Bird Watcher's General Store

Fighting Crows - 01/01/10

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Dear Bird Folks,

I understand that crows can be rowdy birds, but it seems to me that their rowdiness is always directed towards other creatures and not each other. That all changed this morning when I watched two crows have a knockdown, drag-out fight in my backyard. The two birds fought viciously on the ground and then flew up into a tree where the fighting continued. Any explanation?

- Dave, Chatham (MA)

Check the calendar, Dave,

It's the holiday season. Crows are extremely sociable birds. They typically live in family groups and like most families they fight during the holidays. I'm sure one crow is still upset with the other crow over some unresolved issue that happened way back when they were nestlings. The problem probably started when one baby was fed the best and biggest hunks of carrion. Mommy's favorite little crowling was probably given pieces of fresh rabbit everyday, while its nest mate had to make do with chunks of dead skunk, which were most certainly covered in tire tracks. The mother crow may have thought that the dissed baby didn't notice it wasn't being treated right, but believe me, it noticed. It was simply waiting for a chance to vent its feelings and what better time to have a major venting than the holidays? That's part of what makes the holidays so much fun.

My opening paragraph may seem a little farfetched, but it's not as farfetched as you might think. Crows really are one of our most sociable birds. A mated pair will stay together for as long as they both shall live and their offspring may remain with them for years, helping to raise new brothers and sisters. However, there are two things that I to need correct. A crow family is very tight. They will rarely say a bad word about each other, let alone have a no-holds-barred fight, even during the holidays. The other thing I want to point out is that there is no such thing as a "crowling." A baby crow is called a "sim." I only wrote crowling because it sounded cuter and seemed to fit the story. Writing "mommy's favorite little sim" would have sounded too weird, even for me.

I think if you asked most backyard bird watchers to name their favorite bird, "hummingbird" and "cardinal" would be at the top of the list. At the bottom of the list would be the American Crow...if it even made the list at all. But when it comes to having intelligence and a complicated social structure, crows are at the very top. The aforementioned hummingbird never knows its father, has little use for its siblings and ignores its own mother a few weeks after it leaves the nest. Crows remain together as a family unit for years and years. And even after young crows have moved away to start their own families, they will occasionally return to visit their parents. The return visits may be an effort to keep the family bonds strong but the more likely reason for visiting the parents is to borrow money.

To most observers crows appear to be a flock of disorderly, out-of-control, noisy birds, but the fact is they are very well behaved and well mannered, especially around the dinner table. Once in a while I'll toss out some old French fries onto our back parking lot, then stand back and wait to see what happens. If the crows arrive first, one of them will sit up in a tree and keep guard while the others peacefully eat the fries. There is never any pushing, fighting or stealing from each other. If the gulls arrive first, however, it's like the running of the bulls. There's all kinds of screaming, bullying, scratching and biting. The entire mess resembles one of those sissy fights professional baseball players get into. Crows could teach gulls and ballplayers a lot about proper etiquette.

Right now people are thinking: If crows have all these fabulous manners and willingly give each other so much R.E.S.P.E.C.T., how is it Dave witnessed a major crow-on-crow fight? Where was all the love? Hostile interactions between members of a crow family are uncommon and any aggression is usually just a quick peck upside the head. But all this buddy-buddy stuff doesn't transfer to crows outside the family. Crows can be brutal to birds out of their group. To us crows may all look the same, but they somehow know an outsider when they see one. The fight you saw could have been part of some kind of turf war; one family group trying to encroach on the territory of another. Or perhaps one of the birds was a loner, a bird without a family of its own. Sometimes loners are accepted into the group and other times they are rejected. I'd say the bird you saw was facing some serious rejection.

Now before you start worrying about this one rejected crow, Dave, you'll be happy to know that quite often another family will eventually accept the loser bird. And even if the bird never gets into a family group, it is still not left out in the cold. Rejected crows will frequently form their own flock. I don't know what a flock of loser crows are called, but if they were people, they would be called Saab dealers.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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