Crows are feathered pests with personality

By Tim Lockley

I suppose with the exception of Daffy Duck, no bird can equal the crow as a personality.

There's an 8-year-old girl in Seattle who gets presents from them. It all began by accident when she started kindergarten. She'd drop parts of her leftover lunch when she returned home and got off her bus. Crows would swoop down and collect the tasty morsel.

Pretty soon, she was saving most of her lunch to feed the crows when she got home from school. After a while, her mother bought peanuts for her to use. Not long after that, she started seeing shiny objects at the feeding sites, gifts left by grateful crows.

She now has hundreds of items that she carefully catalogues and stores.

Crows can be found nearly everywhere, with the exceptions of the Arctic and Antarctic, New Zealand and the extreme southern tip of South America. Stories about crows abound. Based upon their intelligence and adaptability, it's not too hard to imagine how these stories developed among various cultures. Out West, Native Americans tell the tale of how the crow, who was originally white, gave mankind fire and in the process singed his feathers black. In many cultures, the crow is often associated with bad omens and the occult. During World War II, because of their tendency to consume huge quantities of grain from farmers' fields, the crow was declared an enemy of the United States. Most of the men who could shoot straight were in the Army or the Marines, so the campaign didn't do much to reduce crow numbers.

There are six species of corvines in the United States. These include four crows and two ravens. Here, we have two species: the common crow and the fish crow. The birds are very well adapted to various habitats. They thrive in rural as well as urban environments. They can eat pretty much whatever is available in their range, including clams, earthworms, eggs, insects, lizards, nestling birds, small amphibians and snakes. They also will eat fruits, seeds and vegetables and will scavenge carrion and garbage. Their feeding isn't all bad. A federal researcher estimated that a family of crows would consume 38,000 harmful insects during their nesting season.

Because of their varied appetite, crows can become a nuisance. Their taste for corn and other crops is the major reason for conflict betwixt them and us. Crows have been shot, poisoned and even blown up while roosting, but to little effect. Crows keep adapting. If you're having difficulty with these clever creatures, there are a few things you can do to ameliorate the problem. Crows are attracted to garbage and compost piles. Make certain that your trash is deposited in tight-fitting containers. If you put food into your open compost pile, turn it in as deeply as possible. Don't leave pet food outside. When your pet is finished eating, remove any food that's left over.

Gardens and fruit trees can be protected until you're ready to harvest. Fruit trees can be covered with bird netting. Make certain that you tie the netting securely at the base or lower trunk of the tree. If you grow corn, you'll need to protect your plants from the time you put the seed in the ground until the corn is around 8 inches (20 cm) high.

Shooting crows is a limited option. If you're within the corporate limits of a town or city, you may not be able to do any shooting. If you're in a rural area where you can make the attempt, you're limited as to when you can hunt the wily birds. Originally, crows were just varmints and could be shot any time. However, the U.S. and Mexico signed a joint treaty to protect the migratory birds that fly back and forth across our shared border. Turns out that crows are migratory. As an unintended consequence of this treaty, crows are now protected and you're limited to up to 124 days to hunt crows; none of these days can occur during the peak breeding season.

No matter what you may try to do to control crows, the odds are on their side, not yours.

Of course, you could always make friends with them and feed them. Maybe, they'd start bringing you presents. After all, that little girl in Seattle has gotten three dimes, a nickel and four pennies so far from her crows.

Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For answers to individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi MS 39535.