Author Archives: The Corvid Blog

About The Corvid Blog

My name is Jennifer Campbell-Smith and I run The Corvid Blog on the network :)

Australian Magpies Are Not Corvids

I’m often linked to adorable videos of Australian magpies (Cracticus tibicen).  Videos of these charismatic clowns include them hanging upside down from laundry, playing with dogs, dive-bombing unsuspecting pedestrians and bicyclists, or generally chatting with the local pets.  Usually a friend links me to them, knowing I love birds in general, especially play behaviors, but more often I’m linked to them because I like corvids.  While I never mind, and generally welcome, a well-intentioned “this made me think of you!” (really, it makes my day), I realize that most people don’t know that these birds are not corvids.  What better place to talk about this than in my corvid blog?

An Australian magpie, which is not a corvid (left, photo by J. J. Harrison), next to a Eurasian magpie, which is a corvid (right, photo by Pierre-Selim).

What’s in a name?

The word “magpie” in the Australian magpie’s name is what most commonly trips people up.  It is true that the family Corvidae includes all manner of “magpie”, but the word is somewhat meaningless in determining how animals are related to one another (see family tree below), even though the word did originate with the black-and-white, long-tailed corvid, the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica).  Let’s break it down.  ‘Pie’ literally refers to the Pica pica bird, common in Europe.  ‘Mag’ is generally thought to be derived from a shortened nickname which means ‘chatterer,’ but I’ve also seen people claim it comes from ‘maggot’ (though I haven’t seen this backed up anywhere).  Because magpies in Europe were conspicuously black-and-white, the term ‘pied’ became synonymous with black-and-white.  ‘Piebald’ is also derived from the bird, when ‘bald’ meant ‘white streaked,’ not ‘lacking in hair.’  ‘Magpie’ therefore, also just means black-and-white.

You’ll notice animals with ‘pied’ or ‘magpie’ in the name are black-and-white, such as the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis), African pied wagtail (Motacilla aguimp), pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis), pied bush chat (Saxicola caprata), Australian pied cormorant (Phalacrocorax varius), magpie goose (Anseranas semipalmata), magpie shrike (Urolestes melanoleucus), magpie mannikin (Lonchura fringilloides), magpie duck (a breed of domestic duck, Anas platyrhynchos domesticus), magpie-lark (Grallina cyanoleuca), magpie-robins (Copsychus spp.), and of course, the Australian magpie.

In addition to the coloration, it was common for explorers and settlers to name wildlife in new places after wildlife they have back home.  The coloration and behavior of the Australian magpie probably reminded people of the magpies back home in Europe, thus the common name.  This has also happened to animals such as bison in America being called buffalo, wapiti in America being called elk (the European word for what Americans call moose), and pronghorn being called antelope.

An adult (left) and juvenile (right) Australian magpie (photos by J. J. Harrison).

So What Is An Australian Magpie?

Australian magpies are a species of butcherbird (the genus Cracticus, which means noisy or loud), within the family Artamidae, a group of birds found in Australia, the Indo-Pacific region, and Southern Asia.   The group includes the butcherbirds, peltops, currawongs (also commonly mistaken for crows/corvids), and woodswallows, some of which superficially look like crows with their long, deep bills, overall body shape, and muted colors.  These birds lack nasal bristles, which is one good indicator that they aren’t crows.  However, just because they aren’t corvids, doesn’t mean they aren’t super interesting.  In Australia and New Guinea, these birds are often found around human habitations and are a common sight, with distinct, musical calls (as evidenced in the videos above).  They are intelligent and very territorial, living in groups, and are omnivorous, eating a wide variety of invertebrates, small vertebrates, and plant matter.  Their brash personalities and playful nature certainly endear them to many people who live among them, but they can often be a nuisance, attacking people during the breeding season (only a small percent do this), displacing items in a yard, and relocating objects.  However, despite their transgressions, they are an important aboriginal symbol (playing a lead role in the Dreamtime story of The First Sunrise), and are used as a mascot for sports teams and even government.  They have also been introduced by humans into New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji.

Australian magpies (left, photo by “fir0002”) superficially look like hooded crows (right, photo by “Self”), but differ in the shape and color of the bill, color of the eyes, nasal bristles, and the distribution of light patches on the body.

Australian magpies feature prominently in human loves and culture within their range. The top photo is of a sign warning people about aggressive behavior during the breeding season (photo by Hughesdarren). Below are logos from the Condell Park Football Club, South Australian Government, and Collingwood Football Club. The official name for the bird on the South Australian flag is the “piping shrike”, which is simply another common name for the Australian magpie (which isn’t a shrike either).

So Which Magpies Are Corvids?

Even in the family Corvidae, you still run into the same naming issues. A number of corvids are named after the black-and-white, long-tailed Pica pica magpie, mostly because they either have a long tail or similar shape.  With advances in genetic and morphology studies, we know that even the “magpies” in family Corvidae may not be as closely related as they are to other corvids.  With that in mind, here are the “magpies” of the corvid family:

A family tree of genera within the family Corvidae. Highlighted in green are the “magpie” genera. Notice that only Cissa and Urocissa are closely related. This cladogram is by Jan Ekman and Per G.P Ericson from their paper “Out of Gondwanaland; the evolutionary history of cooperative breeding and social behaviour among crows, magpies, jays and allies,” published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, May 2006 (volume 273, issue 1590).

Genus Pica

This genus has magpie classic, the bird that spawned the name and caused all sorts of nomenclature confusion for us today: the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica…Latin for ‘magpie magpie’).  This genus also includes the black-billed magpie (P. hudsonia) found in western North America and the yellow-billed magpie (P. nuttalli) found only in the central valley of California.  They all look very similar, with the only major difference occurring in the yellow-billed magpie that has, well, a yellow bill, along with variation in sizes.  The Eurasian magpie is broken into many subspecies across its Eurasian range.  There are small variations such as my favorite, the blue patches found next to the eyes of some of the northern Africa subspecies, but again, they all look like a basic black and white bird with a long iridescent tail.

The Pica genus of “magpies” in the family Corvidae. This group includes the bird responsible for the name that is now synonymous with “black and white”, the Eurasian magpie (left, photo by Pierre-Selim). In the center is the black-billed magpie of North America (photo by me, Jennifer Campbell-Smith), and on the right is a photo of the yellow-billed magpie, found only in the central valley of California (photo by Bill Bouton).

Genus Cyanopica

The genus name literally means ‘blue magpie’ (though isn’t actually the most blue of the ‘magpies’ I’ll talk about, see Genus Urocissa).  Cyanopica includes the azure-winged magpie (Cyanopica cyanus…’blue magpie that is blue’) found in eastern Asia, and the Iberian magpie (C. cooki) found, shockingly, on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain and Portugal.  (Ornithologists are very creative in naming.)  Both of these species look nearly identical and were only recently broken into two species.

The Cyanopica genus of “magpies” in family Corvidae. On the left is the Azure-winged magpie of Asia (photo by J. Patrick Fischer), and on the right is the Iberian magpie found on the Iberian Peninsula of Europe (photo by “Buteo”).

Genus Cissa

This genus, which is Greek for, you guessed it, ‘magpie’, includes the four species of “green magpies” in southeast Asia.  All of these magpies have green plumage that fades to blue between molts (see the Indochinese green magpie below), red bills and legs, black masks, and russet wings.  They are as follow, the common green magpie (Cissa chinensis), Indochinese green magpie (C. hypoleuca), Javan green magpie (C. thalassina), and Bornean green magpie (C. jefferyi).

The Cissa genus of “magpies” in family Corvidae. These green magpies all resemble one another and occur in east Asia. Photos, from left to right, are by Omprakash Hatua, “Quartl”, Ingo Waschkies, and Zhong Ying Koay.

Genus Urocissa

You probably guessed that the second half of this genus name means ‘magpie’, and it does, with the first half meaning ‘tail’.  These magpies have the longest tails in the corvid family, and are quite gloriously blue, with one exception, the white-winged magpie (Urocissa whiteheadi).  The white-winged magpie seems to have exchanged its blue markings for all black, and has a noticeably shorter tail than the rest of its genus members.  All the birds in this group do have red bills and live in south Asia and India.  The Taiwan blue magpie (U. caerulea), red-billed blue magpie (U. erythroryncha), and yellow-billed blue magpie (U. flavirostris) all appear the most similar in plumage, with the Sri Lanka blue magpie (U. ornata) exchanging black markings for russet.

The Urocissa genus of “magpies” in family Corvidae. All of these birds occur throughout Asia and sport bright red bills. Photos, in clockwise order beginning from the top left are by “wagtail”, Atul Dhamankar, Thimindu , Martin Kennewell and Dibyendu Ash.

But What About Magpie-Jays?

Generally species with two animal names within their common name are a member of the last name given.  For example, naked mole-rats are rodents like rats and not insectivores like moles.  In this case, magpie-jays are most closely related to other jays in the family Corvidae than any of the so-called magpies mentioned above.  They get their common name for their long tail, which resembles the shape and length of the Eurasian magpie.  Seems for European ornithologists, the Eurasian magpie was an excellent reference bird for naming other birds in English, Latin, or Greek.

Ornithologist 1: “Has a tail sort of like a magpie from back home, boss.”
Ornithologist 2: “Alright, let’s call it the magpie-tail bird.”
Ornithologist 1: “Urocissa it is!”
Ornithologist 2: “Greek, fantastic, that classes it up a bit.”
Ornithologist 1: “How about this magpie-shaped bird with bluish wings?”
Ornithologist 2: “Cyanocissa?”
Ornithologist 1: “Naw, we already used the Greek word for magpie, how about the Latin one?”
Ornithologist 2: “Cyanopica it is!”

Thankfully the magpie-jay genus was named for the Greek meaning “beautiful jay” (Calocitta), and not for their superficial magpie-like appearance.  They are indeed quite beautiful.

I hope this post has helped clear up some confusion for my readers about common names, and the confusion those names can cause when it comes to how organisms are actually related (“eagle” is just as dubious as “magpie”, but this is a blog about corvids after all, and not birds of prey).  The confusion common and local names can cause is why scientists employ scientific naming.  The names are consistent worldwide, across language barriers, and can be changed and adapted based on new findings about how organisms are related.  This all may seem like just tedious semantics, but quite the opposite.  Understanding how organisms are related helps us better understand their behavior, evolutionary history, radiation paths, genetic predispositions, special adaptations, and so much more.  So while they are not corvids, I also encourage my readers to learn more about Australian magpies, and the other Artamids.  They have a fascinating history, set of behaviors, and of course, are important to a large chunk of peoples’ cultural identity and history.

Making Friends With Crows

It’s a lot of fun to feel like you have wild friends, and feeding birds is a great way to connect with nature.  I’ve been asked many times how to make friends with local corvids, crows in particular.  While this post is mostly aimed at American crows in North America, it’s applicable to most corvids.  However, please be aware of local laws regarding feeding birds.

The best way to get on a crow’s good side is through their stomach.  Unsalted peanuts in-shell work wonders (i.e. crow crack).  The best thing you can do is put out peanuts consistently and don’t look directly at the birds when you do so (at least initially).  Be conspicuous about you being the one to drop the food, but do not throw the food toward the crows or look at them initially, but do make sure they are in the area.  Then, go back inside.  It may take them no time at all to come to your food, or it may take them a while before they trust it.  Crows are very neophobic and suspicious, and even if it’s a food they love, they will be careful simply because it came from a human.  (I suspect if you live in an area with high traffic or restaurants nearby, they will take less time to come to your offering than if you live in a quiet, low-traffic suburban area.)

Over time they will get more comfortable with you and start to expect food from you, and from there, you can build a bond of trust.  The big thing is not startling them once you put the food out.  Eventually you can look at them, be outside when they come down, and in some cases, they might just perch nearby while you are hanging out in your yard.  Other foods that are great for them are things like dog and cat food (high protein) and even cooked eggs and egg shells (especially during the spring).  Cheeze puffs and cheezits also tend to be a favorite, though I can’t say much about their health value.

A word of caution: You may alter social dynamics.  Neighbor crows may get wind of what you are doing and challenge the family that normally occupies your yard.  If you provide too much food, your home may become a communal site, and the number of crows can get out of control.  Use your best judgement and I recommend just feeding a particular amount on a schedule and maybe supplementing them as you see them, to build your relationship.  Another thing to keep in mind is the dynamics with your neighbors.  Most people are fine with occasional feedings, but sometimes neighbors get upset if too many crows hang around for too long.  Be mindful of your neighbors, and better yet, as you build your relationship with the crows think about educating your neighbors and getting them interested in your new buddies too.

Observing crow families and getting to know their individual personalities is highly rewarding.  Having them trust you enough to use your yard as a safe haven for foraging and eventually, even bringing their young kids around is especially rewarding.  Enjoy and I hope this helps you make some new, wild friends!

Luta Bird Conservation

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that some crows are among the most endangered birds on the planet, such as the ʻAlalā, or Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis) and the Mariana crow, or Aga (Corvus kubaryi).  A colleague and friend, Sarah Faegre was kind enough to send me information on the new non-profit she and Phil Hannon have created for the conservation of Mariana crows.  I asked Sarah to please send me information so I could spread the word, especially since they are doing incredible work with the local community to spread the message of conservation and coexistence.  Here is what Sarah had to say:


Luta Bird Conservation Inc. (LBC) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, created by Sarah Faegre and Phil Hannon to raise funds to conserve endangered birds and their habitats by working with the human communities surrounding them. LBC’s first project is the conservation of the Aga (Mariana Crow, Corvus kubaryi) on Rota, Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands (CNMI). Specifically, LBC’s aim is to use education and community outreach to involve local people directly in research and management of the Aga on Rota. The Aga is the only crow species in Micronesia and is endemic Rota and Guam, to the two southernmost islands of the Mariana Islands archipelago. Once common on both Guam and Rota, the Aga was extirpated from Guam by the Brown Tree Snake (Boiga irregularis). The Aga now exists on only Rota, an 86-square-kilometer island. Rota does not have snakes, but other problems, such as feral cats, human persecution and habitat changes (among other possible causes) have caused a steep decline on Rota as well. As of 2014, an estimated 130 individuals remain on this small island (and in the world) and the population is still declining.

The majority of the funding for Aga conservation comes from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the CNMI Department of Lands and Natural Resources. However these funds are limited and, in particular, education and community involvement has been underutilized. Community outreach and education are extremely important; without the support of the local people the Aga is unlikely to survive. Currently, a high percentage of the local population has a negative view of the Aga, due to land-use conflicts and due to conflicts between federal and state-run governmental programs. LBC’s goals include working in the schools to help kids understand the value of the Aga and to encourage them to take pride in their native animals by working with biologists and educating their peers.

Sarah Faegre taught with fellow biologist Andria Kroner (and Sunny, the captive Aga) on behalf of Luta Bird conservation

Many mainland residents may think that crows are everywhere and shouldn’t need much extra help to survive alongside people. In fact, these beliefs are also common among the local population on Rota, due to the lack of education about the uniqueness of Rota’s Aga. The the appearance may be similar to the casual observer, the Aga is quite different from the crows of the mainland US. Aga do not gather in large groups, but stick to their family unit and small home range area in the jungle. They have unique foraging abilities, such as opening hard-shelled hermit crabs with their beak. Since Aga evolved without predators for thousands of years, they lost their vigilance behaviors and are now unable to protect themselves from introduced predators.

Sunny, the Aga, acting as an ambassador for his species to a classroom of children.

LBC’s recent activities include raising funds for Aga T-shirts that kids and adults can wear, in hopes that we can spread knowledge and pride about this unique crow species. The painting used for the T-shirt was created by artist, biologist and Corvid expert Jennifer Campbell-Smith. The painting depicts an adult Aga (foreground) and fledgling Aga (background). The adult is cracking open a hermit crab while the fledgling observes. The design surrounding the painting depicts some of the Aga’s common food items and also the Brown Tree Snake, the invasive species that resulted in the extirpation of the Aga (and other native birds) from Guam. Luckily the Brown Tree Snake is not present on Rota and with the help of the local community, we still have time to save the species. The Chamorro phrase at the top of the T-shirts translates to: “Make Rota Beautiful”, which a common motto of Rota island.


Of Jackdaws

A juvenile western jackdaw (Corvus monedula spermologus) is served water by some nice humans in Supetar, Croatia.

While jackdaws are still listed as in the genus Corvus (with other crows) in most literature, many workers argue that the two species of jackdaw (western, C. monedula, and daurian, C. dauuricus) should be in their own genus Coloeus.  Indeed, they have long been listed in the ‘sub-genus’ Coloeus and a 2007 paper looking at the genetic diversity, using mitochondrial DNA of certain species of corvids, supports the assertion that jackdaws should be in their own genus.  In fact, the International Ornithological Union and Birds of South Asia: The Ripley Guide by Rasmussen and Anderton both list them as genus Coloeus.

Semantics aside, these small corvids have long been recognized as being morphologically distinct from the rest of the genus Corvus.  They are small (the smallest of genus Corvus) and very sociable; as evidenced by this video.  They are a common urban bird and thrive just as well in human dominated landscapes as they do in remote landscapes, like a number of other corvids.  However, jackdaws also differ from other crows in that they nest in crevices/holes, much to the distress of many a chimney-owner.

And while I’m on the topic of crows that are proposed as distinct from the others, another sub-genus, Corvultur, has been previously proposed for the fan-tailed raven (C. rhipidurus), white-necked raven (C. albicollis), and thick-billed raven (C. crassirostris) due to their close geographical relationship and unusually thick bills.  However, this division is not very robust, and a 2012 study placed white-necked and thick-billed ravens as closely related, but fan-taileds sorted out closer to pied crows (C. albus) and then common ravens (C. corax) and brown-necked ravens (C. ruficollis).  However, unlike the Corvultur, both jackdaw species still remained very distinct from the rest of genus Corvus, forming the most basal group.

All of that said…I hope you enjoy this video of a jackdaw getting a nice cool drink of water after coercing some primates into opening a bottle and pouring a cap-full for it.

(Preview image for this post by John Haslam from Dornoch, Scotland.)

Photo copyright Jolyon Troscianko

Regarding Tool Manufacture and New Caledonian Crows

I tend to leave incidental posts, responses to Tumblr posts, and Tumblr replies to the Tumblr incarnation of this blog, trying to keep this official space more for original content and longer posts.  However, this reply was lengthy enough and contained enough original material beyond the initial reply that I thought it would be good to post it here.

This comment is a reply to my correction of the source page for the incorrect NowYouKno “fact” on Tumblr.

I appreciate you pointing out this distinction, though manufacture versus use is sort of a continuum, depending on how we are defining “manufacture”.  It is true that New Caledonian crows are amazing tool makers (something I give lectures about on a nearly annual basis when I talk about animal culture), but more than three species make tools.  Chimpanzees, of course, are tool makers, along with documentation of manufacture in orangutans, mandrills, and Asian elephants.  This is leaving out animals that develop tools or can be taught to develop tools in captivity (ex. bonobos, hyacinth macaws, and a Goffin’s cockatoo, just to name a few).  Also depending on how complex the manufacture, gorillas have been observed breaking off large sticks for stabilization, woodpecker finches have to break off cactus spines to use them (and more recently they are modifying non-native blackberry spines), and bottle-nosed dolphins have to select and break sponges off their substrate to use them.  I still assert that we will probably find a lot more tool use and manufacture in the wild, the more chances we get to observe different species in the wild.  There are certainly many anecdotal and incidental observations of many more species creating and using tools.  However, what you have to keep in mind is that if an animal gets along fine without making and using tools, then there’s not point in them doing so.  Tool manufacture and modification, while really cool to us, isn’t always necessary for other animals.  In chimpanzees and humans, for example, tool use is integral in how we forage and exist in the world, but for other species tool manufacture and use may only be needed on occasion, when a situation calls for it.

In the case of New Caledonian crows, they, like woodpecker finches, live in places that lack woodpeckers.  This is significant because it leaves open the niche that specializes in locating, removing, and eating wood boring insects.  Rather than spending the time to evolve physical adaptations to do this (like woodpeckers have) these two species use tools to the same ends.  Arguably, there is a distinction between woodpecker finches (which are actually most likely in the tanager family, despite the common name) and New Caledonian crows when it comes to the cognitive department.

What happens when nature takes a bird, already a part of a large-brained, cognitively complex genus of birds (Corvus) and puts it on an island that has a goldmine of a niche to fill?  You get the incredible New Caledonian crow (Corvus moneduloides).

(Photo copyright Jolyon Troscianko)

Drs. Russell Gray and Gavin Hunt observed these birds in the wild manufacturing and using tools.  The earliest documented account of tool us in NC crows was by an explorer who reported the use of anvil sites to crack open nuts and snails in 1882.  In 1909 Le Goupils observed NC crows probing a dead log with a stick-tool (reported in 1928) and Orenstein gave a more detailed report on crow tool-use in 1972, but it was Hunt (his first study published in 1996) and Gray who brought attention to these incredible corvids and who still do work on them today.  In 2000, birds were taken from New Caledonia and sent to England to be studied by Alex Kacelnik‘s Behavioral Ecology Research Group (BERG) at the University of Oxford.  Two of these birds were Betty and Abel.  Betty blew the minds of the world when she spontaneously bent a metal wire into a hook to retrieve food after Abel made off with the hooked tool.

Part of the reason the NC crows were brought into captivity by Kacelnik was to see if the tool behaviors were innate or due to complex cognition and problem solving, or even if they were cultural as Gray and Hunt suggested.  The BERG found that young NC crows, with no training or example, had a proclivity for tearing materials and probing holes with other objects.

So if the birds could manufacture and use tools completely on their own, what makes them more noteworthy than woodpecker finches or other animals that innately use tools?  What makes them rival and often exceed chimps in the cognitive department?  Tradition, the understanding of the functional properties of their tools, innovative use of tools, and cumulative tool evolution all combine to make NC crows stars in the world of animal cognition.

Gray and Hunt found that different tool types were being used by NC crows in different regions of New Caledonia.  These tool types were not reproduced by Kacelnik’s captive crows, which lends more support to those tools’ forms being based on a tradition, or culture, rather than just a genetic ability to make them (after all, humans babble as a precursor to language).  NC crows also understand the functional properties of the tools they use and make.  They use a range of materials and techniques for making tools, demonstrating that it’s the crow that decides on the tool, not the material.  Understanding of the functional properties of their tool was also demonstrated by Betty bending the wire, and again in further experiments.  One experiment even showed that the crows could determine the rigidity of tools that would be appropriate for a task.  Finally, NC crows show cumulative tool evolution, something we humans still clung to as unique to us.  Cumulative tool evolution is the ability to take a tool and modify it to a different or better function and build on previous technology.  The tools that were created by precisely snipping and tearing Pandanus spp. tree leaves (the form of which were not replicated by Kacelnik’s captive birds) showed strong evidence of enhancement over time.  Hunt and Gray found and compared tool types and their functions from all over the island, including historical records of negatives left in leaves up to four years old.  Their findings suggest that the Pandanus tools have had significant improvement on their shape and functionIf this doesn’t blow your mind, I don’t know what will!!

Researchers have since found evidence of cumulative tool evolution in chimpanzees as well.  And thus, the battle for most cognitively complex non-human tool user rages on between chimpanzees and NC crows.  In recent years, the ability to use tools to get tools (or meta-tool use) has been a focus of attention, with several studies demonstrating that NC crows can figure out what tool they need for a task, and use other tools to get the appropriate tool (here’s a video).  There have also been studies into the brains of New Caledonian crows, among other cognitive work that shows that these birds are truly complex animals that blur the line between human and non-human intelligence and understanding of the world around them.  Click here for The University of Auckland’s page on NC Crow research still run by Gray and Hunt, and here for a list of their publications which go well beyond what I’ve related to you here.  Both researchers at The University of Auckland and The University of Oxford are continuing work on these birds, so you should keep an eye out for their continued publications and findings.

I’m a huge fan of NC crows, if it wasn’t apparent.  One of my most treasured possessions is a genuine Pandanus tool made by a New Caledonian crow.  I even had one of Hunt and Gray’s papers signed (how big of a nerd can I be?), but that was sadly destroyed in a flood.  It is a life goal to make it to New Caledonia and observe these birds in the wild.  Thank you Pamela Turner for giving me an excuse to blather about NC crows and I hope all of you who read this now appreciate them as much as I do!