depending on where the fracture occurs, the rhamphotheca can grow back enough to abolish the injury.  Unfortunately though, there’s not much room to work with before you hit bone, and the bone cannot be regrown.  In these cases the rhampotheca may heal over the exposed bone, but it may not grow back to full size since the template for its shape (the bone) has been stunted.  Even if it does grow back, it may not do so correctly, leading to twisty shapes.

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A crow skull.  You can see that the jaws bones are almost the full length of a crow’s beak.  The black outer layer, the rhampotheca, adds only a little (think mm) extra length so there’s not much that can be removed from the tip of the bill without hitting bone.

So what’s the prognosis?  Well again, that depends.  Even if the bill does not grow back correctly, or at all, some crows can learn to compensate.  Fortunately, being a generalist helps their chances considerably.  Although some foods may now be out of reach, many crows lean how to scoop, poke, and jab their way to a full stomach everyday. The same cannot be said for many species of bird whose beaks are the cornerstone for consuming a specialized diet.

So while it’s fair to be heartbroken at such an injury, it’s not cause for hopelessness. Many crows will learn to compensate, and go on to remind us of the beautiful stubbornness of life.

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Filed under Corvid health, Crow behavior, Crow disease, Uncategorized