Category Archives: Corvid trivia

You need to know more about jay spit

Look, I’m a reasonable person.  I know what you’re thinking.

“Literally never has it occurred to me I might know too little about jay spit.”

But here’s the thing: it’s actually super interesting and you really can’t understand Canada jays without knowing about their saliva.  It would be like trying to understand the internet without cat videos-you just can’t do it.  So trust me when I tell you this is the information you didn’t know you needed.

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In the early 1960’s Walter Brock was examining Canada jay corpses when he discovered that they have massive salivary glands on par with the ones found in woodpeckers.1 Such generously sized glands are found in no other songbird.  Furthermore, like the woodpeckers, it’s not just that Canada jays make a lot of saliva, but they make a lot of sticky saliva.  At the time this discovery was made, it was already known that the enlarged glands of woodpeckers served to allow for a foraging tactic called “tongue probing” where, like anteaters, the birds use their long sticky tongues to extract food from narrow crevices.  Although Canada jays don’t have especially long tongues, the ability to tongue probe seemed the most parsimonious explanation for this strange adaptation, and Brock suggested that this strategy may actually be the key to the jays’ winter survival.  A study a few years later examining their foraging behavior revealed that they don’t feed in this manner, however.  They feed more or less the same way the other corvids do.2  It seems instead, that it’s what they do with the food after that’s different.

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Rather than using their copious amounts of weird, sticky spit for acquiring food, it’s used for depositing it.  If you watch a jay closely after it’s got a bit of food you’ll notice it seems to have missed Emily Post’s memo about chewing with your mouth closed. Over the course of a few seconds you’ll see the food peek out from the bill as the bird moves it around inside its mouth.

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This jay picked up this bit of food about 60sec before this photo was taken.  Now it’s working it around with its tongue, coating it in sticky saliva.

Once sufficiently spit coated, the bird will deposit the food blob (called a bolus) onto the foliage or trunk of a tree.  No matter the material or angle, once the spit dries the food is safely secured come hell or high-water.  Because these caches are pretty small there’s little fear that many will be found.  More importantly, by stashing food high in the trees instead of burying them into the ground like many other cache-dependent corvids do, Canada jays can thrive in areas that receive much heavier snowfall, allowing them the title of the most northern residing jay in North America.

Here’s where it all really comes together though.  If you’ve seen me write about Canada jays before you’ll have noticed that it’s almost inevitable that I’ll use the phrase “Cute little faces” at some point to describe them.  But have you ever wondered why? Why do they have such cute little faces?  While jays do feed more or less in the same way as other corvids the one exception is that they don’t hammer at objects.  If you’re ever given a crow or a Steller’s an unshelled peanut you’ll know exactly the motion I mean. Without the need the hammer objects, or dig holes for burying food, Canada jays don’t need the heavy bills their cousins do.2  Instead they have the blunt little bill that helps give them their characteristic baby-faced look.  So not only is their spit responsible for their ability to tough it out in some of the harshest winter environments this continent offers, but it also means they get to look super cute while doing it.

So like I said, you don’t really know Canada jays until you know a thing or two about their spit.

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Literature cited

  1.  Brock WJ. (1961). Salivary glands in the gray jay (Perisoreus). The Auk 78: 355-365
  2. Dow DD. (1965). The role of saliva i food storage by the gray jay.  The Auk 82: 139-154

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Filed under Birding, Canada jays, Corvid trivia, Diet, Field work, Jay behavior, Science

It’s a wonderful raven’s life

Every year, Jimmy graces our screens as countless people watch him help tell the story of the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.  I’m talking of course about Jimmy the Raven, though I suppose one could make the same case for Jimmy Stewart.  Between the two, however, even Stewart recognized that it was the raven who was the superior colleague, and acquiesced to being referred to as “JS” to stop Jimmy from flying on set every time the director said Stewert’s name.1

“The raven is the smartest actor on set.  They don’t have to make as many retakes for him as for the rest of us.” – Jimmy Stewart, while filming You Can’t Take it With You in 19382

Among corvid lover’s, Jimmy’s role in It’s a Wonderful Life is surely a memorable delight, but few probably know the full extent of his career and accomplishments.

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Jimmy in a screenshot of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Jimmy’s first role was in Frank Capra’s 1938 movie, You Can’t Take It With You, after which Capra cast Jimmy in every one of his subsequent films.  As a result, Jimmy is sometimes mistaken as Capra’s pet, though he really belonged to animal trainer Curley Twiford.  In fact it was Jimmy riding on Twiford’s bulldog, Squeezit, along with two parakeets that initially caught a director’s attention and launched Twiford’s career as one of Hollywood’s earliest animal trainers.3

To make him more marketable, Twiford trained Jimmy to do a wide variety of things including opening mail, operating a typewriter, lighting a cigarette, flipping magazine pages, and dealing a hand of poker.  In the course of Twiford’s career he trained hundred of animals, but it was Jimmy and his subsequent corvids that he marveled at the most.  In a remark that will probably surprise no one, Twiford once said that of all the animals he trained, cats were the most challenging and corvids were the easiest, remembering their stunts for ten years.3

To achieve such tricks, Twiford taught Jimmy a sizable vocabulary of 53 words.  Since so much of Jimmy’s act (and therefore Twiford’s income) depended on Jimmy’s memory of these words, Twiford had Jimmy insured with a first of its kind “loss of memory” policy.4  Lloyds of London, which remains in operation today, wrote the policy–no doubt with ample side-eye from their competitors.  No word, though, on if they currently have any avian clients.

Twiford claimed that between 1938 and 1950, Jimmy had appeared in over 1,000 credited and uncredited films. IMBD, the contemporary scorekeeper of such things, lists 22 credited appearances, including The Enchanted Valley, God’s Country, and The Secret Garden.  He even had an extended roll in The Wizard of OZ, though the scene was later cut.

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A deleted scene from The Wizard of Oz

At the height of his career, Jimmy might well have been a household name, even having newspaper articles dedicated to his biography and upcoming films.  One such article in 1948 boasted that Jimmy possessed a, “Red Cross gold medal for his 200 hours spent entertaining Wold War Two veterans,” though the article did not specify if it meant the American Red Cross, or some other entity.5  Still, neither Rin Tin Tin nor Lassie (both of whom Jimmy worked with6,7) can claim such an honor, even if its true nature is rather murky .

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The Evening News. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. December 31, 1948. p. 12 (and, no, ravens don’t live until they’re 140 even in captivity.)

Jimmy’s last film was Three Ring Circus, filmed in 1954, nearly 20 years after his first movie.  Sadly, his subsequent whereabouts and death are unknown, though I found one article from 1957 that talks about a raven named Jimmy.7  For iconic animal actors however, their successors are often named after them and, indeed, an article published in 1958 mentions a raven by the name of Jimmy Jr., so it’s possible that other articles published during that time were really talking about different birds.8  Curley Twinford died himself only two years after Three Ring Circus in 1956.

Searching through newspaper databases, it’s incredible to see the amount of attention Jimmy received throughout his career. Like other Hollywood stars, his activities, on-set demands, and pay rate were all the subjects of much ado.  He charmed audiences and his costars alike, no doubt leaving impressions of intelligence that would not be widely accepted until much later.  It would be nearly another twenty years after his death before corvids such as Jimmy would be federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  I can’t say what roll, if any, Jimmy played in shaping the public’s perception of these birds, but it’s hard to imagine that such a star left without leaving a mark.

References:

  1. The Cincinnati Enquirer June 7, 1946: pg 17.
  2. Driscoll, C. New York Day by Day. The Choshocton Tribune. Choshocton, Ohio.  June 29, 1983: pg 8.
  3. Kohrs, K. and Ross, S. Movie Animal Man. The Salt Lake Tribune.  March 26, 1956: pg 109.
  4. Clary, P. Hollywood Film Shop. The Daily Republican.  Monongahela, Pennsylvania. November 18, 1948: page 6.
  5. Jim, the Raven, in new flicker. The Evening News. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. December 31, 1948: p. 12.
  6. Parsons, L.O. Those Film Fauna are Ticklish Detail.  Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Florida.  March 17, 1946: pg 79.
  7. Burton, R. Film Shop. Odessa American.  Odessa, Texas. April 30, 1957: pg 8.
  8. Performing Raven. The Tribune. Coshocton, Ohio.  August 23, 1958: pg 4.

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Filed under Corvid trivia, Just for fun, Ravens

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

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

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.

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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

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ready crow
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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

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Filed under Corvid trivia, Just for fun