The other morning I awoke to the distress calls from what seemed to be every bird in the neighborhood.
The common grackles appeared to be the most vocal and agitated. And well they should have been — a threesome of crows was “stalking” the area, looking for eggs or nestlings to steal. The crows had figured out where the grackles’ nest was — in the tall cedar tree that grows alongside my house.
The resident mockingbirds added their harsh alarm calls and took turns with the grackles strafing the crows. The European house sparrows and starlings joined in, although less aggressively, and were followed by a blue jay’s screaming epithets.
The resident northern oriole couple also joined in the fray, but I was surprised when I heard their voices. Usually, a bird’s alarm call is a harsh, chattering, grating note that is distinct from their songs or other calls. However, the orioles’ alarm calls were actually a short, whistled two-noted version of their usual singing voice.
The orioles were also very aggressive in mobbing the crows, and I was dazzled by these orange and black missiles as they made kamikaze-like runs at the marauders.
Eventually, the combined efforts of the “neighborhood watch,” as I nicknamed them, served notice to the crows that the element of surprise was not in their favor. As well, the distraction and commotion the songbirds were creating seemed to be too much for them. They left the area escorted by two very belligerent mockingbirds.
Crows are known to be intelligent and resourceful, and there is much about them to admire, their penchant for going after anything edible notwithstanding. They’ve long held a berth in human history, myth and folklore; crows and humans seem to be inextricably linked, for good or for bad. “The Birds of North America” species account sums this relationship up perfectly:
“It is a mistake to underestimate a crow’s ability. Most people have opinions about crows that run the gamut from outright hatred to bemused admiration.”
Scientists have studied the clan of the crow in depth and have discovered much about their intelligence, as well as how they communicate and organize themselves in family units.
According to the BNA, pairs are generally monogamous and young from the previous year or years have been observed helping their parents raise current broods. L. Kilham, quoted in the BNA, wrote that at a particular nest site in Florida, “Yearling helpers brought sticks to nests, fed incubating and brooding females as well as nestlings, and helped to keep the nest clean.”
In laboratory experiments, crows have demonstrated a high level of problem solving ability. Frank B. Gill, writing in “Ornithology,” describes one such experiment called “the Krushinsky problem,” in which a crow was shown, through a slit in a wall, two food dishes-one empty, one full. While the bird watched, each dish was moved out of sight in opposite directions. The crow was then given a choice as to which end of the wall to go around to access the dish that contained food; it immediately solved the problem by choosing the correct direction.
Black marauders they might have been that morning in my neighborhood, but I have to admire the crow’s ability to learn and adapt.