Meet the American Crow, smaller cousin of the Raven and one of the most common – and probably most misunderstood – birds that people are familiar with. You’ve no doubt seen them around, in your neighborhood or at the park, or the grocery store parking lot. They travel in groups or pairs and tend to be noisy, which has earned them a reputation as an undesirable or nuisance bird.
Yet it turns out that crows are far more like us that we give them credit for. For starters, crows are very smart. Their intelligence is impressive for the animal kingdom, and among birds in particular. Crows learn. They use tools to solve problems, demonstrating a capacity for active thought processes and creative thinking.
Crows are also highly social in nature; crow family units develop and maintain tight bonds that last throughout an individual’s lifespan. Grown crow offspring will remain with their parents and help care for successive batches of nestlings. Crow families often live near each other, and the ruckus you hear them making in the morning, when they’re all in trees cawing, is really the family reuniting when they wake up.
Crows are vocal with each other, and in general, and their alarm calls are known to other critters as well. Perhaps most impressively, crows appear to have the ability to communicate information. We’re still a little fuzzy on how that works, if it’s really a verbal process or not, but studies indicate that crows are able, at the very least, to teach other crows what they know.
That’s a lot of crow-related information all condensed into a short packet. These birds hold a special interest to me; not only are they famed in literary and cultural references (including central roles in Native American lore), but I also have a personal connection to them, via my mother, who has developed a relationship with a family of local crows over the past several years.
They know her and have a certain level of trust with her. It’s fascinating to see, although sometimes a little creepy, as they’ll follow her around when she’s outside. Their relationship does not extend to human family members, however – when I appear, the crows retreat, and I’ve never been able to photograph them for her, as much as I’d like to.
Nor have I been successful in photographing them in the wild in all the years that I’ve been pursuing wildlife photography. Crows are wily and rarely let a human approach them, even in my kayak “disguise,” which works so well with other birds.
The crow pictured above is my first successful portrait, at relatively close range. I don’t know why this individual let me approach him. Maybe he’s a juvenile and curiosity got the better of him. Maybe because the raft of geese I passed as I approached didn’t respond to me as a threat, he was more trusting. Or maybe his experience has taught him that kayakers really aren’t much of a threat. At any rate, I was able to capture a few frames, one of which was good enough to keep.
If you’re interested in learning more about crows, Gifts of the Crow is an excellent read. Be forewarned, it is a scientific text, and there are a couple of sections on crow brain structure and chemistry/makeup that even I skipped over. But the remainder is insightful, well-written, and very interesting, and leaves the reader with no doubt as to the intelligence – and spirit – of these remarkable birds.