Posts Tagged ‘crows’

Hardy Crows

March 24, 2010

We’re sorry that today’s post is short: We’re hard at work finishing our new novel, Far from the Madding Crow. We know you can hardly wait. It’s the sequel to our best-selling – and boring – novel, Thrush of the d’Urbervilles.


The photo of the crow, corvus corone, was taken by Jans Canon at Southend-on-Sea, England.

The Superbowl – The Magpies v. The Crows

February 15, 2010

The Stadium

While most of America spent Superbowl Sunday watching the contest between the Saints and the Colts, we took our annual Superbowl bird outing. Superbowl Sunday is always a fine day for birding in the U.S. because one hundred million of us stay indoors watching the game, leaving highways and trails relatively deserted.

Actually, we spent the entire Superbowl week birding in one form or another. The Fat Finch had to go to market and market was in San Francisco and so part of our birding consisted of looking at seagulls out the window of the Buena Vista Cafe where, purely coincidentally, Irish Coffee is served.

Even though we missed the football game, we watched an athletic contest between the Magpies and the Crows. The stadium was a tree in which several crows were sitting about idly and minding their own business, as far as we could tell. But they upset two Yellow-billed Magpies who determined to evict the crows. The magpies were on a grassy slope some distance from the tree but clearly believed the tree was in their territory.

Kicking off

Yellow-billed Magpies live only in Northern and Central California valleys. Why they evolved yellow beaks instead of the regular black beaks sported by all their other and larger magpie cousins is a mystery, as is the variable yellow eye patch. The valleys of Northern California must demand a certain extra elegance. At any rate, that is in only place you’ll find Yellow-billed Magpies.

Magpie ancestors arrived in North America three to four million years ago. The Yellow-bills probably got isolated from Black-bills due to subsequent ice ages and the uplifting Sierra Nevada. By the time of the Pleistocene, they were on their own. Recent mitochondrial DNA analysis proves that Black-billed Magpies are far closer relatives of Yellow-bills than of the similar looking Black-billed Magpies of Eurasia and North Africa.

The Contest

Magpies, by the way, along with Scissor-tailed and Fork-tailed Flycatchers, are the only land birds in North America whose tails are longer than their bodies.

A Loser Departing the Stadium

Magpies and crows are both Corvids and, one assumes, about equal in intelligence. In other words, both are smart. Crows have a size advantage but the magpies make up for that with faster aerial acrobatics. The contest was noisy but the two magpies routed six or seven crows, claiming the tree for their own. After the game was over and the crows departed, both magpies returned to the grassy slope and continued pecking their way across it. No victory parade followed.

The Victorious Return


For more on Yellow-billed Magpies, Pica nuttalli, try this from UC Davis and this from the Magpie monitor organization. BNA, subscription required, has a detailed entry as well. For suggested places to see Yellow-billed Magpies, go here.

For a humorous take on the anthropology of the Superbowl, go here.

While the two Yellow-billed Magpies we watched rout the crows got no victory parade, they are no strangers to communal rituals including funerals. We’ll be back with more about that another time.

Click on the photos above for larger versions.

The Wisdom of Owls

March 30, 2009
Juvenile Spotted Owl by David Utterback

Juvenile Spotted Owl by David Utterback

The most often read post on this blog is now “Halloween and Barn Owls.” Sometime ago it passed even “Crows and Ravens Part IV” which is the post where we tell you precisely and clearly how to tell the difference between a Crow and a Raven and even help you identify which kind of crow and raven.  Now we are hard at work on a post telling you how to identify various owls.

In the meantime we thought we would remind you of one of James Thurber’s fables.  Specifically the one about the owl who was God.

Once, according to Thurber, on a dark night, an owl, perched in an oak tree, heard two moles scurrying about on the ground.  The owl said, “Who?” startling the tiny mammals one of whom sqeaked, “Who?”  To which the owl replied, “You two!”  The moles ran off and reported to all the animals in the forest that the owl could see in the dark, answer all questions, and therefore must be the wisest of all animals.

The Secretary bird wasn’t having any and charged off to test the owl.  Arriving at the oak tree the bird demanded that the owl, in pitch darkness, answer the question, “How many fingers am I holding up?”  (Secretary birds, of course, don’t have fingers but Thurber is telling us a fable here, not reporting scientific fact.)  The owl answered — correctly — “Two.”  The secretary bird then asked the owl for another word which means “that is to say” or “namely.”  From the tree came the answer, “to wit.”  So the secretary bird asked its last question, “Why does a lover call on his love?”  “To woo,” answered the owl.

sagittarius serpentarius

sagittarius serpentarius

Secretary birds live in sub-Saharan Africa, spending most of their time on the ground.  They are not small birds; some grow to a height of 4 feet.  Thurber was a writer, not an ornithologist.  We may suspect he chose a Secretary bird for his fable because of its name and for no other reason.

So this secretary bird returned to all the animals, reporting that the owl could see in the dark and knew everything.  There was a doubter in the group as there always is in any group.  The fox wanted to know if the owl could see in daytime too but all the other animals laughed at the fox.  They sent a messenger off to tell the owl they wanted him for their leader.

secretary-birdThe owl appeared among them at noon the next day with huge globular eyes and all the animals thought he was God and started following him everywhere he went.  When he bumped into trees, so did they; when he started walking down the center of a highway, they followed.  Pretty soon a hawk saw a truck bearing down on them and reported to the Secretary bird who said to the owl, “There’s danger ahead!”  The owl calmly asked, “To wit?”  But about that time the truck ran them over.  Except for the fox who had refused to go along. Since this is a kind of a fairy tale, he probably lived happily ever after.

As you can tell, Thurber was using the fable story-telling form – invented, so far as we know, by Aesop – so, in addition to the conflict introduced by the fox, the story has to have a moral.  Here is how Thurber described the moral of this story: You can fool too many of the people too much of the time.

But for us, as birders, the moral might be stated differently: There is a reason you don’t often see owls during the day.


Keven Law took the photo of the yawning secretary bird; Chris Eason took the photo of the entire bird.  You can read more about David Utterback here.

We read Thurber’s owl fable in our copy of Thurber: Writings and Drawings, published by the Library of America. Thurber’s fables were originally published as Fables for Our Time and Further Fables for Our Time. For more about Thurber himself, try this.

Crows, Ravens, Wolves and Humans

October 22, 2008
Raven in Arches National Park

Raven in Arches National Park

One of the most difficult of all things to endure for a crow, a raven, a wolf, or a human is to feel alone and separated from one’s own kind.  A sense of belonging is one of the most universal of all feelings.

Lawrence Kilham


April 9, 2008


The evidence continues to mount that calling someone a bird brain is not an insult. The BBC has this story about two Rooks — European and Asian members of the corvid family, as are jays, crows and ravens — and their problem solving capacity. In the experiment two Rooks quickly learned that they needed to simultaneously pull on two separate strings to move food into their cage. If they pulled only at one string or did not pull on both at the same time the string pulled loose and the food remained outside the cage. The birds learned this just as rapidly as did chimpanzees, those distant relatives of ours usually thought to be the brightest members of non-human species.

I am sorry to say that you have to click on this link to go to the BBC site to watch the video. It is possible that someone more web-savvy could have moved the video to this page but I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet.

But you can listen to rooks. Rooks calling

But for other videos of Rooks, you’ll have to decamp from this blog and visit this site which someone smarter than I could probably have pasted on this page.

For all the other evidence we’ve accumulated at the Fat Finch you can click on our “Bird Brain” or the “Crows and Ravens” category over on the right of this page.

Other Birds

March 24, 2008

This article about recent discoveries of new planets outside our solar system raises the question: How many species of birds exist out there? Our life lists may seem paltry one day when it is necessary to travel to other planets to bird. What will their Hummingbirds look like?  What will their crows and ravens be able to do?

New Caledonian Crows Again

October 4, 2007

The New Caldonia Crows are at again. So are the scientists who study them. Now the scientists have affixed tiny lightweight cameras to the tails of some of the crows. The scientists, not fully trusting what the crows do in captivity, wanted to watch their behavior in the wild. So they fitted 18 crows with 5 ounce cameras attached to their tails and let them return to the mountains of New Caldonia. The crows surprised the scientists again, using more than just sticks to get at protein rich grubs under the ground. You can watch some of the videos here which is today’s BBC story. The videos aren’t of the greatest quality but you’ll get the idea. Our favorite is the ground’s eye view of a takeoff and flight with a stick in the crow’s mouth. But you’ll also see crows hunting with sticks, hitting with sticks, hopping from branch to branch and eating a snail.

Crows and Ravens, Part IV

July 23, 2007

We now know that Crows and Ravens are smart. Now, let us assume that you are confronted with a large black bird. It looks smart. It can identify you, can you identify it? How do you figure out whether it is a Crow or a Raven? Just follow the steps we list here and you’ll identify it successfully. (This post is based on the discussion in an excellent book, Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges, by Bill Thompson, III and the editors of Bird Watchers Digest. We’ll be adding it to the book section soon but don’t wait for us. Buy yourself a copy. Where, you ask? Well, we do sell it but it is also at your local independent book seller’s.)

Step One: Where are you?

Range maps are the first clue. American Crows are found from the tree line in Northern Canada all the way south to Mexico. They are; however, absent from the high Sierra Nevada, West Texas and the lowlands of the Southwest.


Fish crows are found only in the American Southeast. Northwestern crows are confined to the Pacific Coast from Northern Washington to Southern Alaska.

Common Ravens are found just about everywhere American Crows are found except for the north central U.S. and the Great Plains. (So, if you are in the Great Plains, that large black bird is almost certainly an American Crow.)


Chihuahuan ravens are found only in the desert southwest and, occasionally in southeast Colorado to southwest Nebraska.

Chihuahuan Raven Range Map

Step Two: Decide if it is a crow or a raven.

A. If the bird is flying:

1. Ravens soar; crows, hardly ever.
2. Ravens have distinct wedge shaped tails. Crows’ tails are squared off at the rear.
3. Ravens flap more slowly and less often. They glide and soar. Crows flap constantly and steadily.

B. If the bird is sitting:

1. Ravens are – usually – larger, as much as twice.
2. Ravens have thicker bills.
3. Ravens have shaggy throat feathers, crows don’t.

C. If the bird is talking:

1. Crows have clear voices and give loud, clear “caw” notes, often in a series. Listen here.

2. Ravens have deep, hoarse voices and “kraaack” or “croak” or “gronk”. Think Edgar Allan Poe or Grip in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Listen here.

Step Three: If it is a raven, decide which kind.


This is a problem only in the desert southwest since it is the only place Chihuahuan and Common Ravens overlap.

Have the bird sit absolutely still so you can walk up to it and examine the base of its neck feathers. If the base of the feathers is white, it is a Chihuahuan Raven. If it is dirty gray, it is a common raven. Speak Spanish to the former, English to the latter.

There is no other way to tell for sure which is which. You can guess though. Chihuahuan’s prefer open grassland and scrub desert lowlands and commons prefer higher elevations and wooded habitats. Chihuahuans hang out together more than Commons, at least in the winter.

Step Four: If it is a Crow, decide which kind.


This will be a problem only if you are in the Southeast United States or the Pacific Coast. If you are in one of those two places you now must decide what kind of crow it is.

Forget it. It’s impossible. Just stay away from those places and you will never have to deal with it. But, if you do find yourself on a beach in British Colombia, assume it is a Northwestern Crow and add it to your life list. But. if you are more than 500 yards inland, assume it is an American Crow.

Step Five: If you really can’t decide.

If you still don’t know and there are people waiting for you to tell them, announce loudly and confidently that it is whichever one you want it to be. No one will ever be able to prove you wrong. Only that big black bird will know.


Update: We’ve added a category for “Crows and Ravens.” You can find other posts in the series by clicking on that category on the right side of the home page or you can follow these links which will open in a new window.

Crows and Ravens:

Part I – Here.

Part II – Here.

Part III – Here.

Part V – Here.

Part VI – Here.

Crows and Ravens – New Caledonian Crows -Breaking News – Here.

New Caledonian Crows Again – Here.

The Nature of Intelligence – Here.

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