Category Archives: Corvid trivia

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!

img_56531.jpg

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.

DSC_2853

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.”

junlge crow

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.

corvus_albus_-etosha_national_park_namibia-8

Pied crow, photo c/o Frank Vassen

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

house-crow444

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.

thick billed raven

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.

16757988474_95447ac3f6_z

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,

grey-crow

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!

10 Comments

Filed under Birding, Corvid trivia, Crow curiosities, 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!

5 Comments

Filed under Birding, Corvid trivia, Just for fun

5 corvid facts that will surprise you

With all the online crow trivia listicles that are already floating around it can be hard to come up with tidbits that are both factual and interesting.   I was up the the challenge though and am hoping I found at least one thing every reader didn’t know.  Let me know how I did in the comments section!

 1.   Avocados are toxic to crows.1

Well, really avocados are toxic to most birds, and many other kinds of domestic animals.  Avocados contain a molecule called persin, which the plant produces as a fungicide.  In birds, it can cause damage to the heart tissues, difficulty breathing, lethargy or even death.  The resplendent quetzal is a rare exception in that it can not only tolerate avocados, but is considered a crucial seed distributor of the plant.  So next time you’re considering sharing your Chipotle leftovers, make sure you didn’t order extra guac.

2.   Scavenging accounts for very little of a crow’s diet2

Scavenging, meaning the consumption of dead plant or animals material, is a crucial part of our ecosystem that is commonly the recipient of unfair prejudice. American crows often get thrown in with this lot, and while there wouldn’t be anything gross or insulting about this if it were true, it simply isn’t.  Whether you’re in the city or the wildlands, scavenging and active predation account for only a minority of a crow’s diet.  The bulk of their daily meal is made of human refuse, invertebrates and worms.  In the cities, about 85% of their diet is human refuse, whereas in exurban and wildland areas human refuse and invertebrates account for roughly equal proportions of their daily food (about 35% each).

Photo: W. Perry Conway/CORBIS

This scene is not as common as many people think! Photo: W. Perry Conway/CORBIS

3.  There’s only three places with no native corvids3

New Zealand, the southern part of South America and the poles (ok so I guess technically 4 if you want to be a stickler about it).  Why this is remains largely mysterious, but it probably has to do with where and how these birds radiated out from their ancestral origins.

Global corvid distribution. They'll be our avian overlords soon enough I'm sure.

Global corvid distribution. They’ll be our avian overlords soon enough I’m sure.

4.  They have some of the best spatial memory of any animal4

Every year Clark’s nutcrackers and pinyon jays store tens of thousands of seeds to sustain them through the lean winter months.  If they fail to retrieve enough they’ll perish, so a good spatial memory can literally be the difference between life and death.  To deal with this mental load, these two species (and other food caching birds) have a huge hippocampus relative to the rest of their brain.  With the spatial memory part of their brain super charged they’re able to retrieve 20,000-30,000 seeds with 90% accuracy or better.  I can’t usually retrieve my cell phone what that kind of accuracy so I certainly tip my hat to them!

Photo: Minnesota Birder

Clark’s nutcracker.  Photo: Minnesota Birder

5.  They account for the largest songbird in the world.5

The common raven is marginally the largest songbird of the world with a 4.9ft wing span and weighing in at up to 4.5lbs.   An extremely close second is the thick-billed raven, which is native Ethiopia and has limited range in some surrounding countries.  In fact, the two are so close in size that there are conflicting reports of which is bigger depending which publication you look at3,5.  Scientists finally resolved this dispute, however, and came to the consensus that the common raven is larger for the 2009 publication of the Handbook of the Birds of the World.*

Photo: Ignacio Yufera

Thick billed raven.  Photo: Ignacio Yufera

*This section has been updated from a pervious version which incorrectly stated that the thick-billed raven was larger.

Literature cited

  1.  http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/toxic-and-non-toxic-plants/avocado
  2. Marzluff, J.M., McGowen, K.J., Roarke, D. and Knight, R.L.  2001.  Causes and consequences of expanding American crow populations.  in Avian ecology and conservation in an urbanizing world (J.M. Marzluff, R. Bowmanm and R Donelly, eds).  Kluwer academic Press, norwell, Ma.
  3. Madge, S. and Burn, H. 1999.  Crows and jays.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press 1999.
  4. Marzluff, J.M. and Angell, T.  2005.  In the company of crows and ravens.  Yale University Press.
  5. dos Anjos, L., Debus, S., Madge, S., & Marzluff, J. (2009). Family Corvidae (crows). In J. del Hoyo, A. Elliot, & D. A. Christie (Eds.), Handbook of the birds of the world (Vol. 14, pp. 494e641). Barcelona, Spain: Lynx Edicions.

7 Comments

Filed under Corvid trivia, Just for fun

Corvid trivia quiz!

How much trivia do you know about our favorite family of birds?  Head on over to Buzzfeed where I’ve created a quiz to test your knowledge.  When you’re done, feel free to come back to this page and scroll past the corvid photos for more information, citations/links, and to post your score in the comments section.  Can anyone get 100%???

TAKE ME TO THE QUIZ

peeking
ready crow
congrats

1.  Were you surprised to learn that they are songbirds?  Indeed, corvids have impressive vocal repertoires and are among the minority of songbirds that can learn new sounds throughout their lives1.

2.  I’ve railed (get it?!) about this in a previous post but until this image stops circulating my Facebook feed I’ll take every opportunity show folks what real baby crows look like.

3.  The life span of different crow species (Fish, American, Hawaiian and Northwestern) is similar and generally they top out at between 14-24 years.  Ravens on the other hand, usually only make it to 13, though in captivity they can live 40-80 years1.

4.  It’s a common misconception that humans can get WNV  from touching a crow, but there’s no evidence for it according to the CDC.  It’s an understandable rumor, however, considering that corvids are an ideal host for this virus, something I’ve talk about in a previous post.  Humans on the other hand, are considered dead-end hosts, meaning the virus can’t proliferate in our bodies (though that doesn’t preclude it from making some of us very sick).  The real transmission culprits are mosquitoes.

5.  Learn more about the ‘Alala at American Bird Conservancy.

6.  Currently there are actually 7, not 6, ravens at the Tower (you know how those Brits are about their spares!).  According to Historic Royal Palaces they eat 170 g of raw meat a day, plus bird biscuits soaked in blood.   Yum!

7.  Originally, I was going to make the whole quiz just a corvid ID quiz, but I decided that might get old quickly.  Still wanted to get at least one question in there!

8.  Again, ‘murder’ and ‘unkindness’ are not words you’ll typically see in scientific writing (apart from, perhaps, as a means to a pithy article title).  But they make good trivia questions nonetheless.  Fun fact: Company is the term for parrots and deceit is for lapwings.

9.  John Marzluff discusses nearly all these behaviors in his books, so I’ll make thing easy and simply refer you to In the Company of Crows and Ravens.

10. New Caledonian crows are well know for their puzzle solving prowess, but I’m sure ‘007’ completing this task had his researchers especially delighted.  To see footage of 007 at work check out this video.

11. Keeping crows, like hunting them, is regulated under both federal and state laws.  To learn more about the rules regulating crows read my previous post on the Portland crow poisoning.

12. I recently acquired Crows and Jays by Madge and Burn, and recommend it to anyone who wants to become more familiar with all 120 species.

13.  See above.

14.  Part of why I wanted to create a trivia quiz is because I thought it would be a fun excuse to go hunting for a thing or two I didn’t know myself.  Jimmy’s story was exactly the kind of discovery I was hoping for.  Perhaps I’ll do a bit more digging and dedicate a whole post to it.

15.  It’s with good reason that John’s motto about crows is that “they’re little flying monkeys”.  I love this study2 and sharing its findings never gets old!  This kind of equity perception is something that’s been rarely documented outside of primates and underscores the impressive convergent evolve that’s occurred between corvids and primates.

Literature cited

1. Marzluff, J.M. and Angell, T. 2005.  In the company of crows and ravens.  Yale University Press

2. Wascher, C. F.  and Bugnyar, T. 2013.  Behavioral responses to inequity in reward distribution and working effort in crows and ravens.  Plos One: DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0056885

4 Comments

Filed under Corvid trivia, Just for fun