Tag Archives: Crow

A matter of a pinion

Like all subcultures, the world of corvidphilia comes with its own set of corny jokes and puns.  Of these, perhaps none is more well known than the classic: “What do you call two crows?”

“An attempted murder.”

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Despite their groan-inducing nature, I consider myself a connoisseur of such jokes.  After all, it’s rather flattering that crows are such a cultural fixture that they get their own jokes and cartoons.

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There’s one joke though, that I have no choice but to spoil in the name of scientific accuracy. After all, what kind of scientist would I be if I left semi-obscure memes about crows go unchecked?

Pinion

There are many version of the “matter of a pinion” joke but this one is the most cringe-inducing for me because it has the audacity to present itself as scientific fact.  The truth is, not only do corvids have far fewer than sixteen primaries, but the entire premise of the joke is simply wrong.

All birds have at least nine primary feathers, but most birds, particularly within the passerines, have ten on each wing.  Even outside of passerines, most birds have only ten, though there are exceptions.  Flamingos, for example, have twelve, and ostriches have sixteen.  Crows and ravens, on the other hand, are in no way exceptional, either from the norm or each other.

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American crow wing.  Photo c/o the Slater Museum of Natural History.

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Common raven wing.  Photo c/o the Slater Museum of Natural History.

So, no, the difference between crows and ravens is not, in fact, a matter of a pinion.  There’s one thing I do want to point out, though, particularly for you #CrowOrNo players.  While it’s true that crows and ravens have the same number of primaries, they do look different enough that in flight you can often identify a bird as either a crow or a raven based on its primaries.  Of the ten primaries, there is a handful that is longer and more distinct than the others, making them look kind of like “fingers”.  Looking at the wing pictures above, you can see that the crow has five evident finger feathers (feathers 5-9) whereas ravens only have four (feathers 6-9).  This difference is a bit easier to detect on birds in flight than on these static wing specimens.

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Common raven in flight showing the typical four “finger” feathers.

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American crow in flight with five evident “finger” feathers.

So with this in mind, it’s possible that with a little handwaving you can actually get away with saying the difference between a crow and a raven is a matter of a pinion, but by now there’s not much of the joke left since you have to leave off the initial context.  A much more scientifically sound version, however, would be to compare crows and song sparrows, which only have nine primaries.  “What’s the difference between a crow and a song sparrow?”

“It’s just a matter of a pinion!” And then, as with any good joke, you would explain to your audience the scientific merit of the punchline by describing the technicalities of wing feathers.

Funny right?

Funny

So what’s your favorite corvid joke? Let me know in the comments!

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Filed under Birding, Just for fun, Ravens

Putting the “crow” in necrophilia

It’s early April 2015, and John Marzluff and I are standing with a film crew attempting to capture some footage of a crow funeral to compliment a story they are working on about Gabi Mann.  I’ve already set the dead crow on the ground, it’s placed just out from a cherry tree resplendent in springtime blossoms.  After only a few moments of waiting, the first crow arrives and alights on the tree, its head cocking around to get a better look at the lifeless black feathers beneath it.  I hold my breath for the first alarm call, ready for the explosion of sound and the swarm of birds that will follow it.  But it doesn’t come.  Instead, the bird descends to the ground and approaches the dead body.  My brow knits together in surprise but, ah well, I think, the shots of it getting so close and then alarm calling will make good footage.   The audience will have no questions about what it is responding to.  To my continued surprise, however, the silence persists; only now the crow has drooped its wings, erected its tail, and is approaching in full strut. No, no, this can’t be, I think.  But then it happens.  A quick hop, and the live crow mounts our dead one, thrashing in that unmistakable manner.  “Is it giving it CPR?” someone asks earnestly.  Still in disbelief, John and I exchange glances before shaking our heads and leaving the word “copulation” to hang awkwardly in the air.  After a few seconds another bird arrives to the cherry tree and explodes in alarm calls, sending our first bird into its own fit of alarm, followed by a more typical mobbing scene.  The details of what I’ve just witnessed as still washing over me when I hear John lean over to me…”You need to start your field season tomorrow.”

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What crows do around dead crows is something I’ve dedicated much of my academic life to understanding.  In the course of my first study, my findings made for a nice clear narrative: crows alarm call and gather around dead crows as a way of learning about dangerous places and new predators.  Although there are other hypotheses we can’t rule out, certainly danger avoidance is at least partially driving this behavior.  An important detail of that original study though, is that because of the way it was designed, with a dangerous entity always near the dead crow, our live crows were never in a position to ever get very close to our dead stimulus. So the possibility that they do other things around dead crows, like touching them, couldn’t be explored.

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It’s been 3 years since that day in April and during that time it has taken every ounce of my power to remain tight lipped when journalists would ask “what’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from your studies?” Because until we were able to scientifically vet the prevalence of this behavior, I wasn’t willing to say much about it for fear of making necrophilia mountains out of mole hills. But with our findings now officially available in the journal Philosophical Transactions B, I am delighted to finally share what has been the most curious secret of my PhD: crows sometimes touch, attack, and even copulate with dead crows.

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Although this statement is jarring in its own right, what really gives it power is that we know this not just from that first fateful day with the film crew, but through an experimental study testing the response of hundreds of birds over several years.  That’s important because it allows us to say not just what they’re doing but possibly why they’re doing it (and at least why they’re not doing it).  So how did we conduct this experiment?

First, I dove into the literature to try and see if there was any precedent for this kind of behavior in other animals.  Although there have been no systematic studies, repeated observations of animals touching, harming, even copulating with their dead occur in dolphins, elephants, whales, and many kinds of primates, among some other animals.  Based on this, we hypothesized that this behavior may arise from: attempts to eat it, attempts to learn from it, or a misuse of an adaptive response (like territoriality, care taking, mate guarding, etc.). To test these ideas I searched the neighborhoods of Seattle until I found a breeding adult pair and (while they weren’t looking) presented one of four stimulus options: An unfamiliar dead adult crow, an unfamiliar dead juvenile crow, a dead pigeon or a dead squirrel.  The latter two stimuli being key in helping us determine if the behavior was food motivated, whereas the nature and prevalence of the interactions themselves (common, uncommon, exploratory, aggressive, sexual) helped us address the other hypotheses.  In all, I tested 309 individual pairs of crows; or in other words, once again I freaked out a lot of Seattle residents wondering why there was a woman with a camera, binoculars, and some dead animals loitering in front of their house for long periods of time.

Our main findings are that crows touched the animals we would expect them to eat (pigeons and squirrels) more than the dead crows, and although crows sometimes make contact with dead crows, it’s not a characteristic way they respond.  Because this behavior is risky, this seems to back up previous studies in crows that suggest that they are primarily interested in dead crows as a way of self preservation and avoiding danger.

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A crow tentatively pokes at one of our dead crows

That said, in nearly a quarter of cases, crows did make some kind of contact with dead crows.  Like with mammals, we saw that these behavior could be exploratory, aggressive and in rare cases even sexual (about 4% of crow presentations resulted in attempted copulations), with the latter two behaviors being biased towards the beginning of the breeding season.  Importantly, the latter two categories of interactions were rarely expressed independently, and it was often a mixture of the first two; in rare cases, all three.  In the most dramatic examples, a crow would approach the dead crow while alarm calling, copulate with it, be joined in the sexual frenzy by its presumed mate, and then rip it into absolute shreds.  I must have gone through a dozen dead crows over the course of the study, with some specimens only lasting through a single trial. It was an issue that may have been insurmountable if not for the donations of dead crows by local rehab facilities and the hard work of my long time crow tech turned taxidermist, Joel Williams.

It’s hard to witness this behavior without wondering if maybe the crows somehow don’t recognize that it’s dead and are instead responding like they might to a living intruder or to a potential mate.  So we tested that idea too, by conducting a second experiment where we presented either a dead crow or a life-like crow mount.  The differences in their response was clear.  They dive bombed the “live” crows and less often formed mobs, just like we would expect them to do for an intruder.  They also attempted to mate with the “live” birds but in these cases it was never paired with alarm calling or aggression.  So the issue doesn’t seem to be that they think it’s alive.

The fact that this behavior was rare, and often a mix of contradictory behaviors like aggression and sex, seems to suggest that none of those hypotheses I outlined earlier are a good fit for this behavior.  Instead, what we think happens is that during the breeding season, some birds simply can’t mediate a stimulus (the dead crow) that triggers different behaviors, so instead they respond with all of them. This may be because the crow is less experienced, or more aggressive, or has some neurological issue with suppressing inappropriate responses.  Only more experiments will help us determine what makes this minority of birds unique, and whether expressing these seemingly dangerous behaviors are the mark of the bird that is more, or less reproductively successful in the long haul.

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So while there’s still much more left to be explore here, I can finally say that this is without a doubt some of the most interesting behavior in crows I’ve ever witnessed.  I hope you will check out the publication here, and seek out all the other amazing work being reported in this special thanatology (death science) themed issue.

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Filed under Being a scientist, Breeding, Crow life history, Field work, Graduate Research, New Research, Science

RAVENous for crow eggs 

Given their similarities, it might surprise folks to see crows occasionally harassing and chasing ravens. After all, birds of a feather right? Not in this case.  Rather than being in cahoots, the relationship between crows and ravens is most often competitive, though it can also be predatory.

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A raven barrel rolls to scold an attacking crow.

Such is the case in a recent video shared with me by a reader, Ty Lieberman.  To the dismay of him and his colleagues, a crow nest they had been observing outside their Los Angeles office window was partially dismantled, and at least one egg taken by what they believed was a pair of crows.   Concerned for the survival of the nest, Ty reached out for my interpretation.  Based on his initial description, I wondered if maybe he had witnessed egg transport, something I knew had been observed in black-billed magpies and pinon jays.1  Previous accounts of these species included descriptions of eggs being taken, and then returned to the nest, as well as eggs being deposited into the nests of neighbors, both of which are utterly fascinating behaviors and probably warrant their own post.

To date, however, there are no accounts of crows engaging in this behavior, though there is one documented observation of a nestling being deposited into a nest from which it did not originate.2  Again, utterly fascinating, but not helpful here.

Later, a more detailed account from Ty made mention of the size of the intruding birds, which quickly led me to the story’s true explanation.  Shortly after my ‘ah ha’ moment, to the dismay of he and his colleagues the nest raiders returned, and this time were caught on video by one of Ty’s colleagues (who you can follow on twitter, @namnam).  Rather than being crows, these literal homewreckers were common ravens.

Instead of being something out of the ordinary, Ty had witnessed a typical breeding season interaction between crows and ravens.  It’s no wonder then, that crows can be so hostilie when ravens enter their territory. 

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Crows (top) mobbing a raven (bottom) in Kent, WA

Eggs of all kinds are one of the most power-packed meals in the animal kingdom, so it’s no surprise ravens would take advantage of crow nests when they find them.  Around this same time back in 2015, a black bear made a similarly memorable meal out of a raven nest, reminding us that for corvids of all kinds, it’s a constant fight between being predator or prey.

Literature cited

  1.  Trost CH and CL Webb. 1986. Egg moving by two species of corvid. Animal Behaviour 34: 294-295.
  2. Schaefer JM and Dinsmore JJ.  1992.  Movement of a nestling between American crow nests.  The Wilson Bulletin 104: 185-187

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Filed under Birding, Breeding, Crow behavior, Raven behavior

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