Bird Watcher's General Store

Fish Crow

Dear Bird Folks,

Why are all the crows around my house trying to sound like ducks? Instead of their usual harsh “caw,” the crows in my area give a double note call that sounds part “caw” and part “quack.” I’ve lived here for 35 years and this is the first year I’ve heard these crow-ducks. Any thoughts?

– Chuck, in the woods of Brewster, MA.

You are close, Chuck,

Ornithologists do not refer to the birds you are hearing as “crow-ducks,” but you are close. The proper term is “crucks,” which is a crow and duck cross. (Not to be confused with Crocs, those hideous shoe things some people actually wore a few years ago.) Crucks are a strange hybrid of a female duck and…oh, forget it. I can tell right away no one is buying any of this. The birds you are hearing (and this is true) are Fish Crows. But they are not related to ducks or fish. Fish Crows are a real thing and they sound very much as you have described. Although, I never thought of them as sounding duck-ish, but you might have a better imagination than I do. Either that or you are enjoying something in the woods of Brewster that’s not quite legal…yet.

Many people might not realize it, but the eastern United States has two species of crows. There is the American Crow, a bird that can be found just about anywhere and everywhere. We also have the slightly smaller Fish Crows, which traditionally have been limited to coastal areas. Fish Crows tend to be overlooked because they are nearly identical to American Crows. Most folks probably just call them both “crows” and have never noticed or cared that there are two different species. Birders, on the other hand, very much care about the birds being two distinct species. This is because birders will do just about anything to add another bird to their life lists.

My favorite bit of information about Fish Crows is the fact that they are endemic to the United States. That means these birds spend 100% of their life in the U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.! (Sorry, I have a touch of Olympic fever.) If you travel to Canada or Mexico or Lichtenstein or even Margaritaville, you won’t see a single Fish Crow. They are totally American birds and the majority of them live along our southeast coast (Texas to Virginia). However, over the past century these crows have been moving northward and slightly inland. You are probably too young to remember 1973, Chuck, but that was the year the first Fish Crows were discovered breeding in Massachusetts, and their numbers have been increasing ever since. Why have they been increasing, you ask? The answer is simple: it’s because of beavers, of course. How do you not know that?

As their name indicates, Fish Crows are fond of fishy things. More specifically, their diet consists of anything they can find in a marine environment. They’ll eat crabs, shrimp, aquatic worms and whatever else they can capture while picking through tidal flats or scrounging along the beach. Fish Crows will also eat eggs, including heron eggs. Here is where the beavers come in. Over the past ninety years, the Massachusetts beaver population has gone from zero to over 70,000. As we all know, those charming beavers like to build dams, and dams create wetlands, and wetlands attract herons, and herons lay eggs, and Fish Crows eat eggs. Undoubtedly, there’s a list of other reasons why the Fish Crows’ population is increasing, including food waste produced by humans, but the rise in the heron population (thanks to the beavers) is also thought to be a reason. Gotta love those beavers.

Even though Fish Crows are smaller than American Crows, sorting them out in the field is challenging. The best way to tell the two birds apart is by their voices. Fortunately for us (at least in this case), crows never shut up. If you hear a boisterous “caw, caw,” there is no question which bird is saying it. But the Fish Crow’s call is not nearly as raucous and usually consists of two notes. Most observers feel the bird is saying “unh-unh” (and some even hear a duck accent). As usual, I hear things a little differently. To me, Fish Crows sound like they just saw something funny and are responding with a subtle “ha, ha.” I might be alone on this one, but so few birds ever say anything funny anymore; I have to go with it.

To summarize: If you hear a loud “caw,” it is coming from an American Crow. But if you hear a soft “ha, ha” (and no one is making fun of you), you are hearing a Fish Crow. It’s that simple. Except, it isn’t. In the summer there are a lot of young American Crows around and all have poor language skills. The hungry birds are demanding to be fed, but instead of saying “caw,” they are relentlessly yelling “ma” (at least that’s what it sounds like to me). Even baby crows realize the best way to get food is to yell “ma.” They know if they yell “dad,” they’ll probably just be ignored, at least that’s what would happen in my house.

You have Fish Crows in your yard, Chuck. You should tell your friends and I’m sure they’ll all be envious. But if they aren’t impressed, you could also tell them that you have “crucks.” On second thought, maybe you shouldn’t mention the cruck thing. Your friends might think you are talking about those hideous shoes and they might not want to be seen with you anymore…and who would blame them?

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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