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Rithet's Bog LogoThe Birds of Broadmead: The Crow

BARA Bugle (Broadmead Area Residents Association Newsletter),
Fall 2008 - John Lucas


CrowThere are people, a lot of people, who do not like crows. They say they are dirty, noisy, nasty and scary (just think Alfred Hitchcock). It is hard to remember my brother, Eugene's exact words after sixty-two years, but in that golden summer when he returned from serving as a Marine in the South Pacific and in the next two before he married and left home for good, Eugene taught me that perceptions often do not necessarily reflect the truth and the bad reputation of crows (and ravens) was based on a misunderstanding of that singular bird's job in the nature of things. Without ever using the now acculturated term "ecosystem", he patiently explained that there was no such thing as a "bad" bird: Each fits into the great puzzle created by Mother Nature.

Eugene asked me if I remembered what he said a passerine was. I did; they are "perching" birds that account for nearly sixty percent of the families of birds on earth and include the beloved group known as songbirds. He startled me by saying that the raucous crow was one of the passerines, and that in their own way the calls of crows were very sophisticated means of communication. He indeed gave me accurate information. Later research has shown that crows possess a variety of dialects, specific to geographic location.

He went on to say that rather than being dirty, crows played a very important role in keeping our surroundings clean by including in their diet much dead matter.

My brother's words on that latter point echoed in my mind just a few years ago near the corner of Douglas and Fort Street in downtown Victoria. A boy of about eleven or twelve, in a mind-boggling moment of littering, threw a large bag of garbage out of the window of a pickup, driven, presumably by his father. Uneaten fries, bits of hamburger, bread and other items best left to the imagination wound up scattered across the pavement. Within seconds a large number of crows descended upon the mess and efficiently policed the area, leaving very little behind, thus affording us a dramatic example of how nature works. This "murder" of crows drew the deserving admiration of the dozens of people waiting for buses and walking along the street. Crows are pests in the judgment of many, especially when they congregate in huge numbers in cities, but I wonder where we would find ourselves without them. Perhaps up to our ankles in half-munched Big Macs.

Crows probably originated in the area of Australasia and fanned out across the world from there. They make up about one-third of the Corvidae family. They vary greatly in size: the ones we see here in Broadmead are the smaller Northwestern type (also known as Pacific Northwestern Crows). They roost in trees in great flocks at night for protection and societal purposes, as many Broadmead residents know if they have ever walked around Rithet's Bog of an evening.

Crows are monogamous but will take part in what can be called cooperative breeding in which non-breeding birds will assist breeders in the care of their young.

The intelligence of the crow is the stuff of legends and much scientific inquiry. One of my former colleagues in Montreal, Dr. Alan Moscovitch, taught the work of Konrad Lorenz in one of his courses. I sometimes sat fascinated at the back of his lecture room and learned that Lorenz found crows to have an astonishing ability to recognize and remember individual humans, especially those who, like hunters and even scientists who band birds, posed a threat of one kind or another.

More recently, in a cyber-chat, my friend and colleague in the Rithet's Bog Conservation Society, Sharon Hartwell, told me that since Lorenz's day many more researchers have verified his findings, adding that crows have the ability to count up to six or seven. Ms. Hartwell noted that the birds apparently have "much larger brains than would have been predicted from that of other birds and only the parrot has brains as large." Indeed when I watch them I sometimes think they are much smarter than I am and come away with enormous respect for this most common and yet so exceptional bird.

Many of the crow's detractors don't know that the object of their scorn figures richly in the history of art and literature. In an upcoming article I will explore the contribution to the arts made by our black, feathered friends. I have the eerie feeling that one or two of them are up on my roof thinking, "Good! Make them eat crow."

(This is the fourth in a series of articles on Broadmead Birds written by John Lucas)

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