Nature Notes: Holy Crow!

Crows are capable of identifying individual humans by their faces. Durell Godfrey

    Scientists have told us that crows are the birds most susceptible to catching and dying from the West Nile virus. Humans get immunized against most diseases. Most farm animals, including poultry, are vaccinated against this and that disease, but not wild animals. They get it or they don’t. In the wild there are no doctors or nurses. If an animals comes down with something, say rabies, distemper, wasting disease, or heartworm, there is a very good chance that it will be fatal.
    Mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus have been biting American crows for more than 10 years, but judging by the size and vigor of the local crow population, you would never know it. Natural selection has obviously been at work. Today’s crows look to be more vigorous, noisier, and more aggressive than the ones around before the virus got loose in America, supposedly at the Bronx Zoo. It’s called survival of the fittest and it’s always at work in nature.
    Every morning throughout the year, as soon as dawn breaks, the crows start calling around my house. After a few minutes the calls become a racket. The racket persists for an hour or more before things start quieting down. And it’s not just “caw, caw, caw” as in the old days. It’s a collage of caws, cackles, guttural staccatos, and doublet ack-acks in a chain that seemingly goes on nonstop forever. These crow choruses can be quite annoying, and it’s hard to figure out just why they make so much noise for so long.
    Jays are in the same family as crows, and they too make a lot of different sounds, the prettiest of which is a singsong two-note whistle. They also imitate the calls of red-tailed hawks and other birds. We know when they are scolding and when they are merely announcing their presence. Crows, however, are much more complicated.
    Crows can actually be taught to talk in the way parrots can talk, that is, to mimic the human voice. They’re not nearly as good at it as parrots, but one can make out the very few words they’re capable of learning and repeating. And you don’t have to slit their tongues as has been done in the past to make them parrot-like.
    They are very clever, among the smartest of birds.
    For a long time we have known that crows are capable of counting. For example, if five men go into a crow blind, the crows remain wary until the five men walk out and go away. Lately, it has been shown that in addition to counting, they are capable of identifying individual humans by their faces. Can you identify individual crows by their faces? I doubt it. When someone they are leery of comes into sight they sound a warning call. A boyhood friend, Noel Albrecht, had a crow for a couple of years that would come to him when he called and land on his wrist. When he was with a bunch of other kids, the crow would pick him out from the others and fly directly to him, maybe land on his shoulder.
    Crows are like sentries; they are ever vigilant. When I walk out my door and get in my pickup to drive to work, a crow observes me from one of the trees in my neighborhood. If they call when I appear, I call back. As a boy I practiced my crow call by bouncing it off a barn a couple hundred yards across the field from my house in Mattituck. The call would come back as an echo and I would work at it until the echo sounded exactly like a crow.
    I was a hunter and would go out with a friend on Sundays when there was no season on crows. I would call and call, a long dragged-out descending call, the call of a crow in trouble, and soon there would be a passel of them circling and diving overhead. My friend was a good shot. I would call. He would shoot. Soon there would be a dead crow or two at our feet.
    This morning when thinking about crows while still in bed, I thought of one of the greatest authorities on crows I’ve ever known. He’s had a few as pets over the years and knows their language and their ways. One has to be a very good observer to know the behavior of crows. It wasn’t more than 20 minutes or so of crow thought, when I got a phone call. It was the crow guru. He’d been out scouting for crow nests. He found a couple of active red-tailed hawk nests but none of crows. To borrow a phrase from the 1960s, we were apparently on the same wavelength.
    Who is this crow guru who picked up my very thoughts (or I his) 15 miles away? I won’t tell you his name, but he’s one of the smartest and most fascinating individuals I have ever met, and I’ve been to a lot of places in my 75 years. I will tell you that he’s the official East Hampton Town Historian. You figure it out. Caw, caw, caw.