Exploring The Last Green Valley: Crows bring ‘murder’ to our neighborhoods

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Exploring The Last Green Valley: Crows bring ‘murder’ to our neighborhoods

I think we have a family of crows nesting in our neighborhood. Perhaps they have a nest in the thick woods between our house and the highway, or it might be in the trees south of our back field. We see them frequently throughout the year, and in the spring and early summer I hear the hungry young calling their frenzied higher-pitched, hoarse, nasal call.

There is some speculation as to why a group of crows is called a “murder of crows” and according to the Oxford English Dictionary the use of the term dates to 15th century England. It may be due to their black color signifying death, or that their caw-caw call sounds like something bad has happened.

I can tell you our neighborhood crows frequently murder my early morning slumber. Many days I am awakened at dawn by their cawing as they fly up our road, stopping outside our house to make their repeated calls. Like an obnoxious avian alarm clock, they move up the road to the next house until satisfied the entire neighborhood is awake. For some reason our dog Russell hates crows and will bark at them when they fly over the house. No other bird elicits this response from him.

It is important to know the difference between a crow and a raven since both reside here in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, though the crow is much more common.

Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and ravens (Corvus corax) are from the same family and are similar in color and shape. The raven is larger at 24 inches long, while the crow is 15 inches in length. Another way to distinguish between the two is the shape of their tails. The tail feathers of a crow are all the same length and when spread look like a fan. Raven tail feathers are longer in the middle, making the tail look wedge-shaped when open. Another distinguishing feature is that raven neck feathers appear thick and shaggy. Ravens also don’t have the classic caw-caw call of the crow but make a guttural croaking sound. Both crows and ravens are highly intelligent and capable of mimicking human sounds.

Both sexes of crow look alike, though the female is slightly smaller and completely black in color, including the legs and bill. Crows weigh between 11 and 20 ounces and have a wingspan of 33 to 39 inches.

Crows are omnivorous and eat insects, eggs and nestlings of other birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and carrion. They also eat plant material such as seeds (farmers’ newly-planted corn), fruit and nuts.

Their social hats and gregarious, mischievous nature distinguish American crows from many other bird species. One of the most thorough sources about bird behavior is the “Stokes Guide” and here is its description of the crow:

“From fall through winter, crows are usually in large raucous flocks that roam widely, but from spring through summer they are more often in small bands, spending the majority of their time in fairly restricted areas. These two broad patterns of behavior reflect the nature of the crow’s breeding and non-breeding periods respectively.”“During the non-breeding period the most obvious feature of crow behavior is their habit of gathering in huge communal roosts. The birds are believed to return to the same roost each night.”

“In spring crows behave differently. Small groups, believed to be composed of a breeding pair and their nonbreeding young from the previous year, fly about together but remain in a fairly restricted area. At first these groups are noisy and fight with other crows, but soon after that there comes an extremely quiet time when the birds become secretive. This lasts for about a month and happens during the nest-building egg-laying, and incubation periods. Soon after this the parents become noisy defenders of the nest, and you will hear the wailing call of the young as they elicit food from the parents.”

I have witnessed these seasonal behaviors with the small group residing near our house during the spring and summer months. A few winters ago, there was a very large group of crows roosting at night in trees outside the Putnam Post Office. We used to see them each morning before they took off on their daily rounds.

Another excellent source of information about animals in The Last Green Valley is the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Wildlife Division Fact Sheets. Here is information from their fact sheet about crows:

“In March, crows perform their courtship ritual, which consists of dramatic aerial maneuvers and a dance involving bowing, strutting with spread wings and tail and a general puffing of the feather coat. While dancing, the crows utter a gentle, uncrowlike “rattle” song. After mating, females spend five to 13 days building a nest in the fork of a tree. The nest is often supported by two or three horizontal branches and constructed six to 60 feet above ground. Males usually assist in its construction. The nest has a crudely built foundation, about two feet wide and nearly a foot thick, and is composed of large sticks and twigs. The nest bowl is built of smaller twigs interwoven with strands of bark and lined with soft tendrils of shredded bark, moss, plant fibers, grass, feathers, wool, fur, rootlets or leaves. The female deposits a clutch of four to six eggs in early April. The eggs may vary in size, shape and color but generally are oval, greenish and blotched with brown and gray. Males feed the females during incubation. After 18 days the chicks hatch and are tended at the nest for approximately five weeks.”

“In Connecticut, crow populations have increased since the early 1800s due to their high reproductive potential, opportunistic feeding habit and ability to adapt to land-use changes. Forest habitats are adequate for crow survival but agricultural lands and suburbia are even better. The adaptable crow can exploit farming waste and human-generated trash in addition to more natural food sources.”

“American crows belong to the family Corvidae, which includes jays, ravens, nutcrackers and magpies. Crows are very intelligent animals and, if trained, can learn to mimic the human voice and use simple tools to manipulate objects. They have acute senses of sight and hearing and very good memories. They are also fascinated with and will collect shiny objects such as keys, rings and foil.”

“American crows are partially migratory. In many colder areas of the country, crows will migrate south seasonally. In Connecticut, most crows will remain throughout the winter.”

I always look up and admire these resilient birds as they fly over our back pasture and yard. I’ll be on the lookout for their nest, which I know is somewhere close by our neighborhood. I will even tolerate their morning wakeup calls, though I am pretty sure our dog Russell will always bark at them when they fly over. He’s just doing his job.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley full of amazing animals that bring meaning to our daily lives. I hope you’ll join me as we work to care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Information for this column was gleaned from the “Sibley Guide to Birds”, The Cornell Lab for Ornithology website All About Birds, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Fact Sheet on American Crows, and the “Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior, Volume I”.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

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