Feeding the Crows, by Jennifer Stevenson

Crows in January

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.

They're magical.

They’re magical.

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.

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Feeding the Crows, by Jennifer Stevenson — 6 Comments

  1. That is so cute! If you run out of food and have to live in your garage, will your crows bring you food, or is that only ravens and the Prophet Elijah?

  2. I can vouch for this. I’ve seen Jennifer in action. It was the first time I’d ever seen wild birds come when “called” for a meal. They know her call and answer back. It’s really amazing to watch.

  3. What a neat story. Thanks!

    I occasionally try to mimic local crows but I’m not a good mimic so they cock their heads and look at me with a definite “who is that goofball?” expression.

    At least they don’t dive-bomb me, as they do my next-door neighbor who has long dark hair. I think they think she’s a cat.

    When it snowed here a couple of weeks ago (unusualy for Seattle, especially if it sticks for a few days), I tried putting out some bread crumbs for the local beasties. It took less than 30 seconds for a crow to come sit on the stair rail to see what I was doing. It perched there for several minutes, clearly waiting for the good stuff (I didn’t have any peanuts or other interesting food on hand), then flew away.

    — Vonda

  4. The crow population of Cannon Beach, Oregon, has been reduced by about 90 percent, probably by West Nile virus. Before that, when they were hanging around a lot, we started offering them our stale bread (because I like crows much better than seagulls.) The first time I went out and put some bits of bread on our garden fence and on the road (crows needn’t fear cats), one crow came, saw, said something loudly in Crow, which brought three others, who all said more or less the same thing, and In two minutes there were about 20 crows in the spruce trees. As soon as I retreated about 10 feet they all came down and ate the bread. After that, if I walked to the gate and held up my hand in a sort of offering gesture, many loud observations in Crow would be made all over the neighborhood, and 40 or 50 big black shiny guys would come falling out of the air onto the road, and eat and prance and make comments and watch me and wait for more. The biggest (and oldest?) were the least fearful and would come quite close, the young ones held back a bit. They competed eagerly for the bits but there was not the beak-jabbing hysteria you see in a gull mob. I thought they were great. Even if my neighbor Doris thought I was crazy. The crows now are so few they’ve become shy, and don’t gather to a call, but maybe they’ll build up their flock again. I hope so.

  5. I love to watch crows — and may have seen a raven a couple of years ago, on a neighbor’s front lawn. (It was either a raven or the biggest crow I’ve ever seen — we’re talking the size of a decent rooster.)

    We get a lot of grackles here. They are iridescent and blue-black-purple gorgeous in bright sunshine — also messy, loud and always bringing uninvited guests to parties. But they are fun to watch!

  6. A couple of crow things I want to share:
    When I was camping at Grande Cache in the Canadian Rockies last year there were crows and ravens, and they actually communicated with one another in a sort of mixture of crow and raven. I’m looking forward to seeing them again this year, if WN virus hasn’t got them.

    The library where I work has a big (60 feet wide) south-facing window, and I have a good view of places where the local group of crows hang out. There is one who has been coming for years, who seems a little eccentric, and is often on his/her own, but sometimes he’ll call a particular call and in a couple of minutes other members of the group will come by. I can’t help feeling that they must be able to communicate fairly complex ideas, but I don’t think it’s just a matter of counting caws – though I’m sure they do that too – I have an (unproven) idea that each caw has a different harmonic profile, and that information is communicated by varying that. I try to listen for it, but they’re never in the same place for long enough to really get more than a slight grasp of what they’re up to. Great birds, crows.