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NATURE NOTE - Number 64 March 14, 2023
Sometimes we see an animal that we ignore because they are common and we don’t think much about them. Rabbits, squirrels, Robins, and Cardinals might all fall into this category. But sometimes one of these species can be very interesting when you start looking into details about them. One of these is ….
Our current topic: Crows, and some of their kin
First let’s briefly talk about the whole family (Corvidae). It includes Crows, Ravens, many species of jays, and Magpies. We don’t have Magpies in our area, and only one of the jays: the Blue Jay. You need to go out west to find other species of jays (Steller’s Jay, Pinyon Jay, etc.) and the colorful long-tailed Magpie. All members of the family seem to be rather loud, smart, and gregarious. Crows and jays will frequently gather in a “mob” to counter a threat such as an owl, a snake or the family cat they find in their territory. But in this NOTE let’s concentrate on the crows and ravens we have in western and central Virginia.
First is the common American Crow. This is the large (17-21”) one we see in most any area, often in small, or sometimes large, flocks with a look-out posted on a high point nearby. Note that crows don’t soar like some hawks. They may cavort around some while in the air, but they are usually headed in a specific direction rather than loitering overhead. These birds, like their kin, are among the most intelligent of all birds. They can mimic human voices and carry off things that attract them, like shiny objects. Don’t leave your ear ring on the picnic table. They are rather tolerant of humans in most locations. In our area crows don’t migrate, since they will eat most anything (omnivores), including carrion. They can be a threat to agricultural crops, but can also eat an enormous amount of grasshoppers and other harmful insects. Their nests are usually roughly made of sticks high in a variety of trees. Their voice is the famous “caw, caw, caw”, although they have a large array of sounds and calls.
The similar, but smaller Fish Crow (less than 17”) is more common in the eastern part of our state, but it is not unusual to find them in the Piedmont, especially near rivers or bodies of water. Other than size, which is hard to judge without the two species standing side-by-side, the voice is a main factor in distinguishing this from the American Crow. The Fish Crow has a higher pitched, often two-note nasal “kwok”.
Now the raven. This is the famous bird from Native American lore, Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, and the 400-year-old legend about ravens at the Tower of London. They have a worldwide distribution but are not common locally except in the highest and most remote locations of the mountains crossing western Virginia. So it is possible to see these large (21-27”) birds along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in the higher parts of Southwest Virginia, and infrequently on the Blue Ridge Scout Reservation. The Common Raven population in the east dropped for many years, but is now making a comeback as the birds seem to be more tolerant of human activity. This shows their ability to adapt and thus survive. In addition to being larger than the American Crow, there are several characteristics that set the two species apart, some of which may not always be easy to see at a distance. First is the beak. The Common Raven has a large, heavy beak that appears to merge into the bird’s head between its eyes, higher than it should be. This is mostly a bristle, seen only at close range. Also at close range, you may see the raven’s shaggy throat feathers. The tail shape while the bird is in flight is also significant. The Common Raven has a wedge-shaped tail while the American Crow has a fan-shaped tail. And remember, the American Crow never soars, while the Common Raven soars frequently and displays acrobatic stunts. Crows are frequently seen in flocks or family groups, while ravens are less likely to be seen in groups. Raven nesting sites are usually in tall conifers or rock ledges high on a mountain. As with the Fish Crow, the voice of the Common Raven may set it off from the American Crow as well, but since all of these birds have a rather wide range of sounds, this can be tricky. The raven has, among other sounds, a low, drawn-out “croak”. It seems that even individual birds can have their own sounds not common to others in their group, and some sources say there are dialects in different areas.
While other species, such as the Chichuahuan Raven and the Northwest Crow, are found in the far west, we can experience and enjoy some of this bird family quite easily in our own backyard. Watch for them.
As stated in the opening paragraph, sometimes we overlook “common” nature because it is…well…common. But when you can, take advantage of some of these animals to point things out to scouts and ask probing questions that can make them think, such as what do they eat, do they hibernate, where do they den or nest, how do they communicate? You may not have all the answers, and NATURE NOTES may not have covered it either, but maybe, just maybe, the scout will go searching on his or her own to find out more about some common animal. It’s easy to find an American Crow on an outing. Point it out and start exploring rather than saying “it’s just a crow”.
Your thoughts and comments are always welcome at
NATURE NOTES are posted to the BRMC web site on the 14th and 28th of each month for scout leaders. The intent is to provide these leaders with information they can use to pass on to their scouts as they see fit and as opportunities are presented during scouting activities. Please include exposure to nature as part of your scouting program.
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