Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Adirondack Crows, Ravens, and Jays

While most people like birds, some are totally ga-ga over them, while others downright fear them. When it comes to the corvids, though – birds informally known as members of the “crow family” – it seems it’s an either/or situation: either people hate them because they are “cruel,” “mean,” “vicious” birds, or they are intrigued by them because they are “clever,” “intelligent,” and “ingenious.” Somewhere in the mix, the truth lies.

Here in the Adirondacks we are lucky to have four species of corvids: ravens, crows, blue jays and gray jays. A fifth species, the fish crow, is listed as “rare” in the Lake Champlain Basin, so we can consider it an Adirondack possibility, but one exhibiting low probability. A more southern species, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the fish crow became a more frequent visitor to our region, along with vultures and cardinals, as our climate continues to change.

I will put it right out there up front that I happen to fall into the category of those who think the corvids are pretty nifty birds. They are large, they are flashy (well, in the East only the blue jay is really flashy, but out west, down south, and overseas there are corvids that are practically parrot-like in their plumage), and they are intelligent. They operate in family groups, they exhibit cooperation and compassion, and watching them solve a puzzle (how to extricate a peanut from a somewhat complicated feeder, for example) is nothing short of delightful.

Intelligence is something that we humans have been trying for centuries to assert as being a trait only associated with us. If we can deny that other animals are “intelligent,” then we can maintain our belief that we are the superior species on the planet. So we come up with rules and categories that quantify intelligence: language, problem-solving, the use of tools. Well, guess what? During the last several decades many biologists and animal behaviorists have studied and tested these birds, and corvids meet all the criteria.

I’ve just read a wonderful book about this family of birds, Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays, by Candace Savage. She shares with me a fascination and delight in corvids, and because she wondered about their supposed intelligence, she waded through many scientific journals and scholarly writings, talked to corvid experts, and conducted her own observations. The final analysis is that crows and their cousins have been proven to be at least as intelligent as primates, which are next in line behind humans.

One of the things that has always been held up as the ultimate “proof” that birds could not be intelligent (everything they do must be genetically programmed) is the lack of a highly developed cerebral cortex. In mammals, this part of the brain is the key to intelligence; the bigger the cerebral cortex, the greater the intelligence. It turns out that birds, however have something else: the hyperstriatum. Just like the cerebral cortex in mammals, the larger the hyperstriatum, the greater the bird’s intelligence, and corvids are found at the high end of the scale, especially crows, ravens and magpies.

I see and hear crows, ravens and blue jays on an almost daily basis, although lately the blue jays have been pretty scarce. Earlier this summer they were a dime a dozen, for the young had fledged and the family groups were foraging all around the area, the young squawking and demanding food from their frazzled parents. It wasn’t until talking to one of our regular visitors last week that it dawned on me that it’s been many days since my last jay sighting. We decided it must be food related – the birds have probably flown to other parts of the Park in search of edibles.

The crows, on the other hand, have been exploiting all available food sources with aplomb. As the ultimate opportunistic feeders, nothing is too good for a crow. I came across one source that claimed crows have a diet of 600 or more different items. No doubt this contributes to their success. Currently they have been exploiting my yard, specifically the unripe apples that have fallen from my trees. I just hope they leave a few behind for me.

Ravens are the newcomers to the area. It’s only been within my lifetime that they have appeared in the Adirondacks. Wonderful large black birds (three times the weight of a crow), they can be intimidating up close, especially with their large heavy beaks and their beady black eyes, which you just know are sizing you up. Ravens are wonderful vocalists, with an ability to mimic that isn’t too far from that of some parrots.

The first ravens I encountered were in Alaska, and I found them to be much more interesting than the eagles, which are the bird of choice for most people. What fascinated me the most about the ravens was their vocalizations. The ravens out on Prince of Wales Island, where I was living, called out “Klawock!” I was living in a small town called Craig, and the next town over was called Klawock. Was this town named for the call of the raven? I never found out.

Several years later, while working for a summer in Newcomb, I heard my first Adirondack ravens. They didn’t say “Klawock!” like the Alaskan birds; instead, they sounded like a group of college kids partying away well into the night. In the ten years I have subsequently lived here, I’ve heard ravens almost every day, and not one has said “Klawock.” Can birds have dialects? I certainly believe so.

Gray jays are the one Adirondack corvid I’ve seen only a very few times. They are birds of the boreal forest, and Newcomb isn’t quite there. Oh, we get a few black-backed woodpeckers and boreal chickadees, but not enough to claim true boreal status. I’d love to see more of these small jays, though, because they have a delightful reputation as being rather companionable. Many a tale is told of whiskey jacks (gray jays) hanging out at campsites and stealing food from the intrepid campers.

One of the traits exhibited by corvids as a sign of their high intelligence is their ability to retrieve cached food (greater than 75% retrieval rate). All corvids stash food away for lean times (winter). Most hide the food underground. The gray jay, however, takes a different route. Because they are smallish birds, digging through two or more feet of snow in search of a hidden snack just isn’t in the cards, so instead, they glue their food to the bark of trees! The glue they use us their own sticky saliva. I want to see this, so this winter, should I find myself in gray jay territory, I’m going to scan trees for insects and bits of meat stuck on the bark.

I’m not one of those people who want to travel the world to see all the birds, but I would love to see all our native corvids. I’ve been lucky enough to see magpies and Clark’s nutcrackers out in Alberta, Canada, but Stellar’s jay and the green jay remain high on my list for “some day.” In the meantime, I will happily watch the crows, ravens and jays of the Adirondacks. They are companionable, if noisy, neighbors, and I do enjoy their company.


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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.

8 Responses

  1. The Zen Birdfeeder says:
  2. Merry@St. Louis says:
  3. Woodswalker says:

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