WILD WNY / The corvids
As the crows, jays, and magpies fly
American crow in flight
One of our most interesting bird families are the corvids (corvidae); we know them less formally as crows. Species of this family are found worldwide, with a remarkable number here in North America. In the United States, we have four crows, two ravens, two magpies, ten jays, and a nutcracker. On the Niagara Frontier, only two of those species occur commonly: the American crow and the blue jay.
These are interesting birds that are viewed with every emotion from affection to antipathy.
The crow is one of our most familiar birds, so familiar, in fact, that its name appears in a rich variety of idioms: we crow about our accomplishments, we get up with the crows, we speak of straight-line distance as how the crow flies, we have crow’s feet around our eyes, and we admit error by eating crow.
These completely black birds are so familiar that we barely notice them, yet rarely does a day go by that I don’t see a crow fly overhead or hear one cawing in the near distance. Those living near Forest Lawn Cemetery, where they roost at night during the winter, hear them all too often.
Like almost all corvids, crows rob other birds’ nests of eggs and young. Formerly birds of the countryside, they extended their local ranges to suburban and urban areas when garbage was put out in easily penetrated plastic bags. One sad effect of this was the obliteration of our nighthawk population, whose eggs were exposed on city rooftop surfaces. Now that big garbage bins have replaced most of those bags, crows are looking elsewhere for food.
Crows are very smart. Just watch the video to see how they solve problems. And they appear to be emotional birds as well. Before laws prevented it, their nests were often raided and crows were kept as pets. One local homeowner told me how a crow came to befriend her: “It is right for me to say ‘my crow’ because he does recognize me. When I’m out in the yard, he will either soar around above my head or land in a tree where I can see him to caw at me in a friendly way. If anyone else is with me except my husband, however, he is very secretive and will not show himself. The same thing goes for eating: first he will fly to a nearby tree and inspect the area. If he sees no one else nearby, he’ll come onto the roof to eat, but, if others are around, he will wait to eat until there is no one there.”
Crows are known for harassing larger birds, but, since turnabout is fair play, they too are harassed by smaller birds. Best known for this is the kingbird.
Blue Jay perching in winter
My wife considers this jay the most beautiful of birds, though another of her favorites, the cardinal, visits our yard equally often. (Anyone who has spent time in the Rockies might join me in preferring the lovely Steller’s and pinyon jays.) I once asked an oologist—a.k.a. one fond of collecting eggs, an activity no longer practiced—what bird’s egg he found most attractive. His response: the blue jay’s. Its eggs vary in color, but the one he showed me had a soft blue-gray background with brownish spots. It was indeed attractive.
Blue jays are also common and their familiar screeches resound through suburban and rural areas. Their noisy clamor makes them seem larger, but they are almost exactly the size of robins.
Like crows, jays are nest robbers, but only if they accidentally happen upon a nest. The diets of both species are omnivorous: they feed on grain, insects, and food scraps. The jay is also a familiar visitor to bird feeding stations, where I don’t find them at all belligerent; rather, they often give way to other birds.
Other animals pay attention to those jay alarm calls. Once, a friend approached to within a few feet of a porcupine without the animal noticing him. But when a nearby jay called its usual “jay jay jay,” the porcupine immediately rose, extended its quills and sniffed the air in each direction. As soon as it saw a human, it ran off. In winter, when birds associate in groups, they are usually accompanied by several jays who play this same sentinel role.
Though not common on this side of the border, magpies have been reported in Ontario, and, once, several of us headed across the river to try to find one that had been seen in St. Catharine’s. The address was the last house on a dead-end street, and we passed a number of teenagers as we drove down that lane. We found no magpie, of course, and we set out to return—disgruntled. At that time US and Canada relations were at a low point—as they are today—and, as we passed, the boys got together and shouted at us, “Go home, Americans.” I am pleased to note, however, that they were laughing as they did so, establishing once again how deep our fundamental friendship remains. We waved back, laughing as well.