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No Caws for Alarm!

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Published on: Jan. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 26, 2010

The American crow, a year-round resident of Missouri, is equally at home in the city and the country. Big, black birds with a raucous call and a nasty habit of eating nearly anything that doesn't eat them first, crows belong to the family Corvidae, which includes ravens, blue jays and magpies.

The American crow, a year-round resident of Missouri, is equally at home in the city and the country. Big, black birds with a raucous call and a nasty habit of eating nearly anything that doesn't eat them first, crows belong to the family Corvidae, which includes ravens, blue jays and magpies.

This family is a rogues gallery of winged delinquents. The American crow commonly found in Missouri - and throughout the rest of the continental United States - is from the genus Corvus.

Crows have the largest brains in relation to their size of all the birds, which accounts for their adaptability to various habitats. They are at home both in the wild and among humans.

Crows will eat anything. Their diet includes road-killed animals, grasshoppers and locusts, spiders, crustaceans, small frogs, lizards and snakes, seeds and grubs.

They also eat the eggs and even nestlings of other birds. Who hasn't seen one or two birds chasing a crow? They are usually attacking the crow after it raided their nest.

Crows are believed to mate for life. Nesting season begins around March in Missouri. A pair will build a nest, often high in a tree - hence the term "crow's nest" for the highest part of the ship - or on a telephone pole or other structure.

Crows prefer to nest alone. Although when habitat doesn't provide sufficient sites, several pair will build their nests in the same location.

A typical nest contains four or five drab olive or blue-green eggs that may be speckled or streaked. It's thought that parents share the incubation duty.

Eggs hatch in about 18 days, and the young fledge in just over a month. In the nest the young depend on their parents and older siblings for food.

Crows roost in large numbers to protect themselves from predators. Enemies include great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, raccoons and opossums. By gathering together, crows find safety in numbers.

Crows have a cooperative defense behavior known as mobbing. If one crow sees a predator, it will give an assembly call. Every crow within earshot will quickly fly to the source and attack the predator. If a crow has already been attacked, it will give a distress call, summoning other crows to its defense.

Crows are also highly social. They have up to 25 different calls and seem to use them all. Crows may roost in cities as protection from the weather. During winter nights, urban areas tend to be five to ten degrees warmer than the surrounding countryside.

Cities, with their smorgasbord of overflowing trash bins, are ready-made crow cafes, offering savory eating for birds that aren't particular about their diet.

One of Missouri's biggest crow roosts was in the trees around city hall in St. Joseph. St. Louis is also blessed with a number of roosts. In Kansas City the biggest roost is in the trees over Brush Creek, near the Plaza shopping district.

Crows begin arriving at this roost at dusk. Some come singly, others in groups of five or more. They alight in the branches that bend under their weight. Some birds are soon settled while others are restless. They move from branch to branch or drop to the trickle of water in the creek below for a drink.

There is much cawing. The sound travels up and down the tunnel formed by the creek and overhanging trees. Their human neighbors have little choice but to accept these noisy interlopers.

Though it is now a violation of both federal and state law, there was a time when crows were fairly common as pets. A young crow fallen from the nest but still too young to care for itself can imprint on humans. Crows can also be taught to speak a few words. The practice of splitting their tongues, though, is simply cruel. It doesn't help the mimicry and probably causes many young crows to bleed to death.

Crows were once thought to be nothing more than vermin, worthy only of destruction. They got this reputation in part because they're big and loud. Crows are not as numerous as they might seem; in fact, their numbers are relatively small compared to other birds.

Winter roosts were often the sites of massive attempts at crow extermination. In one incident, the branches of a roost were laced with dynamite and cans of scrap metal during the day. When the crows returned that night, the dynamite was set off. At dawn more than 100,000 crow corpses littered the ground.

Grain farmers believed crows guilty of damaging their crop by pulling up the seedlings to eat the planted seeds. This behavior is much less common now than in the days of mound planting, especially of corn. Given the diversity of their diets, crows don't depend on the farmer's grain and can even be considered beneficial because they consume so many pest insects.

Unfortunately, crows are the victims of a lot of bad press. Look at how the language treats them. The expression "to eat crow" means to do something disagreeable. To "crow" is to brag obnoxiously. Wrinkles around the eyes are called "crows-feet." A flock is known as a "murder" of crows.

The Sioux tell the story of how a white crow used to warn buffalo of approaching hunting parties. The buffalo would then stampede, and the hunters would be left hungry. Eventually, an angry Indian threw the bird in a fire where it turned black.

In another tale, after watching human fishermen pull fish through holes in the ice, a group of crows started doing the same when the fishermen retreated to their shack for coffee. The crows actually pulled up the lines leading down the holes, then devoured the fish or bait they found on the books.

In Virginia, a murder of crows was implicated in a milk scandal. Upon retrieving their milk from the porch, people found the bottles opened and the cream gone. It seems crows followed the milkmen on their deliveries, pried the paper lids off the bottles and helped themselves to breakfast.

Because of their ingenuity, crows have their defenders. A society of crow fanciers publishes a newsletter called the Corvi Chronicle. And 19th century clergyman Henry Ward Beecher stated that "If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows."

Their intelligence has also made them a favorite of hunters. Crows can provide a real hunting challenge. In Missouri, crow season runs from Nov. 1 to March 3. A small game hunting license and a sporting ethic are all that are needed.

Well, maybe cunning and patience help, too.

"There are a lot of things that are stupid compared to a crow," says Richard Godwin, who hunts crows near Poplar Bluff. "To sneak up on a crow is impossible!"

Crows are wary. If a person walking in the forest suddenly stops, any crows nearby will instantly fly away. Some studies suggest that crows can count and that if three men enter a forest but only two leave, the crows won't return to the area.

Crows also have good eyesight. "I wear full camo, just like turkey hunting," says Godwin. "Masks, gloves, everything."

But despite their wariness, crows can be fooled. They will flock to calls from a hunter. The distress call is one of the best ways to attract them. Mimicking the call of a great horned owl or red tailed hawk will also bring them in.

"I guess a guy could hunt crows forever and a day and still learn something," Godwin says. "I still do."



Eatin' Crow

Hunting crows is a great sport. But what about eating them? Cooking and eating crow, in the literal sense, seems to be a practice that has disappeared. "I know what they eat, and I'm not too fond of that," says hunter Richard Godwin.

But no less than John James Audubon considered crow a delicacy, and the birds rounded out the diet of early Missouri pioneers and settlers.

Here's a recipe for crow from the Pioneer Heritage Wild Game Cookbook, by Trapper Jack French:

Campfire Crow

  • 2 crow breasts
  • G teaspoon salt
  • J teaspoon pepper

Boil the clean, skinned breasts in water for about five minutes. (This is important because crow meat can be tough.) Salt and pepper, then roast them on a spit or green stick over your campfire.

Conservation agent Kevin Dixon suggests trying:

Smoked Crow

Marinade:

  • 1 Tbsp. liquid smoke
  • H c. soy sauce
  • H c. red wine

Sprinkle each breast with seasoned salt, black pepper and garlic powder. Submerge breasts in marinade for 24 hours. Drain marinade and wrap each breast in bacon. Place breasts in smoker for 2 hours at 250 degrees.

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