Robert Miller: It's the season for the smart, social communicative crows – CT Insider

A Raven named “Bud” jumps up onto his perch for some playtime at the New Canaan Nature Center. The bird, which is related to grackles and crows, is known as one of the smartest birds, and can unlatch locks and learn from objects in its environment. – Photo by John H. Palmer
Sometimes, when I’m dillydaddling and not up when I should be, I will hear crows cawing, reminding me that somebody out there is alert and awake and aware.
And more than the usual suspects at the birdfeeders — busy, hungry, seed-and-suet seekers — crows flying across the gray morning sky complete the winter landscape for me.
Nor am I alone in my fondness for Corvus brachyrhynchos — the American crow.
“People adore them because of their intelligence,’’ said Phillip Robbins of the Wild Bird Unlimited store in Brookfield.
“They are spectacular,’’ said Cathy Hagadorn, executive director of Sherman’s Deer Pond nature center, owned by the Connecticut Audubon Society.
Now is the time people will see them in huge winter roosts, in cities like Danbury, West Haven, Waterbury and Hartford. They fly in at dusk, lining the branches of trees, murmuring and cawing softly to each other, pooping voluminously on any car parked underneath them, flying off in the morning, and then regrouping the next evening.
There’s safety in numbers.
Corrie Folsom-O’Keefe, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut — the state chapter of the national organization — said she once tried to make a count of the birds on the West Haven roost.
“It was somewhere between 2,000 or 3,000 birds to 10,000,” she said.  
Here’s the problem. Crows are so common, they’re easy to overlook.  Their larger cousins, ravens, have more mystique.
Crows are members of the corvid family that includes jays, ravens and magpies — all smarties. Different crow species are found around the world, on every continent except South America and Antarctica.
And while West Nile virus infected and killed many crows when it first showed up in North America in 1999, crow numbers have recovered —it’s estimated there are 28 million American crows in North America. They aren’t birds of the desert or deep woods, preferring forest edges, fields, suburban neighborhoods and city streets.
Crows are also all black -feathers, beak and feet — and carrion-eaters to boot, and therefore considered ominous. People who know nothing about birds except for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds’’ see a flock of crows and get nervous. In medieval England, a flock of crows was called a murder.
But they are smart and social and communicative — the rule of thumb is that crows are never alone and never silent.
They mate for life and the males — no fly-by night cawing cads — help build nests and feed the young. They live in family groups. Because crows don’t mate until the second year of their lives, the young birds tend to hang around after they’ve fledged, learning crow ways.
They are considered songbirds, although of a rather raucous subset. But one caw is not like another. Ornithologists have identified at least 20 different crow calls — different sounds, different patterns of cawing, along with chattering and bill clacking — all with different meanings.
“Five caws is different from three caws,’’ Hagadorn said.
Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, said crows also communicate with each other over distances. A crow will call across a field to another, who will pass the message on.
“It’s sort of a chain reaction,’’ Comins said.
It may be a call to hurry over and mob an invader. Hagadorn said she’s seen crows gather to harass a bald eagle on Candlewood Lake.
“Smaller birds don’t always attack larger birds,’’ she said. “Crows do. They have a team.’’
Or it may be simply information about food.
“They could be saying ‘Hey, there’s a good open dumpster over here,’’’ Comins said.
Because we often see crows filleting roadkill, the easy assumption is that’s all they eat. But crows are true omnivores — they eat seeds, berries, grain, insects, frogs, snakes, other bird’s eggs and young, and human garbage.
“They’re scavengers,’’ Comins said,.
(Last winter I had three crows who walked under my birdfeeders, as solemnly as black-clad chancellors of state, eating bits of fallen suet. I was very happy they visited.)
If crows are slower to mate, it may be because they need extra months to learn about the world. Besides being extremely good at figuring things out of their own, ornithologists have shown young crows watch and learn from their elders. They absorb knowledge.
And while they are wary of humans, they are also curious. They investigate things. They like bright shiny objects and will often bring them to their nests
“Because they can,’’ Hagadorn said.
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Robert Miller has been working as a reporter in western Connecticut since 1978. He has covered the environment for about half that time. In 2014, he retired from day-to-day reporting, but has continued to write a weekly column on the environment for The News-Times in Danbury. He’s a birder and a gardener and a bookworm who lives in the exurbs – the rural suburbs. He thinks the world we live in — even his tiny corner — is an endlessly fascinating place and he has been very lucky to write about it.