Tag Archives: magpie

An Introduction To Corvids

I am beyond, and I mean beyond flattered and excited that Audubon California featured my blog on their FaceBook page (THANK YOU!).  With such an influx of new viewers, it made me realize a brief introduction to corvids might be in order, for general knowledge.  Some of you may already know this information, but I think it’s worthwhile putting out there for people just getting interested in corvids, and birds in general.

Edit: I don’t follow Twitter, so I just got word that apparently my blog has also been getting tweeted around there.  WOW!  THANK YOU EVERYONE!!!!

So just what are Corvids?

Corvids are a group of birds, specifically birds found in the family Corvidae, which is a subgroup of the much larger group of perching/songbirds (Passerines).  Members of the corvidae include crows, ravens, magpies, jays, treepies, choughs, nutcrackers, the piapiac, and the Stresemann’s bushcrow.  This means that all of these birds share a common corvid ancestor that radiated into ~23 genera containing ~126 species originating in the Australasian region of the world (now found everywhere except Antarctica).  This means this blog has a lot of species to draw from and talk about.  Of course, the most charismatic and well-known of the corvids are the crows (which includes the ravens, rook, and jackdaws), as well as jays and magpies.  I hope to touch on at least some of the lesser-known corvids and convince you that they too are interesting!

Let’s take a moment to get something clear about magpies.  Not all birds with the word “magpie” in the name are corvids.  You have magpie geese, magpie shrikes, and, of course, the Australian magpie, none of which are corvids!  I can’t tell you how many times I find articles about corvids that feature an Australian magpie or a currawong (or any kind of Cracticid) photograph to accompany.  However, you now know that they are not corvids!  Go forth and correct your friends and family!  BE that guy/gal! 😉

 

Why do you care about them so much?  Why should I care about them?

Personally, I find them endlessly fascinating.  Corvids have such rich social structure, behavior, and ecology, and many members have shown feats of intelligence that rivals, and sometimes exceeds, that of many primates (including chimpanzees!).  How’s that for bird-brained?  I also find them aesthetically beautiful.  You may wonder what’s so beautiful about big black birds, but their form is so elegant and many of the corvids are actually quite colorful!  The oriental magpies and the new world jays have an astonishing array of colors, interesting crests, and some have extravagantly long tails.  However, my heart truly does belong to those “big, black birds”…so I have to admit that this blog will likely be biased toward them.  (I have spent the past six years of my life studying a population of wild American crows [Corvus brachyrhynchos] and every passing day they just endear themselves to me more and more.)

You should probably care because corvids play interesting roles in the ecology of the natural world and, like any other species, warrant study and investigation to understand them further.  Closer to home, you should probably care because you likely have corvids in your backyard, neighborhood, park, city, etc.  Many corvids have adapted to the challenges of human-dominated environments and thrived.  Because of their ability to take advantage of us, corvids are featured porminently in our myth, folklore, and are deeply embedded in much of our past and current culture.  These are birds that made our ancestors sit up and take notice (mostly by stealing our food and being a general nuisance of themselves), and I think it’s just as important to notice them today.  The secret lives of these birds are endlessly fascinating and will likely surprise you!

So, I hope you enjoy this blog and learn something about my favorite group of birds.  I hope they become your favorite group too!

Finally, here is a photo of a posture crows take on when they are observing humans…because I really like pictures.

 

Corvid Noses

Mostly because I can, and also because it is a pet peeve of mine.NO NOSTRILS!!!

Quote from: Madge, S. and Burn, H. 1999. Crows & Jays. Princeton University Press, New Jersey. [link]

Photo credits:

Black Currawong: JJ Harrison via Wikimedia Commons
Australian magpie: Aviceda via Wikimedia Commons

Blue Jay: DickDaniels via Wikimedia Commons
Green Jay: Alan Wilson via Wikimedia Commons
Eurasian Jay: Mark Medcalf via Wikimedia Commons
Clark’s Nutcracker: Jason Popesku via Wikimedia Commons
Black-Billed Magpie: David Merrett via Wikimedia Commons
Green Magpie: Thomas Ruedas via Wikimedia Commons
Rufous Treepie: Jon Connell via Wikimedia Commons
Pander’s Ground-Jay: Alastair Rae via Wikimedia Commons
Alpine Chough: Ken Billington via Wikimedia Commons

Common Raven: David Hofmann via Wikimedia Commons
American Crow: cuatrok77 hernandez via Wikimedia Commons
Jackdaw: Tony Hisgett via Wikimedia Commons
House Crow: J.M.Garg via Wikimedia Commons
Jungle Crow: aomorikuma via Wikimedia Commons
White-Billed Crow: Josep del Hoyo via The Internet Bird Collection
New Caledonian Crow: original author unknown via Google Search
Pied Crow: Lip Kee Yap via Wikimedia Commons
White-Necked Raven: Greg Hume via Wikimedia Commons
Thick-Billed Raven: original author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons
White-Necked Crow: ZankaM via Wikimedia Commons
Australian Raven: Brett Donald via Wikimedia Commons

Rook: Andreas Trepte
Grey Crow: Brian J. Coates via The Internet Bird Collection
Grey Crow: mehdhalaouate via The Internet Bird Collection

Mobbing Predators

Oh no, a not-corvid!  However, I thought I’d share what has been keeping me so busy.  Meet Rusty, my red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), beautifully photographed by my friend Melissa Penta

My husband and I obtained our apprentice falconry licenses and Rusty here is our first bird.  He’s a juvenile (hatched in the wild this April or May) and was trapped in January.  He’s a small male and his personality has made him an absolute delight to work with.  If you have any questions about falconry, feel free to ask, however, since this IS a corvid blog, I’m going to briefly talk about the relationship between these guys and corvids.

I’m sure if you have spent any time observing or reading about crows you know they exhibit mobbing behavior.  This means they dive-bomb, peck, chase, and scream at predators they find threatening, even going after predators many times their own size.  (I have certainly been mobbed during banding season!)  What makes it “mobbing” behavior is that they recruit family, friends, and neighbors to help them drive the predator away, or anything perceived as a threat, no matter how seemingly benignSmaller crows will even mob bigger crows.  It’s not just the crows that do this, many corvids show this behavior such as magpies and jays (but seriously, what won’t jays scream at?), however, this post will focus on crows.

This behavior often looks quite dickish, as many times the target of the crows’ ire is simply sitting still in a tree or trying to eat a meal.  However, raptors are quite a threat to crows.  Even if one may seem too small to be a threat you need to keep in mind that raptors are quite powerful for their size (here is a video of a sparrowhawk on a jackdaw; please note this is a predator/prey interaction video and it may be distressing to sensitive viewers…though spoiler alert, the jackdaw survives).  Even cousins aren’t sacred as ravens are often chased off as vigorously as a raptor because they can certainly be a threat (here is a juvenile raven eating a fledgling crow).

So, is it a mystery why crows might act so defensively to any predator/threat they see?  Not really.  I find anti-predator behaviors quite interesting.  When mobbing occurs (note: this is also seen in other animal taxa, not limited to corvids or even birds) you don’t just see kin helping kin, you sometimes see entire communities of unrelated individuals banding together to make their neighborhoods safer.  Sounds a lot like what we do!

So as I fly Rusty and hunt small game with him I fully expect to get some crow visitors who are none too pleased to have a hawk in their domain (in fact we’ve already had a few at a local park), but in the end, can we really blame them?

Tail Pulling

Crows (meaning Corvus, not just the crows with the common name “crow”) pull tails.  It’s like they can’t help themselves.  If there is a tail, it must be pulled:

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Magpies in the genus Pica (the holarctic magpies) do this behavior as well, which is impressive, considering how much smaller they are.  One advantage they have is a small size that lets them get off the ground and away from their target a lot quicker.

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And apparently all tails are fair game, I guess there is truly “no honor among thieves”:

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Usually when you see this behavior it’s in the context of food.  A crow or magpie will pull another animal’s tail in order to distract it from it’s food and steal it (this sometimes occurs alone or in teams).  Here’s a video of a raven stealing a bald eagle’s food. This behavior is so common it’s noted in many scientific papers, with a nice summary from Lawrence Kilham in his 1989 book The American Crow and the Common Raven, page 34-35:

Tail pulling is a habit common to a number of corvids (Goodwin 1976). The crow that robbed the otter by pulling its tail could have done so by happenstance or as a deliberate piece of strategy.  It is hard to know.  The crows had pulled the otters’ tails many times before, to no seeming purpose except an urge, shared by Black-Billed Magpies (Lorenz 1970) and Common Ravens, to provoke animals larger than themselves, whether there is any immediate advantage to doing so or not.  Bent (1946) reported three Common Ravens robbing a dog of a bone, one bird pulling the dog’s tail while others stood by its head.  It is conceivable that crows, like ravens, are capable after trial and error of seizing upon the right movement for pulling a tail to advantage.  Another use of tail pulling can be to get a larger bird or mammal to move from a carcass, as I describe later for Common Ravens contending with Turkey Vultures and as Hewson (1981) did for Hooded Crows contending with a Buzzard.  Goodwin (1976) described crows and magpies pulling the tails of mobbing predators. 

The behavior appears to be innate, for one of my hand-raised crows pulled a sheep’s tail and a hand-raised raven a cat’s tail when they were less than three months of age.

But honestly?  I think they just do it for fun, or simply can’t help their natural inclination for causing trouble 😉

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Because clearly some animals just deserve it (read: squirrels are annoying and their tails are irresistibly fluffy).  Cats are also fun targetsSparrow-hawks too.  (And even if the tail is hard to find, they will seek it out.)  … …and Foxes.

Just another reason to love corvids 😉

Photo credits (each photo is clickable, but since this post has become so popular, I’d like to have clear written credits as well):
Bald eagle – Paul Getman
Cat – Unknown; if you know original photographer, please let me know!
Steller’s Sea Eagle – Isobel Wayrick
White-tailed Eagle (and hooded crow) – Eric (“wildscot”)
White-tailed Eagle (and raven) – James Brier Irps
Bald eagle (and magpie) – Meg Sommers
Common Buzzard – John Hawkins
Magpie and Hooded Crow – Ralf Weise
Chihuahua and Raven GIF – Unknown; if you know who made the GIF or took the original video, please let me know!

Black-Billed Magpie

A beautiful photo by Ron Dudley, of a black-billed magpie!