Soar with the crows

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Crow parents and their young live in a nest, as many other birds do. But the young that live there may not be just newly hatched or fledglings (young birds who have grown flight feathers). They may be quite grown up.

"American crows retain their young at home for years and years," says Kevin McGowan. He has studied the American crow since 1989. "I've had 6- or 7-year-old crows still at home with the parents."

What do these "grown-up kids" do at their parents' nests? They make sure that their mother has plenty of food when she's warming the eggs that will hatch their new siblings. Later, the older birds ensure that the baby crows have plenty to eat, too.

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"Some feed [the babies] more than the parents [do]," says Dr. McGowan. "They take turns watching out for predators or for trouble. They guard each other, and do all the sorts of things that a parent would do." As the babies mature, often they follow their beloved older siblings around.

Tooling around

If you spotted a piece of candy behind the sofa, would you leave it there? Or would you roll up a magazine and use it to try to pull the candy toward you?

Some crows also create tools to grab the things they want, usually food.

New Caledonian crows make tools out of the twigs and the long, prickly edges of the leaves of the tropical pandanus tree, says New Zealander Gavin Hunt. He studies these crows, which live on islands between Australia and Fiji.

Dr. Hunt has discovered that New Caledonian crows have three different designs for tools. They also make two kinds of stick tools - hooked and not hooked.

One crow's tools are very much like another's. That's why Hunt believes young crows learn toolmaking techniques from other crows. He theorizes that the birds must communicate among themselves to share tool design information.

"We [usually] only see this level of tool skill in humans," says Hunt. "New Caledonian crows teach us that in many ways other animals are not so different from us, and we should respect them for their differences and similarities."

Talk it up

Nicholas S. Thompson, psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., has studied crow communication for nearly 40 years. He has written that each crow's caws identify that individual bird. That allows other crows to keep track of how many crows are nearby - and which crows they are.

In his book, "Listen to the Crows," Laurence Pringle explains how crows identify themselves. They can make long or short sounds, a certain number of sounds at one time, and pause in between sounds. "The pattern [of caws] is like a name, but a crow doesn't have to keep the same 'name' forever," he writes. "Or maybe they each have a few favorite patterns and switch when crows of similar patterns are nearby."

He adds that a slow, unhurried caw means "Everything's fine." But a few quick caws spell "Danger!"

Crows do more than just caw, though. Dr. Thompson writes about their "incredibly complex vocalizations, ranging from yips and coos to growls, rattles, and sniggers." Some of these sounds appear not to be reactions to immediate events. He theorizes that crows may "talk" about things that happened in other locations or at other times.

Crows can also imitate sounds made by animals or people. You may hear a crow making a sound like a puppy yelping, a cat meowing, or a person laughing.

Today it is generally illegal to possess wild animals, including crows. But in the past, people enjoyed adopting wild crows and trying to teach them to talk. Whitney Dough's pet crow, Andy, could say many different words and phrases, including "hello," "hands up," "I won," and "hot dog."

Usually Andy's chatter was amusing. But sometimes it was embarrassing - such as the time he interrupted a church service. Perched on the branch of a tree outside the church, the bird shouted, "Quiet!" in the middle of the minister's sermon!

"All crows, whether or not they use tools, are clever animals," says Hunt, "and perhaps should be seen less like pests and more like an example of what incredible life natural selection can produce."

Crows like to have fun

In my front yard, the hummingbirds are very businesslike. They zip from flower to flower, sipping nectar before they zoom away. The crows who visit my garden, though, seem to spend more time just having fun.

In the spring I'll often spot crows speeding toward a particular branch of an evergreen tree - a branch that sticks out like a student raising his hand. The visiting crow lands heavily on the branch, which bounces wildly up and down beneath the weight of the bird. Once the swinging stops, the crow flaps away only to rocket in again for another landing.

Young crows - especially yearlings - love to play, researchers say. But Whitney Dough, who observed his pet crow, Andy, for two decades, thinks that all crows are playful.

"Like a kitten or a puppy, a young crow loves to play," he says in his book about Andy, "Fowl Play." "However, that's where the similarity ends, because a crow never outgrows this youthful [tendency]."

Andy especially liked to play tricks on people. Once he snitched the eyeglasses right out of a visiting salesman's hand.

Another time, he pulled all the clothespins off a neighbor's laundry, which was hanging on a clothesline in the yard.

Crows and other members of the corvid family, such as ravens, have been observed tricking predators. The bird may pretend to be sound asleep as a cat or another animal sneaks up on it. Just as the animal is ready to pounce, the bird swoops up into the air, sometimes cackling gleefully at its successful trick.

If you see a crow flying around your neighborhood, watch it for a while. See what it likes to do for fun!

Learn more about crows

Websites
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, www.birds.cornell.edu/allaboutbirds/birdguide/american_crow_dtl.html

National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org/bird/boa/f18_g1b.html

Books
"Fowl Play: Twenty Hilarious Years with a Talking Crow," by Rev. Whitney Dough.

"Listen to the Crows," by Laurence P. Pringle.

"Wonders of Crows," by Wyatt Blassingame.

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