Category Archives: Crows and humans

Why the crow is black and other mythology

Since humans began telling stories and writing them down, they’ve told stories about crows and other corvids.  This should come as no surprise considering corvids are found in nearly every corner of the world and are as connected to us now as they were centennials ago.  Whether they are sharing (or thieving) the food we grow, consuming the soft tissues of our dead, or delighting us with their company, corvids have infiltrated the most intimate parts of our lives. They walk the earth cloaked in black, and yet persist with the light of life even we perish through disease or famine.  It is this juxtaposition that I think made our human ancestors look upon those glossy feather and conclude they must have some greater tie to creation than their other avian kin.  Be it India, Rome, the Middle East or North America, they’ve been written into the oldest stories explaining how the facts of the world came to fruition.  With that in mind, let’s break from answering questions with the rigors of science this week and embrace the explanations offered by our ancestors.

“Raven and the First Men” by Haida artist Bill Reid. Photo by Christer Waara/CBC

Why the crow is black (According the the Greeks/Romans)

Apollo, the son of the most powerful greek God Zeus, had an important, albeit tumultuous relationship with crows.  The greek word for crow, corone, comes from the name of Apollo’s mistress, Coronis.  According to the version of this story told by Appolodorus, although Coronis and Apollo had been lovers, she left him to marry a mortal, Ischys.  The crow, then white, brought news of the marriage to Apollo who became so incensed he burned the bird’s feathers and then burned Coronis to death.  In other versions Coronis is herself turned into the black crow and it’s possible the Greeks saw a mated pair of crows as a representation of the forbidden love between Coronis and Ischys.  This may be one of the earliest stories of a woman marrying below her class for love.

Apollo

Why the crow is black (According to Muslims)

Muhammad, born sometime around 570 CE, is considered to be the founder of Islam and the last profit sent to earth by God, according to the Islamic faith.  A popular legend depicts a time Muhammed was hiding from his enemies in a cave.  A crow, then white, spotted him and cried “Ghar, Ghar!” (cave, cave!) to his seekers.  They did not comprehend the crow’s cries, however, and Muhammad escaped.  He turned the crow black for the betrayal and cursed him to only utter one phrase for the rest of time;  “Ghar, Ghar!”

Why the crow is hoarse (According to Greek/Romans)

Apollo sent a raven to gather water for a feast but the raven was distracted by an unripened fig tree.  Determined to obtain the figs, the raven waited until the tree ripened, ate his fill, and then captured a watersnake to bring back to Apollo.  The watersnake, the raven explained, was the reason he was late and unable to collect the requested water, but Apollo saw through the lie.  As punishment, Apollo declared the raven could never again drink from the stream until the figs ripened.  Since the raven must now wait, his voice is hoarse from thirst.

Why owls and crows fight  (According to Hindus)

According to the great animal epic, the Panchatantra, the birds had come together to elect a king and choose his earthly appearance.  They had elected the owl and were beginning to organize his lavish coronation, when the crow arrived.  The crow laughed at their decision, protesting that the owl was too ugly, his features without tenderness, and his nature without pity.  Furthermore, Garuda, the eagle mounted Vishnu was already their king and to take another was a sin that could result in severe punishment by the Gods.  The others, scared by the crow’s warning, left in agreement.  Being nocturnal, the owl had slept through all this but now awoke to find his coronation canceled due to the crow’s persuasive words.  They have fought ever since.

“The Crows Trap the Owls in Their Cave by Lighting a Fire at the Entrance and Fanning it with Their Wings” Folio from the Kalīla wa-Dimna. The Kalīla wa-Dimna is an Arabic translated collection of fables which are believed to be largely inspired by the Panchatantra. This specific image references a story from Book III of the Panchatantra which tells of how crows were able to trap and burn their owl nemesis to death. Image c/o The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Why we die (According to Haida Natives)  

Ravens have a significant role in the creations legends of many different Native American tribes.  According to the Haida people of what’s now the Queen Charlotte Islands, Greater Raven was the creator that first called earth into being on the endless sea.  He then made humans out of both rock and leaf.  The people of rock were (as I can well imagine) more difficult to shape and were never finished.  The people of leaf, on the other hand, were quickly completed and ready to roam the land.  The raven instructed them that, like the leaf, they must eventually fall and rot back into the earth and thus death entered the world.

Why the sky is full of light (According to Tsimshian Natives)

Greater Raven, as mentioned above, eventually gave dominion of the world to his sister’s son, Lesser Raven, who it was said was as robust as stone and would live forever.  Unlike Greater Raven, Lesser Raven was both a trickster and had a voracious appetite.  To satisfy his hunger, Lesser Raven filled the earth with food, but feared he would be unable to find it, as at that time the earth was still dark.  Seeking a solution, Raven flew through a hole in the sky where he found another world much like our own.  When he saw the daughter of the Chief of Heaven collecting water he transformed into a needle and floated into her vessel.  When she drank the water and the needle, Lesser Raven impregnated her and was later reborn as her son.  The infant charmed the Chief and his wife and was granted permission to play with the box containing the light of day.  Suddenly, Raven took his original form and flew back to earth through the hole in the sky, taking the box with him.  Later, he broke the box out of anger and filled the sky with the sun, moon and stars.

Please visit Whose Land to learn more about the ancestral lands of the Haida and Tsimshian people. It’s our responsibility as occupiers to learn about the people who existed here before us and where they live today.

Why we bury our dead (According to Judaism)

According to the Yalkut Shimoni, an aggadic compilation of the Hebrew bible written in the 13th century, after Adam and Eve’s son Abel died, they did not know what to do with the body.  Seeing their distress, a raven killed one of his companions to show the grieving couple how to dig a hole and bury the body. To thank the raven for his kindness, God feeds baby ravens until their feathers turn black after which their parents take over.

***

Thus, be it the color of ravens or the intimate mysteries of human death, crows have offered a canvas on which early peoples the world over painted their explanations of life.   My thanks to Borgia Sax and his terrific book, Crow, which was the factual source and inspiration for this post.

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Filed under Corvid mythology, Crows and humans

The facts about crows and West Nile virus

Ah fall, the changing colors, the arrival of mushrooming season, and the gratuitous consumption of hot drinks makes this season a favorite of mine.  But if you live in a temperate zone like the PNW, there’s one drawback to fall; West Nile virus (WNV).  Make no mistake, since its first appearance in the US in 1999, cases of WNV have been documented year round.  Outbreaks, however, typically peak in late summer and early fall which is why you often start to see increasing media attention directed towards the discovery of crow corpses.  Such is the case with a recent die-off in Spokane which inspired a fleet of recent articles.  My favorite was a post from an otherwise predominately car-focused site called The News Wheel which included the following passage:

“In either case, authorities are telling residents that, should they find a dead or dying crow in the street, that they should under no circumstances handle them…In the mean time, it may be a good idea to replace your car’s windshield cleaning fluid with holy water (just in case).”

I suspect some sarcasm was at work there but, in truth, people can get very worked up about WNV.  So here are some FAQs about crows and WNV intended to keep you safe and informed.

What is WNV?
WNV is an arthropod-borne virus which can cause febrile illness, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord).  It was first documented in the US in 1999, and exists across most of the world (sigh; the costs of globalization)1.

Why are crows associated with WNV?
No, this isn’t unfair prejudice at work, corvids really do have it rough when it comes to this disease.  In all the documented cases of WNV 80% of them have affected corvids, despite its presence in 300 other species of bird2.  The connection between WNV and climate change means that corvids could be in big trouble which you can read about in a previous post here.

What does a bird sick with WNV look like?
Most birds who contract WNV will survive, but for the many crows and other corvids what won’t, symptoms include trouble with balance both at rest and while mobile, and lethargy.  There won’t be any way to tell if a dead crow is infected simply by looking at it2.

Can I get WNV from touching a crow?
According to the CDC, there is no evidence that a person can be infected by direct contact with infected birds, dead or alive3. That being said, always use gloves when handling wildlife.

Can people get WNV?
Yes, though keep in mind that the virus really doesn’t want to be in you.  Humans and other mammals are considered ‘dead-end’ hosts meaning we generally don’t develop a big viral load and the virus cannot be transmitted from you to other humans via mosquitoes1.

How is it spread?
Mosquitoes, mosquitoes, mosquitoes.  They bite the infected bird and then bite you.   And very, very rarely through blood or organ transfusions, and from mother to baby during pregnancy or by breast feeding1.

transmission cycle

How worried should I be?
I’m not a doctor so let’s let the numbers speak for themselves on this one.  Here are the key stats you should know c/o the CDC1:

  • 80% of infected humans will not develop any symptoms.
  • Of the 20% that show symptoms, most will look like the flu.  It will suck, but you’ll recover just fine.
  • Only 1% of infected individuals develop life threatening symptoms.
  • As of September 22, 877 people have tested positive for WNV in 2015.  Of those 43 have died. That’s about half the number that will probably be killed by bee stings and twice as many as will be killed by cows4.
  • For a look at the average annual WNV incidence by state from 1999-2014, check out this map from the CDC.  Suffice it to say, in most states the incidence per every 100,000 people is less than 1.  As a reference point, about 5-20% of the population gets the flu every year and about 36,000 die as a result5.

How can I protect myself?
The CDC recommends an integrated management plan that includes:

  • Mosquito surveillance (are there lots around, how often are you getting bitten, are illnesses being reported etc.).
  • Reduction of breeding sits (i.e eliminate standing water around your home).
  • The use of chemical and biological mosquito control.
  • And finally, education (which by reading this you’re already doing!).

So, does a dead crow in your yard mean it’s time to break out the hazmat suit? Definitely no, but do Fish and Wildlife a favor and report your crow carcasses.  And if any of your neighbors start to panic, calmly and gently give them the facts.  Or just send them this meme I made you:

IMG_2711(1)

Literature cited

  1. http://www.cdc.gov/westnile/faq/genquestions.html
  2. http://www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/LearnAboutBirds/SeasonalFacts/WestNileVirus.aspx
  3. http://www.cdc.gov/westnile/faq/deadbirds.html
  4. http://wnyyradio.com/news/25-shocking-things-more-likely-to-kill-you-than-a-shark/
  5. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/disease.htm

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Filed under Crow behavior, crow conflicts, Crow disease, Crows and humans

Corvid of the Month: How abundant food may be killing the Mariana crow

For most of us, it’s hard to imagine crows being anything but ubiquitous.  Here in Seattle, American crows can nest so densely, I once found myself within 50 m of three different active nests.  Such is the case for many other parts of the world too, where house crows, jungle crows, or hooded crows are an almost inescapable part of the landscape.  Given these species’ success, it might be tempting to assume that all crows welcome human presence and habitat modification.  Rules don’t exist without exceptions however, (especially in nature!) as our Corvid of the Month, the Mariana crow, tragically illustrates.

A female Aga and fledgling do some exploring. Photo: Matt Henschen

A female Aga and fledgling do some exploring. Photo: Matt Henschen

The Mariana crow, or Aga, is endemic to Guam and Rota and is the only corvid native to Micronesia1.  In appearance, they bear a striking resemblance to the American crow, only they’re 40% smaller (cue adoring sound effects).  Across their range they’re considered critically endangered and as of today, all of Guam’s birds have been extirpated by the invasive brown tree snake, and only about 46 breeding pairs remain on Rota.  If that wasn’t alarming enough, their numbers continue to dwindle and researchers at the University of Washington project they could be extinct within the next 75 years2.  Unlike Guam, however, there are no brown tree snakes on Rota.  So what is causing the drastic decline of this island crow?   As my colleague and Mariana crow researcher, Sarah Faegre, is beginning to tease out, the answer may lie in the delicate nature of island food webs, and the unanticipated butterfly effect that started with a few errant snails.

Like our American crows, Mariana crows are generalists and eat a wide variety of foods from insects, to geckos, to fruits and seeds.  But adult Mariana crows have one other food source they’ve come to specialize on: the humble hermit crab. Despite the presence of hermit crabs near other species of corvus, the Mariana crow’s frequent predation on them is unique, especially when you look at how they extract them.  Unlike most coastal or inland living crows that drop tough objects like clams or nuts onto hard surfaces to open them, the Mariana crow actually uses its bill to peck and break the shell at the seams to extract the vulnerable crab, a process that takes place entirely on the ground and is only shared by two other known bird species in the world (one of which is now extinct).  So what does this have to do with wanderlusting snails?  As it turns out, everything.

What's crackin' crabby? Photo: C. Brevimanus

What’s crackin’ crabby? Photo: Sarah Faegre

Rota is home to several species of native land and sea snail, though hermit crabs only utilize the larger shell of the sea snail.  Critically, these shells are extra hard and apparently impenetrable to even the most determined crow.  In the late 1930’s, however, humans introduced the Giant African Land snail which quickly invaded the island.  Two major differences between the native and invasive snails are 1) that the invasive snails have thinner shells, and 2) people were anxious to get rid of them.  So, naturally, we introduced  yet another invasive species (a predatory flatworm) and…it actually worked.  By the 1970’s the island was brimming with large, thin, empty shells, ready and waiting to be filled with hermit crabs.  Gradually, the crows learned that these shells were possible to peck open and now hermit crabs are an important staple for Rota’s crows.

Photo: Matt Henschen

Photo: Phil Hannon

On its surface, this seems like the making of an ecological disaster turned into a conservation blessing.  After all, we successfully controlled an invasive species while simultaneously creating a new food source for a threatened bird.  But in our tangled web of introduced species and ecological fallout we must considering the one remaining player: cats.  Although further study is needed, Sarah’s work3 suggests that all that extra time adult crows now spend on the ground cracking open hermit crabs may be making them more susceptible to predation by cats.

Couple the effect of cats with habitat destruction and persecution by people and the results project a bleak outlook for crow recovery.  But conservationists and researchers like Sarah are working tirelessly to better understand the threats facing this bird and how to solve them.  In fact Sarah and her husband, Phil Hannon, recently started a non-profit called Luta Bird Conservation to help raise awareness and conservation funds to better protect this unique crow.  At the top of their priorities is funding initiatives that would bring the science of crow conservation to the classrooms of local people, helping to raise both pride and awareness for the plight of this endemic species.

So the next time you look at a crow and experience a slight feeling of fatigue at such a ubiquitous bird remember; not all corvid species welcome the consequences of people and some have suffered greatly from them.  Aldo Leopold once said “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” The lesson from Rota, and so many others, is that the same can be said of not adding any either.

If you wish to contribute directly to Mariana crow conservation, I encourage you to send Luta Bird Conservation Inc. a check at:

Luta Bird Conservation Inc. c/o Aron Faegre
520 SW Yamhill Street, Roofgarden 1
Portland, OR 97204

Sunny, Luta's educational Mariana crow captivates the students in a local school

Sunny the captive Aga on an ambassadorial trip to a local classroom with Luta Bird Conservation Inc.

Literature cited:

  1. http://www.fws.gov/pacificislands/fauna/marianacrow.html
  2. http://www.washington.edu/news/2010/12/20/without-intervention-mariana-crow-to-become-extinct-in-75-years-2/
  3. Faegre, S. (2014) Age-related differences in diet and foraging behavior of the critically endangered Mariana Crow (Corvus kubaryi) (Masters thesis; University of Washington).  https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/27571?show=full

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Filed under Corvid of the month, Crow behavior, crow conflicts, Crow life history, Crows and humans, Graduate Research, New Research, women in science

Meet the environmentalist crow

Having grown tired of being referred to as dirty and messy, one hooded crow in Izmir, Turkey took matters into its own beak to help make its park a little cleaner.

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For anyone that can read Turkish you can find the original story here

According to the Turkish Newspaper, Radikal, after eating the leftover rice the crow flew over and dropped the used plate in the garbage bin.  What could explain this amazing act of social and environmental prowess?  I often see crows take food wrappers or packages up to a perch and then drop them once they’ve fished out all the crumbs.  Could be that this crow was simply in the right place at the right time to turn this typical behavior into something extraordinary.  Then again ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .  We’ll never be able to say for sure what this crow was thinking, maybe it just got tired of all those litterbug people mucking up its park!

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Filed under Crow behavior, crow intelligence, Crows and humans, Just for fun

Counting abilities of crows

Breaking news: Crows probably have sense of numerical competency (a.k.a. they can count)!  Ok, so this isn’t breaking news, and it’s not exactly true, but it makes for a nice headline as evidenced by the number of articles that have shown up in my inbox this week regarding a new study.  As early as 1950, Otto Koehler, a German animal behaviorist, showed that captive Western jackdaws would only turn over enough boxes to obtain the corresponding number of treats they saw him hide (up to around six).  Parrots too, have  shown that they can solve problems requiring the ability to count to around six1.  So what makes this new study so special?  It’s not so much that researchers showed that crows can discriminate quantities but how.

By presenting trained carrion crows with computer screens that showed two quantities of either matched, or mismatched dots, researchers were able to demonstrate that the birds could correctly indicate if the quantities were the same or different, despite the dots being of different sizes and arrangements2.  While that’s in and of itself cool and of value, the main finding what that it’s actually individual neurons that are recognizing and responding to these different quantities.

Photo: Andreas Neider

Photo: Andreas Neider

Why is that so cool?  Because that’s basically how our own brains begin to understand numbers too, despite our brains being, in some ways, really different.  Take that in for a minute: Our human brain, and a crow (a bird!), process numbers in a very similar way.  For a scientist,  the neon sign illuminating “convergent evolution” immediately lights up.  The researchers did not show, however, that that they could count in a strict sense like us, meaning the neurons were responding to numbers relative to each other and not to stand alone values. So perhaps jackdaws or carrion crows are different in this respect, or Koehler’s experiments were testing a different kind of problem solving ability that better teased this out.  Still, crows prove once again what magnificent animals they are and their relevance in understanding our own evolution as humans.

1) Pepperberg, I.M. (1999) The Alex studies: Cognitive and communicative abilities of Grey Parrots.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

2) Helen M. D. & Andreas N. (2015) Neurons selective to the number of visual items in the corvid songbird endbrain. PNAS  DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1504245112

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Filed under crow intelligence, Crows and humans, New Research

Corvid of the month: The large-billed crow

If there’s one corvid that’s most notorious for getting into trouble, it’s probably the large-billed crow (sp: Corvus macrorhynchos* ).  A dubious reputation perhaps, but it’s one that’s been well earned through this corvid’s knack for exploiting humans and the opportunities we create.

Physical description: While large-billed crows aren’t much bigger than an American crow, their square head and heavy bill gives them a more raven-like appearance.  To me, they look like what I might expect if a common raven tangoed with Rick Moranis’s contraption from Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

Photo: Anne Kurasawa Photo: Anne Kurasawa

Range: They are found throughout the northeastern Asian seaboard to Afghanistan and eastern Iran in the west, through South and Southeast Asia, to the Lesser Sundas and Cambodia in the southeast.  Although in India the eastern jungle crow and large-billed crow behave has two distinct species, in northern parts of Asia their distinction is less clear and colloquially the two are often analogous.

Conservation status: Given their large range, it may come as no surprise that their populations are abundant and are considered a species of least concern by the IUCN.  In fact, since the 1980’s the number of jungle crows in Tokyo has quadrupled1.

“Corvus macrohynchos map”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

So what accounts for their bad reputation you ask?  Where to begin…how about vandalizing cemeteries1.  In Japan, food is left at the burial sites of loved ones as an offering.  Although in some cultures these offerings are meant to be eaten by animals, that is not the case here, and the crows’ stealing of food interrupts the intention of the ritual.  Historically, this probably wasn’t a conflict since jungle crow populations were much smaller than they are now.

Photo: Anne Kurasawa Photo: Anne Kurasawa

As if that wasn’t enough to get people fired up, jungle crows also have a bad habit of, well, firing things up.  People were stumped how field fires near the Fushimi-Inari shrine in Kyoto were starting until someone thought to watch the crows.  There are 10,000 candle holders that line the walkways of the shrine and on busy days they may contain thousands of individual burning candles.  With some diligent watching, researchers discovered that crows were eating the melted candle wax (which is often made with tallow) and in some cases taking the burning candles out of the holders and flying off with them.  Although they never witnessed it, researchers suggested that crows’ attempts to cache burning candles may have been the cause of the mysterious fires.2Photo: H. Higuchi The crows appeared to show no fear of the flames according to the paper’s author. Photo: H. Higuchi

To top it all off, large-billed crows seem to be just as good at turning out the lights as there are at lighting them up! Unlike American crows, which predominately use sticks to build their nests, large-billed crows have developed a fascinating (and immensely frustrating for the Japanese government) habit of using clothes hangers to construct nests.  Mixing wire hangers with power lines is a recipe for disaster and in the summer time large-billed crows are responsible for massive blackouts.  The Tokyo government spends millions of yen, and employs full time crews, to search for and destroy hanger nests in an effort to prevent such black-outs.1Photo: Götz Maybe Joan Crawford had just spent too much time around jungle crows…  Photo: Götz

It’s not all bad press for these resourceful crows, however.  One of the more spectacular things they are known for is using cars to crack open otherwise inaccessible nuts.  Not only that, but they also appear to be sensitive to crosswalk signals and know when it’s safe to collect the exposed nuts and when it’s not.3So while large-billed crows make their fair share of trouble stealing food, candles and hangers, there are still plenty of people who adore these animals for their cleverness and ingenuity.  For those that don’t, well, some aren’t shy to take control measures into their own hands.  Or should I say mouths…

IMG_1922*The jungle crow was formally Corvus macrorhynchos, but the species was split into the large-billed crow Corvus macrorhynchos, the eastern jungle crow Corvus levaillantii, and the Indian jungle crow, Corvid culminatus.

Literature cited:

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

2Higuchi, H. Crows causing fire. (2003). Manuscript from The University of Tokyo

3Marzluff J.M & Angell, T. 2012. Gifts of the crow.  Free Press

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Filed under Corvid of the month, Crow behavior, crow conflicts, crow intelligence, Crows and humans

Best books for corvid lovers

This post was prompted by someone on my twitter feed who asked that I put together a reading list for people who want to learn more about corvids; a totally kick-ass idea if I say so myself.  The following are all the books I have read and can speak personally to, however, I’m sure there are others and I encourage folks to add them in the comments section.  As a preface, I’ll remind readers that John Marzluff is my graduate adviser, nevertheless, I assure you that I genuinely believe he is a fantastic writer and my review of his books are not inflated in the hopes of getting approval on my dissertation. 🙂  So without much further adieu, here’s a list of all the corvid books I’ve read with a brief synopsis of the material and my recommendation.

index

In the Company of Crows and Ravens by John Marzluff and Tony Angell
If watching, feeding or rehabilitating corvids is something you do in your free time, consider this your crow bible.  Curious how long crows live?  What they do as juveniles?  The sounds they make?  The ways the interact with people?  It’s all in there.  This book remains my go-to guide for general crow knowledge.  Yet, despite the fact its backbone is rigorous science, it’s written in a way that feels very easy to digest.  John and Tony wrote it with the intent that it would be for a wide audience and I think they achieved that beautifully.  After reading this book, I have no doubt you’ll have a deeper understanding for these birds, not to mention a new admiration for Tony’s artwork.  I even used one of his drawings for the book on the invitations for my wedding (with permission, of course).

raven

Dog Days Raven Nights by John and Colleen Marzluff
This is the book I most often recommend to my own friends and family.  Not because it offers superior or more easily read  information on corvids, but because this book gives you the best insight into what it really means to do fieldwork.  Nearly the entirety of the book focuses on the period of time after John and Colleen had finished their graduate work in Arizona, and were conducting a post-doctoral study on ravens with Bernd Heinrich in remote Maine.  It’s organized as a back and forth between John and Colleen, which means you get two perspectives on the raven work and Colleen’s development as a dog sledder and trainer.  As a reader, you experience what it means to completely dedicate every moment, piece of sanity, and dime you have on conducting a field experiment and you walk away with a much deeper appreciation for how difficult it is to answer questions of animal behavior.  If the human dimension of science isn’t your interest, however, fear not.  The book is still loaded with fascinating information on ravens including, in my opinion, one of John’s most important contributions which is information sharing among ravens.  An excellent read for sure.

gifts

Gifts of the Crow by John Marzluff and Tony Angell
For those looking for a more scientifically dense reading on crow behavior and neurology this is the book for you.  It doesn’t make for the lighthearted Sunday reading that ITCOCR does, but it still satisfies the trademark Marzluff style of mixing rigorous science with the anecdotal stories of crow behavior that makes us love them.  If you’ve been fascinated by the story of Gabi Mann, the little girl who feeds and gets gifts from crows, then this is the scientific background you need to see the whole picture.

mind

Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich
Long before John Marzluff started writing books, his post-doc adviser, Bernd Heinrich, was already an expert at the game.  Heinrich has a reputation for being one of the most eloquent and engrossing natural history writers and it’s a reputation that’s been well earned.  Mind of the Raven is actually what initially peaked my interest in corvids, so in many ways I have this book to thank for the work I am doing now.  For anyone who lives with ravens, or simply has a fascination for them, I can’t recommend it enough.  Bernd’s writing will nurture your passion and give you the science to back up what you already know: ravens are badass, awesome animals.

planet

Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Crow Planet it a book best characterized by Haupt’s journey to find curiosity and loveliness in an increasingly urban landscape where the natural world can feel further and further away.  Crows therefore, offered the perfect vehicle for looking at and appreciating what remains when the forests retreat and box stores and neighborhoods take their place.   By the author’s own admission her journey through writing Crow Planet made Haupt appreciate, “but not quite love”, crows.   Despite this, she manages to write about them with grace, and her stories will make even the biggest skeptic take another look at these animals.  Although Haupt’s background is not in science, she doesn’t omit the scientific facts, though she does take more artistic liberty when describing their antics than John or Heinrich do.  All that being said, this is an excellent book for the urban naturalist or crow watcher.

crow

Crow by Boria Sax
If you’re interested in crow mythology this is the book for you.  Sax takes you through time and space to explore the role of corvids in human myth, religion and art.    His thoroughness is without compare, but if anthropology is not your interest this book will prove taxing.  It’s one I happily keep on hand, but not one that I’ve ever had the patience to read all the way through.  Nevertheless, I probably should, since it’s chalk full of information and historical context that I would be better off knowing.

Bird brain

Bird Brain: An exploration of avian intelligence by Nathan Emery
Although not exclusively dedicated to corvids, Bird Brain, written by corvid cognition expert Dr. Nathan Emery, offers an incredible look at the minds of your favorite birds.  Although his book tackles some of the more difficult concepts of avian cognition, it feels and reads more like a coffee table book, complete with beautiful artwork, some of which was done by Emery himself.  Each chapter is themed around a particular aspect of cognition (communication, spatial memory, etc.) and walks the reader through the fundamental biological principals and samples the most interesting studies that have been done on the topic.  The book is rich with the kinds of analogies and descriptions that break through the barriers of dry scientific writing.  Perfect for the budding young scientist or the long time corvid fan.

9780231182829

The wake of crows: Living and dying in shared worlds by Thom van Dooren
“Crows are among our most familiar and charismatic animals and as such there is a body of literature dedicated to them for which few other wildlife species compare. While each contributor takes a distinct perspective and harnesses different stories or features of their biology, there is perhaps nothing as unique in the body of work dedicated to crows as this book. It is neither a classic natural history book, nor a memoir of being connected to the natural world through crows. Instead, van Dooren has used crows as a loom on which to weave science and humanities together, producing a thesis of what it means to exist in our contemporary world. Central to this thesis is the question of “What else is possible?” For the traditional science and natural history reader his exploration of this seemingly familiar question will be anything but familiar. While by now, for example, we may be used to being asked to reconsider the crow as pest or bad omen, here we are asked to reconsider them systemically, and in ways that ultimately inform the reader’s ethic….It’s a unique and powerful look at what it means to live in a shared world, and asks that we reconsider our ethics in doing so. It is far from a light read, but it is one that grants the experience of expansion that curious people crave.” 

This section is apart of a larger review I wrote of The wake of crows for a contribution has been accepted for publication and will appear in a revised form (subject to input from the journal’s editor) in a book review for Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

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I’m sure there are many others I haven’t read which subsequently didn’t make this list.  Feel free to make recommendations in the comments section!

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Filed under Crow behavior, Crow curiosities, Crows and humans, Raven behavior, Raven intelligence

Why climate change may be deadly for crows

In general, crows love the ways that humans transform the environment.  We plow down forests and replace them with suburbia, creating a perfect mix of the occasional nesting tree and plenty of grassy yards perfect for looking for bugs.  On top of that, we litter and waste food, providing lots of additional foraging opportunities outside of our yards.  And even when we replace the forests with urban epicenters, we build towers perfect for nesting, leave out even more garbage, and make the environment less hospitable to predators.  But this climate change thing, well now we’ve gone too far. Even for crows.

Scientists know that climate change is going to be bad for lots of species, with some projections estimating that by 2050, 15-37% of species in the areas sampled will be committed to extinction if current emission trends continue1. Not all creatures will be worse off as the climate warms, however, some will do quite well.  Who are these lucky creatures you ask?  No, not beautiful sword-billed hummingbirds, or rare pygmy marmosets but…mosquitoes.

GO is a proud (albeit perhaps oblivious) participant in the #iamclimatechange campaign.

GO is a proud (albeit perhaps oblivious) participant in the #iamclimatechange campaign.

Warmer, and in some places wetter, climates are projected to not only increase mosquito numbers but, importantly, increase the incidence rate of West Nile virus2.  Crows are particularly susceptible to WNV over other non-corvids, making this especially bad news for them3.  One study showed that some regional crow populations across the US declined 45% since WNV was first introduced in 19994. As warmer temperatures march north, scientists predict we’ll see WNV not only increasing in areas where is exists now, but spreading to northern latitudes where it may have a particularly acute effects2 (I’m talking to you, Canada!).

By extension, this is also bad news for us, since humans can also get sick from being bitten by infected mosquitoes (there is no evidence we can be infected from handling sick or dead crows, however5).  Not to mention all the other diseases mosquitoes carry that kill people and birds.  So whether you care about climate change because you care about crows, humans, or any of the other organisms that are/will be negatively affected, now is the time to do something about it.  Individuals can have profound effects by making changes in their own lives, and by putting social pressure on others to do the same.  There’s plenty of reason to be hopeful if we act!  To learn more about the #iamclimatechange campaign that GO was nice enough to participate in please check out the tumblr or facebook page.

Citations

1. Thomas, C.D., Cameron,A., Green, R.E., Bakkenes, M., Beaumont, L.J., Collingham, Y.C., Erasmus, F.N., Ferreira de Siqueira, M., Grainger, A., Hannah, L., Hufhes, L., Huntley, B., van Jaarsveld, A., Midgley, G.F., Miles, L., Ortega-Huertam, M.A., Townsend Peterson, A., Philips, O.L., and Williams, S.E. (2003) Extinction risk from climate change. Nature 427: 145-148

2. Tam, B. Y., and Tsuji, L.J.S. (2014) West Nile virus in American crows (corvus brachyrhynchos) in Canada: projecting the influences of climate change.  GeoJournal DOI 10.1007/s10708-014-9609-z

3. Yaremych, S. A., Warner, R.E., Mankin, P.C., Brawn J.D., Raim, A., & Novak, R. (2004) West Nile virus and high death rates in American crows.  Emerging Infectious Diseases, 10, 709.

4. LaDeau, S.L., Kilpatrick, A.M., and Marra, P.P. (2007) West Nile virus emergence and the large-scale declines of North American bird populations. Nature Letters. 447

5. http://www.cdc.gov/westnile/faq/deadBirds.html

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Filed under Crow disease, Crow life history, Crows and humans

A scientist’s thoughts on The Crow Box

The first time I watched the writer and hacker Josua Klein’s crow vending machine TED talk as a college undergrad, I was floored.  It was my first exposure to Betty, to the tool making capabilities of some crow species, and to the idea you could potentially train wild crows.  The purported success of the vending machine filled me with ideas.  I used clips from the talk for a variety of public outreach presentations and they were always met with the same kind of GTFO amazement that I love watching people experience as they learn about crows.

Betty just doing her normal New Caledonian crow thing of making hooks out of wire to pull up buckets of food.  No big deal.  :)

Betty just doing her normal New Caledonian crow thing of making hooks out of wire to pull up buckets of food. No big deal. 🙂

As I moved on to graduate school, however, and was fully immersed in the scientific community of crow nerds, I started to hear rumblings that gave me pause.  Rumblings that suggested the vending machine wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be and, in fact, had not worked as it was implied in that TED talk.  Since I’ve never worked personally with Klein, I’ll let my fellow crow scientists speak for themselves on the issue.  You can find one of the graduate students he worked with relating her experience during a reddit AMA here, and as well as the correction that the New York Times Magazine was forced to run after publishing an article on Klein’s effort with the vending machine.  If you don’t want to read them, suffice it to say the main point is that Klein gave people the impression that it had been tested (successfully even) on zoo and wild crows when it hadn’t.

The Crow Box

The Crow Box

Leading the public to believe that we’ve arrived at conclusions when we haven’t is the stuff of stress dreams for scientists, and it’s why the peer review process is the foundation of good scientific practice.  By taking “results” that were only in the early stages of being tested and bringing them to the attention of the public without permission or support from the scientists he was working with, Klein burned his bridge to the folks who had offered to help him test the idea, and any other crow scientist he might approach next.  Which brings me to the recent article I read titled “This Machine Teaches Wild Crows to Bring You Coins for Peanuts.”  

No, it doesn’t.  It might, but probably not.  No one has been able to train wild crows to bring specific items in exchange for food, the website selling the machine even points this outGabi Mann did not intentionally train her crows to bring her things.  They did this of their own volition which is why her collection is as diverse, unique, and beautiful as it is.

Gabbi showing me a sampling of her favorite gifts from the crows

Gabbi showing me a sampling of her favorite gifts from the crows

The suggestion that this machine could train crows to bring you quarters holds about as much water for me as saying you could use a dog whistle to train wild wolves to roll over on command.  The reason that the machine worked on captive birds in the Brooklyn apartment where it was originally tested is that, in captivity, you have a certain amount of leverage over an animal.  You can motivate it with food or treats or affection.  The chances that a wild crow would go to the effort of looking for coins when it could simply skip that step and look for other food seems insurmountable.

All that being said should you turn your nose up at The Crow Box if the idea intrigues you? No, go for it! Maybe yours will be the mind to figure out how to motive wild birds to participate. Or, perhaps you don’t care if it works or not, you’re just in it for a new experience or the joy of trying.  Trying and failing is part of discovery and I see no reason people should wash their hands of it if it sounds like fun.  Plus, even if it doesn’t work, you may end up learning different, but just as amazing things about these birds.  Just don’t hold it against the crows if they decide it’s simply not worth the trouble and leave it to you to go collect the quarters you lost buying The Crow Box.

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Filed under Being a scientist, Crow behavior, crow intelligence, Crows and humans

How to troll a corvid lover

In general, I find that crow people are lovely, and easy to get along with folk.  There are, however, two widely shared images that have proven themselves an effective trigger to turn an otherwise gentle corvid lover into a foaming at the mouth fact checker.  I say that as someone who has found themselves on the foaming end of that equation over some social media perpetuated misinformation on many occasions.  In the wealth of silly nonsense posts  a person could manufacture on corvids, why these are the two images that have become so ubiquitous on social media is a mystery to me.  Maybe it’s because people genuinely enjoy the narratives they offer, or have no reason to be suspicious of the images because they’re just beginning to learn about crow biology.   Or maybe some people know exactly what they’re doing and are just trolling to, ahem, ruffle a few feathers.

Either way, consider the following two images debunked.  So rest easy fellow fact checkers, until of course you see them posted again.  Probably tomorrow.

Myth: The infamous “baby crow

These are not baby crows.

These are not baby crows.

I blame this one on BuzzFeed.  In what was trying to be a cool post on crows, but really turned out to be just riddled with terrible photo choices, they start off with one of these pictures as evidence for how cute baby crows are (despite photos of very obviously different looking actual baby crow further down the in the same post!).  Since BuzzFeed ranks one of the more trafficked sites on the internet, searching “baby crow” brings up the photo attached to the story.

Fact: Those cute fluffy babies are actually a variety of baby rails, including a corncrake.  Notice how feathery and soft they look, like a baby duck or chicken?  That’s because there are basically two strategies for how young are born.   They can be altricial, which means you’re born naked and blind (i.e helpless) or precocial, which means you’re born fully feathered or furred and are ready to go from day one.

Actual baby crow

Actual baby crow

Fun fact, most birds that are ground-nesters, so game birds, waterbirds, etc., are born feathered and adorable.  Whereas most birds born in arboreal nests are little naked jelly beans.  Crows, fall into the latter category as anyone who studies crows, rehabs crows, or curiously peeked into a crow nest can attest to.

 Myth: White ravens are cannibalized and are social pariahs

poor raven

I have no hypothesis as to where this came from or how it generated such momentum on social media, other than that it’s dramatic and offers a kind of ‘misery loves company’ on a crumby day.

Fact:  Leucism, which is what this is, is pretty common in crows and ravens (check out this post if you want to learn more about the causes).  Not to this degree, of course, but even a complete leucistic like this are not unheard of.  Although life is certainly a bit harder for them (they’re a little more conspicuous, leucism is often nested in other health problems, etc.) the suggestion that they’re eaten by their mothers is nonsense.  They are however, generally subordinate to regularly colored ravens which is maybe the kernel of truth that this originates from.

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Filed under Crow curiosities, Crow life history, Crows and humans