Crows in January
This year the crows started coming around in larger numbers. Chicago’s 2008-09 winter has been a bear, socking us with zero-neighborhood temperatures, then snow, then low temps, then snow, over and over and over. Our “January thaw” never happened.
This means that the crows have a harder time foraging, which translates into sixty to a hundred crows at my crow feeder per day.
I put six dry pints of dog kibble into a bowl, then soak it in hot water for half an hour until it’s soft and puffy. Then I pour hot bacon drippings over it. Or maybe I have a piece of pigskin left over from last summer’s pig roast, and boil it up in a pot of hot water, and pour all that over the dog food. When the drippings have soaked in, I take the bowl outside. Half the yukky kibble goes in the crow feeder. The other half is scattered over the snow, where their little crow feet have tamped it down from weeks of crow feedings.
Then I bang on the bowl seven times. By the time #7 rings out, I hear crows in the distance, and then they’re swooping in, waiting for me to get in the house so they can eat.
The crow feeder was built by my husband about ten years ago. It’s a plain square wooden tray with a two inch high lip running around the edges. It sits on a pole about 4-3/4 feet high. We placed it between trees so that the squirrels can’t get into it–sometimes I put out peanuts in the shell, which is a crow’s all-time favorite treat, but it’s also a squirrel favorite. The crow feeder works well. Six or seven crows can sit around the edges, all eating at once.
This year also, the crows have discovered that I’m a halfway decent mimic. I’ll tell you how that happened.
Crows mimic one another as part of their socialization process. To put it another way, the young crows hang around together on street corners, smoking and strutting and practicing their jive talk on each other, until they are capable of imitating one another precisely. It shows you’re in the gang. When I travel across country, the crows elsewhere don’t sound quite like mine, and that’s why. Different gangs.
Three years ago, a crow pair started hanging around the area all summer. This was big news since the great plague of 2001, when all our crows died of West Nile Virus, or fled, in a single two-week period. One of the pair used to sit in my backyard trees, cawing, making goofy noises. I would caw out my back window, imitating him. We had quite a game going: the crow would try to fake me out, and I would try to keep up. I’d get up to about fourteen sounds in a row and then break down, and the crow would fly away, disgusted maybe, or maybe saying, “I tell you, Seymour, these things could be intelligent, this one can count!”
So this pair nested and raised one baby. The baby came around last summer with its parents, and heard momma (or poppa) playing copycat with me. Now baby wanted to play copycat. I was careful to ignore baby, because in the past I’ve learned that if I make a mistake, they leave. So even though both voices cawed at once, I could see the adult’s body moving through the leaves, and I knew which notes to copy. Baby started getting upset, making goofier and goofier noises, “Hey, what about me?!” Then the parent stopped calling. Then I played with baby for a while. Then the parent joined in, and I tried copying both notes at once, which wasn’t always successful, but we had a blast.
This winter, the trio are back. They are always the first at my feeder. And when they’ve had enough, they come out front and try to get me to play copycat. Only now, there are twenty or thirty other crows around with them, because of the 24/7 winter slumber party.
So now at least four or five other crows are trying to distract me from copying my favorite crow. Sometimes they all take turns. Sometimes it’s impossible. Who cares? It makes winter go faster.