Monthly Archives: October 2013

Crows and Shiny Objects

I got this question from csmithstudio on Tumblr:

Hi Jenn! A friend told me about your blog and I’m delighted and grateful to you for taking the time to post this! I am an artist focusing almost entirely on birds and I would like to do a painting of crows including the treasures they commonly collect. I’ve tried to research what they might be attracted to but so far have only found golf balls and angry golfers! Do they stash their hoard in a nest or somewhere else? Thank you! Christina

I’m super glad you asked me this!  I’ve been meaning to post about this topic.  The reason you can’t find anything is because crows don’t collect shiny things.  This is an extremely common myth, but it’s just that, a myth.  (And I’ve seen way too many “official” websites state this myth like it’s fact, so don’t feel bad for believing it!)  The thing is, stories about crows collecting shiny things are anecdotal, and not observed by people who watch crows constantly and study them.

There’s a couple of reasons why people might think crows like and collect shiny objects and continue to pass along the myth.  First, young crows are very curious about everything.  They play with all sorts of objects they find in nature, and chances are if something is glinting they may me more likely to explore that object (just like how you might notice something glinting in the grass and investigate it), than something that blends in to the background.  As I talked about in a previous post, juvenile crows are the same size and, to the untrained eye, look just like adult crows, therefore people may be attributing a juvenile play behavior to all age groups, accidentally.  Are they particularly attracted to shiny objects, or obsessed with them?  Highly unlikely, they may just be more likely to find them because they are easier to see/attract attention easier (welcome to why advertisers use shiny and bright things on other humans to attract their attention).  Honestly, adult crows are more likely to be terrified of brightly colored or shiny objects unless heavily associated with food on multiple occasions.

Second, a lot of observations about crows playing with shiny objects come from people who have had pet crows.  A hand-raised crow is going to have a lot of exposure to human objects, and will therefore play with those objects.  They may be attracted to what their “parents” (the humans) are attracted to, and therefore be more interested in rings, watches, silverware, etc. for the reason that they are of high value to their “family” not because they are shiny objects.

Third, it is likely that the shiny or bright objects simply remind the crows of food, or the crows are investigating them for potential food opportunities.  The going theory for why crows and ravens are so attracted to golf balls, as Christina mentioned in her note, is that they look an awful lot like delicious eggs.  I have personally watched crows play with and steal golf balls off a golf course (which was hilarious).  However, they lose interest pretty fast after, presumably, realizing the objects aren’t food (though I swear some of the crows just had a blast chasing those golf balls around).

There are a number of reasons why crows may be attracted to shiny or bright objects and trinkets, but no more so than you or I or most animals would be attracted to them.  In other words, their interest in shiny objects does not appear to be inordinate.

So, do crows hoard the objects they find?  No.

Crows don’t hoard anything.  If a crow takes off with your keys, it was likely that the bird wasn’t done exploring them for any food opportunities and took off with them to finish it’s inquiry in safety (and probably dropped them somewhere when it realized it had no use for the keys).  Crows, and other corvids, do cache items, which means that they store them for later (see my post about Nutcrackers for the most incredible cachers), but wild crows only store food items (I say “wild” because captive birds may cache non-food items, which would be expressing an instinctual behavior, using non-typical items found in the captive habitat).  Furthermore, they don’t cache all of the food items in the same location (larder).  Crows (and most corvids) are scatter cachers and leave bits of food all over the place within their territory (I once watched a crow pull half a ham sandwich out of the branches of a spruce tree…I still have NO idea where he was keeping it in there, but it was pretty hilarious to watch).  So there is no secret hoard full of shiny objects to find in a crow territory.

What about the nests?  Well, crows don’t use nests for anything but raising babies.  The nests are built just before egg-laying at the beginning of the breeding season, are lined with soft grass and moss, and are immediately abandoned once all the kids fledge.  Crows don’t store objects in a nest or sleep in a nest (unless you are a baby or the bird on incubation duty during the breeding season).  Although crows have been reported to use wire hangers and other urban metal materials to build the structure of their nests, this is more likely due to the utility and availability of these objects as construction material, not because they are shiny.  You may wonder if crows might put shiny objects in the nest to attract attention from potential mates, but crows have selected mates far before nest building begins.  If you find a crow nest in the wild, you won’t find wondrous treasures, you are likely to find a pile of sticks, grass, and poop….and sometimes a sleeping raccoon (true story).

So in conclusion, Christina, I would love to see you possibly illustrate caching behaviors of food, since those are the most valued treasures for crows.  In urban/suburban environments I’ve seen them cache everything from seeds and dead animals/insects, to ham sandwiches, pizza, and french fries.  It might be more fun (and accurate) for you to explore the wide and variable diets of these birds.  Feel free to contact me for more details if you are interested! 🙂

You have also given me the chance to review a game a friend bought for me recently, Crows by Valley Games, Inc.  I brought this game to a lab meeting and as a crow research group we played.  While thoroughly not impressed by the premise of attracting crows with shiny objects and trinkets, it was still quite fun!  We highly recommend it with the caveat that you replace “shiny objects and trinkets” with “peanuts and road kill.”  They certainly hit the mark with the trash tiles though.

A board game that is fun, but propagates the inaccurate myth that crows are inordinately attracted to and collect shiny objects.

 

I Am Not A Baby Crow!

Alright, it’s time for me to say something about baby crows as I’m greatly saddened when I see photos being passed around as “cute baby crow”.

Here’s the first offender that is not, I repeat NOT a baby crow:

NOT a baby crow, not even close.

The bird photographed above is a baby buff-banded rail (Gallirallus philippensis), and isn’t even remotely related to a corvid.

Another offender:

Also NOT a baby crow!

This bird is a corn crake (Crex crex) chick (thank you Sheri, Melissa Penta, Tammy Campbell and Pete).  Another bird nowhere near related to a corvid.

I can tell these aren’t baby crows because I know what baby crows look like and have extensive experience with them, but how about for other people?  Well, your first big hint is the fluffiness.  The fluff, or down, that you see is indicative of a precocial bird chick.  There are two kinds of hatching development types that occur in birds; precocial and altricial.  Precocial chicks are those that can walk, have down, open eyes, and are ready to eat on their own within hours of hatching.  Some of the most well known examples are chickens, geese, turkeys, quails, pheasants, waders, and ducks (among others).  Crows (in fact all corvids) have altricial young which are naked little jelly-bean monsters with closed eyes upon hatching and are reliant on their parents/family for weeks to months to nearly a year (depending on the species).  When altricial birds emerge (fledge) from the nest they are (or very nearly are) the size of their parents!

So here is a real baby crow:

A young baby crow, only a few days old. Photo by Melanie Piazza at Wild Care.

They start off rather not-cute, but they get cute fast, in my opinion.

A real baby crow!  This bird is about 24 days old.

As you can see, from the photo of a baby crow that is only a few days old to one that is 24 days old, they grow rapidly.  A 24-day-old crow is still in the nest (the one photographed above fell out, and I put him back in!) and can’t fly.  The 24-day-old is still growing its flight feathers and tail and will not start to fly until it’s about 35 days old or older.  Notice the older baby has his nasal bristles, a distinct crow beak (even at only a few days old), highly scaled legs, solid (not downy) body feathers, and a pinkish gape (“lip” structure at the base of the mouth/bill).  Baby crows also have blue eyes, which I adore:

Blue eyes of a baby crow. In some species (Australia for example) some baby crows start with dark brown eyes and they become blue as they grow older. In the case of the American crow (photographed) the blue eyes slowly turn to a dark brown.  Note the pink gape at the base of the bill.

Blue eyes on a baby common raven.  Also note the pink gape and mouth.

When people start to actually see baby crows on the ground in the spring and early summer, foraging with their families, they are the size of their parents.  A big tell that the crow you are seeing is a baby is that it will have a bright red/pink mouth.  As crows grow up their mouths turn all black.  When they are babies, their mouths are bright red!  Here is a photo of a baby crow, who is fully flighted and has fledged from the nest, begging for food from a family member:

A baby/fledgling crow (pink mouth) begs from a family member.

Baby crows are not fuzzy fluffballs, but they are still rather adorable.  The best way to experience their cuteness is to watch their silly behavior, something I’ve been doing for years for my research.  Their behavior and antics are a lot of fun.

Here’s a video I took this past summer of three siblings dutifully destroying local foliage in an effort to learn about the world around them (and having fun!).

 

Final note: If you do happen to ever find a baby crow, please refer to my colleague Dr. Kevin McGowan’s website on what to do!  Note that crows are federally protected in the United States and are not legal to own as pets.

Mariana Crow

I’m taking part in an art project called “Losing Altitude“.  It’s a collaborative art book project that will feature over 50 artists from around the world who work in a wide range of media. The book will feature threatened and endangered species of birds from all around the world!  The project is headed and organized by Arras Wiedorn who was kind enough to invite me and my husband to the project.  Naturally, I chose a corvid to illustrate, the Mariana crow (I’m particularly invested as I know several of the researchers who work on them!).  Here is the piece, with information about this critically endangered species below.

Species: Corvus kubaryi

Common Name: Mariana Crow, Aga (in Chamorro), previously known as the Guam Crow.

Distribution: Endemic to and only found on the islands of Guam and Rota in the Mariana Islands.

Habitat: Mature and second-growth forest and coastal strand vegetation. Birds tend to forage in the canopy, understory, and occasionally the forest floor.

Diet: Omnivorous, feeding on fruits, seeds, invertebrates, small vertebrates, and opportunistically on eggs.

Status: Critically endangered! The Mariana crow was down to seven individuals on Guam in 1999. Individuals were introduced to Guam from Rota, increasing the population to 16 individuals. However, in 2008 only two males remained. The last sighting of a Mariana crow on Guam was in 2011, and the species is likely extinct from the island. The decline on Guam is mostly attributed to the introduction, right after World War II, of the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis), a highly invasive species that has devastated native vertebrate populations on Guam, among other issues. On the island of Rota the population has also been in decline. In 1982 the population was estimated to be just over 1,300 and in 2008 the population was down to an estimated 70-400 mature individuals. The brown tree snake is not yet established on Rota with only one dead specimen found in a Rota harbor. The decline on Rota is likely due to other invasive species (monitors, feral cats, rats), habitat destruction, disease, and direct persecution.

Conservation Efforts: Efforts to keep sections of remaining forests on Guam snake free, for further reintroduction attempts, have been established. On Rota, aggressive conservation plans are in progress. Predation control experimentation, public education, forest protection, captive breeding, refined population survey methodology, and research are all a part of efforts to prevent the Mariana crow from going extinct (predicted to happen within 75 years).

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This piece depicts an adult Mariana crow picking out the soft parts of a hermit crab it has just opened. A juvenile, still with slightly blue eyes, light-colored bill, and feather sheaths on the growing tail feathers, watches the adult. The border depicts brown tree snakes in the upper corners, representing the main reason for extinction on Guam. In the snakes’ coils are crow eggs to represent predation. Below the snakes are transverse cross-sectional representations of a bread fruit, one of the fruits the crows consume. Below that are oceanic geckos and next to them at the bottom are leaf-rolling crickets, other typical foods for the Mariana crow.

I want to thank Sarah Faegre and Renee Ha of the Rota Avian Behavioral Ecology Program for sharing photographs and information with me. They are fantastic researchers and people. Please check out their website and follow what is happening to the Mariana crow!