This is a special guest post by fellow corvid researcher Matthew Brown. Matt is a PhD candidate at Griffith University’s Environmental Futures Research Institute in Brisbane, Queensland and studies Torresian crows (Corvus orru). I asked him to write about Australian crows and his research for this blog and he was kind enough to do so. Enjoy!!
For the past three years I have been studying one of the most common birds on the Australian continent, the Torresian crow. Crows have become extremely common in Australia over the past two decades, nowhere moreso than in the Queensland capital city of Brisbane. A subtropical city of two million people, Brisbane provides enough lawns and rubbish to support enormous populations of crows and other scavengers. Such is the abundance of crows and their interaction with humans so common that the Queensland Government Department of Environment and Heritage Protection has a “Living with Crows” page on its website.
Five species of corvid exist in Australia, including three sedentary species: the Torresian crow (Corvus orru), Australian raven (C. coronoides) and Forest raven (C. tasmanicus), and two smaller nomadic species, the Little crow (C. bennetti) and Little raven (C. mellori). Only the Torresian crow exists in Brisbane.
Despite having the names crows and ravens, these five species are a monophyletic clade, which means they all come from the same ancestor. So an Australian raven is more closely related to the Torresian crow than to, say the common raven (C. corax) from the Northern Hemisphere. The exception to this being that the Torresian crow also exists in Papua New Guinea, as a separate subspecies.
The five species are best identified by their geographic location, but also their calls. Each species have very distinct, though extremely complex and variable, calls which can’t really be mistaken for each other (with the possible exception of the Australian raven and little raven).
The current theory about how, after crossing over from PNG, the corvids split into five species across Australia is explained in-depth in the late Ian Rowley’s paper “Why five species?”
Torresian crows, while territorial, spend the night in permanent communal roosts scattered throughout Brisbane. These vary widely in size, and can contain anything from a few dozen to 200 birds. The roosts are often also shared with rainbow lorikeets and ibis.
All Australian corvids hatch with blue eyes as chicks, then change to the juvenile brown, then the adolescent hazel before finally becoming the adult white with a blue inner ring at about 2 years old. The process is the same for all 5 species, though the exact time of each stage varies. This is the easiest method to tell the juveniles apart from the adults. Early European scientists used to consider them separate species (the brown-eyed crow and the white-eyed crow) before they finally figured it out.
Juvenile crows stay with their parents for approximately six months, though this appears to be highly variable. After leaving, they join what are known as ‘juvenile gangs’, which often congregate around shopping centres or parks, areas with a large amount of human scraps. One of the largest of these gangs permanently live in the South Bank Parklands. The Queensland Government estimates that crows have a 95% infant mortality rate, though those surviving to adulthood (2 years old) can live up to 30 years.
Compared to the extensive research conducted on New Caledonian crows, American crows, common ravens etc, very little is known about the Torresian crow. Because of this, my studies are focussing predominantly on replicating Northern Hemisphere studies on this species. These include:
- Testing for mirror self-recognition.
- Testing the insight hypothesis through string-pulling experiments.
- Testing quantity discrimination and symbol recognition.
In addition, I have already undertaken a study comparing neophobia (a fear of novel objects) in Torresian crows with other non-corvid corvines including butcherbirds, currawongs and Australian magpies. The extreme neophobia present in crows has made working with wild birds very difficult, requiring an extensive familiarisation process. My study of the Torresian crow’s vocalisation system also revealed not only extraordinary diversity in calls, but suggested the presence of a nested hierarchy similar to that deemed present in American crows by researchers in the United States. Professor John Marzluff described crows as likely possessing a basic form of language, and on the surface at least it appears that Torresian crows can match or even surpass their American cousins in this regard.
Torresian crows have already shown some of the remarkable qualities expressed in their overseas cousins. The invasion of North-Eastern Australia by cane toads has been disastrous for all native fauna, except the crow. Crows in Eastern Queensland were first recorded to be flipping toads onto their backs, allowing them to peck at their bellies and avoid the poisonous glands on their backs. Very soon after, much sooner than one would expect, crows as far as Darwin were performing the same behaviour. How the information spread so far so quickly is unknown. Crows have also been reported unzipping school bags and stealing food from children’s lunchboxes, and working as a team to move large carrion off of rural roads, while one acts as a sentry warning of oncoming traffic.
My own observations have confirmed that Torresian crows can recognise friendly or unfriendly human faces and act accordingly, though are extremely wary of all humans that pay them any attention. The infamous crow funerals appear to be present in Brisbane as well, though crows being hit by a car or electrocuted is quite rare.
Crows are a joy to study anywhere in the world, but in Australia there is a level of mystery that makes it all the more rewarding. So little is known about the crow that everything is a new discovery, and provides an intriguing comparison with better-known species from the Northern Hemisphere and in New Caledonia.