The American Crow

By Connie Alwood

(This article first appeared in The Gateway Gardener January/February 2008 issue.)

Just about everyone can identify a crow. Even its voice caw, caw, caw is unmistakable.  People’s estimation of  this large, all black bird runs the gamut. We either vilify him for pilfering our garbage bags and eating small birds or we admire his cunning. The American Crow, his official name, is a solitary nester. Nevertheless, in non-breeding season, the crow is garrulous and gregarious. At night, especially in winter, crows sometimes numbering in the thousands, will gather in a large communal roost making more racket than a crowd at a baseball game. Urban dwellers may look upon this as a nuisance.  Since the onslaught of West Nile Virus, however, the crows’ numbers have declined to the point where even some of his harshest critics have bemoaned his disappearance.

Although they don’t like deserts or high altitudes, or even prairies, Crows can be found almost throughout the United States and the lower parts of Canada. They prefer agricultural lands for foraging and small wooded areas for roosting and nesting. Usually if you see one bird, you’ll soon see two or even more. As stated above, they may roost in large numbers, but in the morning they disperse for food, sometimes traveling as far as fifty miles. Any food will do, from road kill to spilled corn, insects, songbirds, and even  your pet’s food. Many a sorry homeowner has discovered, when he has failed to put the lid on his trash can, the contents of it unevenly distributed in the street by foraging crows. The crow, in short, is an opportunist.

He, along with the Common Raven, which does not appear in the St. Louis area, is looked upon as the smartest of bird species. Some have even been known to use tools in the form of sticks. In captivity some crows have learned to mimic the human voice. Another of its more interesting traits is that non-breeding crows will sometimes help in raising the young.

When crows encounter hawks or owls, they will mob them, constantly calling and dive-bombing the predator. Hawks will usually move off, but the owls are reluctant to fly. The crows, however, will take care to stay out of the reach of the owl’s deadly talons. If the predator flies off, the crows will continue to pursue, one usually pecking hard at the predator’s back. Unlike ducks, doves and falcons, crows are not fast flyers, nor are they able to soar. Their flight, however, is strong and direct.  Thus “as the crow flies” is an apt phrase.

As for its diminished numbers, don’t worry. They’ll be back to see if you left the lid off the garbage can.

Connie Alwood is a Master Gardener and co-author of Birds of the St. Louis Area: Where and When to Find Them.

Margy Terpstra is an avid birder and photographer living in the St. Louis area.