Ravens, crows, jays winter over

Dark coloration gives an advantage in dealing with Alaska's winters

Posted: Sunday, September 21, 2003

We birdwatchers feel as though we have been abandoned at this time of year.

Most of our breeding birds have left the country or are busily stuffing themselves in preparation for the trip. We have been absorbed and entertained with the lives of our summer visitors and are beginning to feel desolation at the thought of all those days that must pass before we will see them again.

So, who is left for us to observe once the last robin is flown? Corvids!

Southeast Alaska has three members of the corvid family that are found in abundance - Steller's jays, Northwestern crows and common ravens. Three others are occasionally or rarely seen - black-billed magpies, American crows and gray jays. Their social behavior, as well as their vocal skills and sometime aggressive manner, ensures these birds make their presence known to even the least attentive among us.

All members of this family are medium to large in size, with sturdy all-purpose bills conforming to their feeding habits. They will eat eggs and the young of other birds, rodents, carrion, fruit, insects, and seeds, but also are disposed to try anything new. Would that our children were as willing. Their dark coloration gives them an energy advantage in Alaska's cold winters.

The corvids have another powerful feature in their gregarious social structure. Altruistic acts by corvids have been documented, such as that of a crow being attacked by a man with a stick. The crow's cries summoned others from overhead branches who flew at the man, forcing him to retreat.

Corvids also serve each other as helpers, aiding in nest-building, baby-sitting and sentry duty. Mobbing of predators by jays and crows is a common phenomenon. I swear I was innocent the day a flock of crows attacked my head, but they pronounced me guilty of intending to disturb a nearby nest. Flocks can aid in food-gathering as well. Discoveries by one are announced to all. While this may seem counterproductive, many pairs of eyes enable constant observation of the territory.

Corvids are long-lived: up to 20 years for a wild crow. Thus they get to know their territory well and are conversant with its finest details. Months may go by before I put out bread scraps on my deck but it is only a matter of minutes before I hear the raucous announcement signaling a lookout has discovered the handout. Within a few more minutes, the rail is lined with more than a dozen crows, elbowing each other to snatch a bite. I'm being watched constantly.

Corvids are considered the most intelligent of birds for their use of tools and language as well as their problem-solving ability. It is common to see crows using rock, sidewalk and street as a surface on which to drop and break apart clams and cockles. Captive jays have been documented using a strip of paper as a rake to pull food closer to their cage.

All corvids are noted for their many and varied sounds. Twenty-three crow vocalizations have been described and ravens are even more versatile. Corvids may incorporate the sounds of other birds, humans and machinery into their speech.

The behavior and appearance of corvids has provoked a wide array of responses over time. Native cultures of the Northwest have paid deep respect to the raven for its intelligence and mystery. It is raven, according to Tony Angell in his book "Ravens, Crows, Magpies and Jays," "that illuminates the earth and then proceeds ... to create the essentials of fresh water, land, tides, fair weather, salmon and even human life." In Norse mythology, Odin sent a pair of ravens out at dawn to fly around the world. They returned to perch on his shoulder and whisper all the secrets they had witnessed.

In modern times, corvids, particularly crows and ravens, have been viewed as pests and numerous attempts have been made to eradicate them though they have received some relief with the Migratory Bird Treaty between the United States and Mexico that was amended in 1972 to provide protection for corvids.

Now that our summer avian visitors have left us, we will be sharing the winter months with these hardy, enduring residents of the northern forests and wave-pounded beaches. It is a good time to make note of Henry Thoreau's journal entry in 1859 about the crow: "Its untamed voice is still heard above the tinkling of the forge. It sees a race pass away, but it passes not away. It remains to remind us of aboriginal nature."

• Bonnie Demerjian watches corvids in Wrangell. Juneau Audubon Society has members throughout Southeast Alaska. Contact them at www.juneau-audubon-society.org.

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