Category Archives: Just for fun

My first caramel crow 

A few months ago I was both bewildered and delighted when someone emailed me some photographs of a brown crow that regularly visited them.  I had never seen such a bird myself, and was eager to arrive at an explanation for the crow’s strange caramel-colored appearance.  If you follow the blog, you know that I came to realize there was little to offer by way of explanation.  Instead, this color abnormality presents a rather fascinating mystery of conflicting opinions and an overall dearth of science.

So, after penning my answer I tucked this bird away in the back of my mind and moved forward with the science more relevant to my PhD.  Namely, testing how different crows across the Seattle area respond to dead crows.

To this aim, I spend my days wandering the neighborhoods of Seattle looking for crow families to use for my experiments.  Since I need lots of data points it means I encounter lots (think hundreds) of individual crows.  And wouldn’t you know it.  Sometimes the twain shall meet.

Its mate first caught my eye because, of course, I was looking for black things, not blond things.  Even after I registered the bird, I instinctively thought pigeon.  But then it called, and I realized what was happening.

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At 60m away with my naked eye, I first mistook Blondie for a friendly pigeon.

I FOUND A CARAMEL CROW!  And not just a caramel crow, but a caramel crow with a mate and three fledglings.  A black mate and three black fledglings.  Which suggests that whatever is going on is either recessive or not genetic.  It also shows that, for at least this one caramel bird, the color abnormality did not prohibit it from successfully reaching sexual maturity or finding a mate.  After speaking with the neighbors, it appears “Blondie,” as they call it, has been in the neighborhood for several years and it’s possible she’s not the only caramel crow, though I never confirmed any others.  Outside of that, I can’t say much more from a scientist’s standpoint that I haven’t said before.  So I’ll simply finish the post with a photo story of Blondie.  Enjoy!

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Meet Blondie

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Blondie looks just as good in flight.

 

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Blondie and its mate.  Since I discovered this bird after its nestlings had already fledged, I have no way of determining its sex.

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So beautiful in this juniper tree!

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Blondie’s fledglings were typical looking crow kiddos.

The next batch of images are probably one of the most hilarious bits of fledgling dramatics I’ve ever seen.  It is a scene familiar to many parents I’m sure.  Forgive me for taking my scientist hat off, but I couldn’t help but add some anthropomorphic captions.

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Hello parent I am hungry.

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DID YOU HEAR ME, I SAID I’M HUNGRY.

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(whispering) help, parent, I need sustenance for my growing body.

 

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(muffled whispering) please, have mercy, it’s been over 15 minutes since I was last fed.

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MAYBE I’VE ALREADY DIED AND NOW I’M A GHOST IS THAT WHY YOU AREN’T LISTING TO ME???

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I’m sorry.  I’m just hangry.  I love you.

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Cheers to yet another beautiful crow.  Goodbye for now!

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Filed under Birding, Crow curiosities, Just for fun

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

Crows caught play wrestling

I’ve posted before about the generals of crow play behaviors, and it’s something I’m routinely delighted with as the kids of late summer start testing the limits of their world and their peers.  Adult play (or what I’m fairy confident are adults) is something I’ve encountered far less often, however.  Even more rare is a camera on hand to capture what’s usually a rather fleeting behavior.

You can imagine my excitement then, when yesterday not only was I present to witness either two adults or one adult and one subadult play wrestling in the grass but I also had a camera already rolling.  Granted the footage isn’t great (it’s an old camera and they were far away) but you can make out enough to see what’s happening.

Here’s a play by play of them moments leading up to and during the event.

  • I had been following a family group of three, presumably composed of two territorial adults and one subadult based on mouth lining color and general behavior (allopreening).
  • Two of them were foraging when they joined together and began to roll in the grass.
  • No audible calls were given, which I would expect if it had been a malicious attack.
  • You can see moments where one crow appears to have the upperhand and then willingly falls to its side to allow a shift in power and continue the play.
  • The roughhousing only stopped after the third bird flew overhead and gave a short loud ‘caw’.
  • After they disentangled they continued foraging near each other rather then taking chase, another indication that is was mutual and fun rather than antagonistic.

Pretty cool right?!

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Filed under Crow behavior, Field work, Just for fun, Uncategorized

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

Crowtography

People underestimate how beautiful corvids are.  In my field experiments, I’m so often wrapped up in taking the data with as much efficiency and focus as possible, that it makes it hard to step back and really take a bird in.  So it’s in the quiet moments outside of my fieldwork that I make time to really see these animals.  To do nothing more than watch as the sun brings out those rich colors hiding among the black pigments and marvel at how spectacular they really are.  On some of these occasions I make an effort to bring my Nikon with me.  Here are some of my favorite photos from those outings which I hope you delight in as much as I do.  File_001DSC_1648  File_000 File_002  File_008 File_004 File_003File_006 File_007 File_009

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Filed under Just for fun

#FieldworkFail

Recently, scientists have been taking to social media to share their stories of field work bloopers under the tag #fieldworkfail.  Things like dropping fecal samples on themselves, falling sleep while waiting for a turtle to arrive, only to be woken up by the curious turtle crawling over them, or darting a zebra and having it pass out in a precarious position.  Needless to say I have plenty of stories of my own so I thought I would share my top three favorite, or at least most memorable, field moments.

1) What’s crackin? 

At one point during my first field season I found myself spending a week’s worth of my mornings in Seattle’s International District between the hours of 5 and 7am.  Looking back, this was a bad idea.  So much so that at one point a cab driver pulled over to ask what I was doing and urge me, for the sake of my safety, to leave immediately.  But there were crows there and after months of time on the streets of Seattle I had developed an inflated sense of my safety and bad assery and decided to stick it out.  On one of my last mornings at this particular site, a women who I had previously encountered pan handeling took a seat on the bench next to mine, and proceeded to pull out what was unmistakably a crack pipe.  Unwilling to give up my data, I politely asked her to move but, much to my dismay, she didn’t seem very interested in listening.  High on crack, she then proceeded to do cartwheels over my peanuts and dance pants-less around my field site.  After a while she tuckered out and left me alone to do my work.  Looking back, I’m not sure if this was more a #FieldworkFail or a #KaeliLifeDecisionFail but it’s certainly not a field experience I wish to relive!

My unwelcome field participant spicing up my morning with some drug induced cartwheels

My unwelcome field participant spicing up my morning with some drug induced cartwheels

2) Sorry kids

During some of our experiments looking at the funeral behaviors, we would have volunteers stand around holding dead crows.  To protect their identity should the crows decide to hold a grudge, I had the volunteers wear rubber makes that covered their whole head.  One of my best volunteers was a fellow UW student, a mountain of a man who had a proclivity for wearing black and camo.  One of these field experiments was in Magnuson park which, if you live in Seattle, you know is one of our most curious parks.  It’s got all the features of a park you might expect like a play ground, soccer fields, trails that wander through peaceful restoration areas, but it’s also got some more curious features.  Old, WWII era airplane hangers, a block of abandoned school building and a few miscellaneous businesses just to name a few.  So when selecting a field site I picked a spot that seemed far from the potentially curious glances of parents or kids coming to enjoy a day at the park and instead nestled against one of the many buildings which appeared to have no foot traffic.  I was surprised then, when moments after starting our experiment a police car rolled up with its lights flashing.  Turns out the building I thought was rarely used was actually a pediatric dental office and I had planted my 6’6”, black and camo clad, dead bird holding, creepy mask wearing volunteer right under the side window.   Whoops!

Volunteers were required to wear signs after this incident...

Volunteers were required to wear signs after this incident…

3) Off with their heads!

During one of my preliminary field experiments we were looking at how crows respond to a mounted stuffed hawk.  We didn’t want them to see it before it was in position, so we would cover the bird with a piece of mesh camo fabric until moments before we were ready when a volunteer would run over and pull the cloth off.  Although the holes in the mesh were very small, as it turned out they were exactly the right size for the tip of the hawk’s bill to fit through.  One fateful day, my volunteer got more than she bargained for when the hawk’s bill caught on the mesh and the head ripped right off along with the cloth.  Unsure of what to do she balanced the head on the hawk’s shoulders and proceeded with the experiment.  All was well until right at the end, when one of the aggressively diving crows actually hit the hawk and knocked the head to the ground.   We’ll never know what was going through his or her mind at the achievement or what followed, but I like to imagine that on the block of 8th and Madison in downtown Seattle to this day juvie crows share in uncertain but excited whispers about the legend of the crow so powerful, it took the head of the a hawk in one fell swoop.

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Big Red is a little worse for the wear but she still gets the job done!

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Filed under Field work, Graduate Research, Just for fun

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