Category Archives: 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

Portland crow poisoning: When it is legal to kill crows and how do we build empathy?

Officer cleaning up one of the many dead crows found in Portland's Waterfront Park.  Photo c/o KOIN 6 News

Officer cleaning up one of the many dead crows found in Portland’s Waterfront Park. Photo c/o KOIN 6 News

Normally when I talk about a murder of crows I’m using it as a noun to describe a large group, but in this case I’m talking about the likely deliberate killing of at least 30 birds in downtown Portland, OR.  The Wednesday before thanksgiving, people started to notice dead and seizing crows in the sidewalks and parks and, quickly, the bodies started to pile up at an alarming rate.  Several specimens were sent to a lab for autopsies and, while more definitive answers are yet to come, all signs point to poisoned corn.   Since corn isn’t generally found in urban areas unless put there by people, the Portland Audubon Society fears that these crows may have been deliberately baited and killed.

This has prompted both warranted outrage and…confusion. Why is Fish and Wildlife treating this like a crime, but hunting crows is ok? Crows, like basically all non-invasive birds, are federally protected under both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and various state laws which means you cannot “take (gov speak for kill, intentionally or otherwise), possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale…the bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations” (MBTA, 16 U.S.C. 703–712).  It’s that last bit that’s key here.  It means that, just like other game birds, you can shoot crows with a hunting license, though you need a different “validation” than you need for waterfowl or upland game birds and it varies from state to state. Now here’s the rub that some people will say if they get caught killing crows without a license. In many states, including Oregon, you can kill crows without a hunting license and outside of the hunting season if they are “found committing or about to commit depredations upon ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock, wildlife, or when concentrated in such numbers and manner as to constitute a health hazard or other nuisance” (ODFW 2013 Bird Regulations).  BUT and this is a big one, you must report these “takes” and there’s all kinds of federal laws that limit how you can kill the animals in these cases. The person who did this both did not report it and used illegal lethal means (poison is basically never ok because it’s too hard to limit it to your target species) hence the pending investigation. Whether or not that investigation actually happens is another matter. You can share your voice and enthusiasm for more legal action here.

My friend, Simone, and one of her crows, Jekyll.  Through both educational outreach and social media storytelling people like Simone are reshaping the attitudes we have about crows and other corvids.

My friend, Simone, and one of her crows, Jekyll. Through both educational outreach and storytelling on social media, people like Simone are reshaping our attitudes towards crows and other corvids.

Hopefully the person(s) responsible for this are found and made accountable for their actions because they broke the law plain and simple.  Though, honestly, I don’t think our best chances of precluding another incident like this are through punishing one or two individuals.  Rather, I think we should continue striving for a more compassionate culture through both science and story telling.   These are two of our greatest tools whenever we’re trying to change hearts and minds (forgive the cliche).  Information on how to non-lethally get rid of crows, and what isn’t effective (like randomly killing 30 birds!), gives us tools to have informed discussions on how to manage crows without useless killings. Data on how smart they are, what their family groups are like, their emotional intelligence etc., challenge the thinking that they’re mindless automatons and makes it harder to treat them as such.  Stories from crow watchers and lovers, set the cultural tone that these are animals we value and make the lives of individual crows more meaningful through personal connections.  These are the tools that will ultimately help us reshape the way people think of, and treat crows.

Citations:

Click to access 2013-14_oregon_game_bird_regs.pdf

http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/RegulationsPolicies/mbta/mbtintro.html

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Filed under crow conflicts, Crows and humans

Do crows reduce other songbirds?

A comment I occasionally hear, especially while conducting my research in neighborhoods is, “Ugh, I hate the crows.  All of a sudden we have tons of crows and they’ve scared off all our songbirds!”  This comment always pains me, but I understand that for most people it arises from a genuine concern for songbird abundance and conservation.  First off, as a reminder crows are songbirds themselves; ravens are our biggest songbird.  Semantics aside, I understand that there are many, many bird lovers who just can’t get on the crow bandwagon and when they talk about wanting songbirds at their feeders they mean chickadees, juncos, grosbeaks, etc.  They feel that since the “arrival” of the crows their observations of these other birds have diminished.  So is there anything to this?  Do crows indeed drive down populations of small, “desirable” backyard birds?

I came across this grizzly scene while conducting research in Bellevue.  An adult robin calling frantically while a crow munched on one of its young.  Later that same week I would watch of pair of adult crows chase hopelessly after a cooper's hawk that had taken one of their offspring.

I came across this grizzly scene while conducting research in Bellevue. An adult robin calling frantically while a crow munched on one of its young. Later that same week I would watch of pair of adult crows chase hopelessly after a cooper’s hawk that had taken one of their offspring.

The short answer is: not usually.  Now, let’s be clear, crows will absolutely kill and eat eggs, nestlings and even adult birds if they can get their hands on one.  I once saw a crow take down an adult house sparrow in an attack so quick and dexterous I only realized what had happened after the crow had already started eating its meal.  It’s important to keep in mind, however, that crows are one of many, many animals that are eating the young and adults of other bird species.  Raccoons, squirrels, foxes, hawks, owls, bullfrogs, rats, mice, and of course cats will all gladly eat birds, especially eggs and nestlings.  The vulnerability of young birds is in fact why the breeding strategy of many birds is to have multiple clutches over the course of the breeding season.  Crows themselves are subject to these same predators and very few of their young will make it to adulthood.

Why do we think that crows aren’t responsible for the any observed decrease in feeder birds?  Predator removal studies.  These studies are straightforward and essentially create two populations, a control population that has been unmodified and a second where the predator in question has been actively removed.  Prey abundance or productivity is monitored and compared at the end of the trial.

Recently, Madden et al. published a comprehensive literature review of 42 studies across 9 countries that looked at the impacts of corvid removal on a variety of avian groups including gamebirds, passerines, waders and other ground nesting birds.  They found that in 81% of cases corvid removal made no impact on prey abundance or productivity.  They also found that impacts of corvids on prey species was similar, and no one group was particularly more sensitive than any others.  Of the corvids studied, magpies consistently had the smallest impact on prey productivity, but no difference was found if the study was looking at prey abundance.  So if corvids are such conspicuous avian predators, why doesn’t their removal seem to matter in most cases?

This is explained by idea of compensatory mortality, which is essentially that removing one predator just means that the other predators will account for its absence by eating the prey it otherwise would have.  Kevin McGowan provided a great description for this idea on his site I like to use the analogy of handicapped parking spaces at the mall You drive up to the mall, looking for a parking space in a crowded lot. You can’t find a parking space, but there are four near the entrance that are reserved for handicapped permits only. You complain and think that if only those handicapped restrictions weren’t there, you could park in those spots (common sense). In truth, of course, if those spaces were not reserved they would have been taken long ago, just like all the other spaces in the lot.”  Indeed, Madden et al.  found this to be true.  When they looked at studies that only conducted corvid removal, they found that only 16% of cases saw a difference in prey productivity.  Whereas if all predators were removed the researchers reported that 60% of studies found a significant difference in prey productivity.

What this means for those of us trying to improve the bad reputations of crows and other corvids is that the data is on our side, crows are not usually the problem predators they’re often made out to be (though in a small number of instances they are, and it’s important to acknowledge when that’s the case).  In fact, in 6% of cases the researchers found that corvid presence actually benefited other birds.  So what I suspect is happening when residents ask me why they see fewer birds and if crows are to blame is that crows often follow urban development and it’s possible that what these residents are experiencing is a change in species diversity as habitats are disrupted and modified to make way for new human settlements.  Though it’s also possible they simply don’t know where to look.  It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve listened to folks complain about crows driving away their birds in the presence of yellow-rumped warblers, white crowned sparrows, juncos and chickadees.  Indeed, suburbia is often a great place to enjoy both crows and other smaller songbirds.

John Marzluff's newest book which describes the awesome power of suburbia to become a heaven for a huge diversity of birds.  Illustrations by my friend and colleague, Jack Delapp.

John Marzluff’s newest book which describes the awesome power of suburbia to become a heaven for a huge diversity of birds. Illustrations by my friend and colleague, Jack DeLap.

John Marzluff’s new book Welcome to Subirdia, highlights that vast species diversity that can come with suburban development, showing that these types of habitat modifications aren’t doomed to be low diversity.  With a bit of thought on our part, we can create habitats that attract a variety of birds.  Namely, by limiting lawn space, increasing snags, native plants and bushes and keeping our cats indoors, we can expect to see a great variety of birds visiting our feeders, crows included!

Madden, C.F., Beatriz A., Amar, A. (2015) A review of the impacts of corvids on bird productivity and abundance. Ibis: 157, 1-16.

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Filed under Crow behavior, crow conflicts, Crow life history, Crows and humans