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.
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.
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.
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.2 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.1 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…
*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.
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
Tag Archives: Crows and people
In an effort to keep up with the onslaught of crow news, one of the first things I did as a newly minted graduate student was setup a daily Google news alert to the key term “crow”. Although most of it is news about the Australian football team the Adeliade Crows, or futile efforts on behalf of desperate business districts to rid themselves of problem roosts, every once and a while some big new study will have also made the daily report. While this is more of what I was expecting when I signed up for the alert, it’s not what I’ve found to be the most important part. I’ve realized that new studies will always find their way to my desk-that’s the benefit of being a graduate student in a particular field. No, what’s been the most savory part of this endeavor are the small, obscure observations from local and international sources. It’s there that I’m reminded of the details that make these animals so special to me, and inspired this harried journey to try and study them in academia.
Take this recent article out of an Indian newspaper, The Hindu. While the notes about protective crow parents are relatively banal, it’s her story about her crow visitors that struck me, particularly the last two lines of the piece. “They do not like anything white, plain and stale. If it finds the food delicious, it calls out for others in the community.” I found myself saying these lines over and over again both because I love their poetic feeling, and because I find myself in them as well.
When I started graduate school I knew that there were certain pieces of my life it wasn’t worth giving up, even if accommodating them would take considerable effort. One of these things was cooking. My husband and I love to cook, it’s an expression of passion both as individuals and as partners and something we make happen every night, even if it means eating at 9:30. Even during my field season when he was away on the road, and I was working 14 hour days I would come home and prepare a meal from scratch. Food is something I feel privileged to use as a form of love and expression, and nothing beats a comforting meal after a long day of discovery or failure (or more often the case, both). And sharing that passion is a primary way my partner and I connect with our friends and family, we love cooking for others and it’s something I give up during the summer field season in exchange for all day crow watching.
With summer fast approaching, I’m confident this quote will float around my head as I watch crows pick at their peanuts in the dwindling hours of daylight and I’ll be reminded of exactly why I’m out there: to better understand an animal who’s avian biology is so different from ours, but whose behavior is strikingly similar. For don’t we all crave the joy of pleasurable food in the company of others?