Blane Klemek column: American crow is a social bird
Every morning and every evening, I drive by Diamond Lake in northern Hubbard County on my way to and from work. It's a shallow, heart-shaped lake about 200 acres in size that's ringed with cattails, sedges, muskrat houses and beaver lodges. Some people say there's fish in it, but I've never seen a boat on the lake, and I've been driving by it for almost 20 years.
While the lake itself is several hundred feet from the roadway I travel on, I am nevertheless able to observe birds using the lake. Over the years I've seen ducks and geese, trumpeter swans, great blue herons, flocks of red-winged blackbirds and others. But recently, I saw something that really caught my eye.
The birds I saw were nothing unusual -- they were simply crows. American crows. Yet what grabbed my attention was the number of crows I observed. It looked like at least a hundred crows, maybe more, standing on the ice, doing what appeared to be absolutely nothing.
I'll never be certain, but I think the crows were simply enjoying the warm day while getting their feet wet. Much of the snow had melted, so the surface of the ice was covered in a shallow sheet of water. Some of the birds were vocalizing, some were hopping about, but most were standing still. Odd behavior, or so it seemed, but maybe not for such a smart bird.
It is written that the American crow is one of the most intelligent wild birds. Crows, which are very common and abundant Minnesota birds, are related to ravens, magpies and jays. Few birds, however, are entirely black, as is the crow. Consequently, only a handful of birds can be confused with the species. Here in the Northland, the bird that is often confused with the crow, and vice versa, is the common raven, albeit this species is much less plentiful and not as widespread.
Despite the crow's omnipresence, and perhaps even its reputation as a marauding, crop-damaging, egg thief, I can think of few other native birds more adaptable. Here's a bird that's as comfortable in the Deep South as it is in the Far North. American crows are distributed throughout most of North America except Alaska and Canada's northernmost provinces.
What's interesting about crows' behavior is their sense of community with one another. It's no mystery to anyone familiar with crows that these birds tend to form large and noisy flocks. But what might not be common knowledge is how cooperative some populations or "family groups" of crows tend to be when it comes to raising their broods.
For instance, research has shown that even though crows become reproductively mature at about 2 years of age, they don't necessarily form pair-bonds, mate and raise their own offspring immediately.
It turns out that some crows will help raise their own siblings, staying within their parent's territory for five years or longer while assisting with parental duties such as feeding nestlings and acting as sentinels.
It's also believed that strategies such as these help increase nestling survival, though some research suggests that the social system does not increase brood survivorship any more than when a pair of crows raise their offspring alone.
Still, the social system of crows is something to be admired. Crows that are related to each other are known to preen their kin, for example. Other obvious benefits of a highly developed social order are protection from predators and finding food sources.
With so many watchful crows, some of which act as sentinels, it's rare that predators could get close enough to an unwary individual or a nest full of eggs or hatchlings without another crow discovering the predators' presence first. Indeed, safety in numbers.
At such times, woe is the culprit intent on doing harm to a crow, for in these cases, the entire flock acts swiftly in attacking, swooping, vocalizing and raising complete havoc for the newly discovered intruder. In most cases, such hapless trespassers are mobbed and driven away by the relentless harassment of dozens of crows. Rare is the animal that can sustain the attack of a "murder" of crows.
While the intelligence of crows is undisputed, it's difficult to study and learn just how clever wild crows really are outside the laboratory. But one reader, who I've since met and have been corresponding with since late December, does know. Not only has she and her husband learned how smart their particular crow is, but they've also discovered how unique an opportunity it has been to witness the bird's tenacity despite all odds.
"Crow", as Carol Pelton calls her crow, first showed up in her yard Dec. 20, dragging an injured left wing on the ground. Other than this, and the inability to fly, Carol said Crow appeared "healthy, perky and active." Carol wrote to tell me about her interesting observation, but to also ask for my suggestions on what she and her husband, Mike, could possibly feed Crow.
Since then, I've received periodic updates from Carol, and as of this writing, Crow is alive and well. Carol wrote that Crow is able to fly into a tree now, which was thrilling for her to see.
"He can fly some distance, but still wanders around in the snowy field beyond our evergreen grove doing God knows what," she added. "His wing still drags, and in the snow, you can tell his trail because of the wing-drag track. He's out there as I write this."
To be sure, as anyone can attest, the American crow, a year-round rural and urban Minnesota resident, is as interesting a bird as they come as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org