If you search nearly anywhere along the west coast from California to southern Alaska, you will find our most persistent avian neighbors: crows. Cloaked in their Gothic outfits and uttering that all too familiar harsh caw, most people—even many experts—might not register that the neighbors in the north are not exactly like their counterparts in the south. While it’s the American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) that have staked their claim to the contiguous states, it’s the northwestern crow (Corvus caurinus) that calls the coast home from British Columbia to southern Alaska. That is, at least as far as the field guides have been telling us since northwestern crows were first described scientifically in the mid 19th century. Despite this early recognition that one of these things was not like the other, however, differentiating American crows from northwestern crows on the basis of phenotypic features like size, voice, and behavior has since proven to an almost impossible challenge; especially in places like Washington where the two ranges meet. This has resulted in questionable hand waving by people like me about what those crows in Seattle really are. I’ve always called them American crows without any qualifiers, but are they really? Might they be northwestern crows? Or something in between? Fortunately, a new study by Slager et al. (2020) lays bare the reticulated evolutionary histories of the two crows of the Pacific Northwest.
By examining differences in both nuclear DNA from 62 specimens and mitochondrial ND2 markers from 259 specimens collected across North America, the team was able to evaluate when these two likely initiated speciation, the process of becoming distinct species from a shared ancestor. What they found is that American and northwestern crows likely split some 440,000 years ago when late Pleistocene glaciers really made mess of things by geographically separating formally intact populations. Isolated in their respective pockets of livable habitat (called glacial refugia) the formally united species did what all organisms do in the face of new selective pressure: they changed, and from one species emerged two. Well, kind of.
Eventually of course, the Pleistocene ice ages came to a close and the glaciers that had divided their ancestors receded away. Although their time apart made a lasting impression on their genome, it did not appear to make a lasting impression on their taste in sexual partners. The team found extensive genomic admixture (the presence of DNA in an individual that originated from a separate population or species), suggesting pretty pervasive hybridization between the two species. In fact, along their shared 900 km range from coastal Washington to British Columbia they found not one “pure” individual. For just how long American and northwestern crows have been hybridizing remains unknown, but the evidence suggests that it’s been happening since well before colonial landscape changes.
These revelations beg two important and contradictory questions. The first is the answer to just what the hell crows in Seattle are. The answer appears to be option C: a hybridized mix of American and northwestern crow, but with slightly more all-American genes. That seems to be true throughout the Washington coast. Once you hit Oregon though, you’re getting almost all ancestral American crow. The opposite pattern is true moving from British Columbia north: what starts as hybrids with a stronger northwestern crow bias, are “pure” northwestern crows once you hit Juneau.
The second question, however, is whether those distinctions are really of any biological value. After all, what appears to have happened is that while these two “species” may have gotten started on a path to different destinies, a changing climate brought them back together before any firm reproductive isolating mechanisms (i.e. physical features, behaviors, or physiology that prevent different species from breeding with one another) could take hold. While that kind of genetic evidence is already pretty damning, the phenotypic evidence that they might be different has likewise eroded. When closely examined, the features that appeared to be diagnostic in the 19th century like the northwestern crow’s smaller size and intertidal habitat use, and a difference in vocalizations, seem to simply be reflections of local adaptions and individual differences present in both species. So, while the guidebooks might still call them different things, the fact that neither the crows themselves nor the ornithologists can really tell them apart warrants serious consideration of whether northwestern crows should be officially absorbed into the American crow.
As it happens, the authority on such things, the American Ornithological Society’s North and Middle America Classification Committee, is currently examining that very proposal as apart of the 2020 Proposal Set C. Expect an official ruling soon. While I don’t know for sure what they will decide, the evidence out of this current study does not bode well for the continued recognition of Corvus caurinus as a species. So if you want to see a northwestern crow, my advice is to do it sooner rather than later.
Slager DL, Epperly KL, Ha RR, Rohwer S, Wood C, Van Hemert C, and Klicka J. 2020. Cryptic and extensive hybridization between ancient lineages of American crows. Molecular Ecology doi: 10.1111/mec.15377