By Lily Reynolds
Chaos. That is the best word I could use to describe it. Bird feeders filled to the brim with seeds sat in between the nets that we set up to capture and band the migratory birds for research. One after another, a bird, flying toward the feeder in pursuit of food, hit the net. In their struggle, the birds became a flurry of colorful feathers as their delicate limbs became entangled in the fine mesh nets. That is when the clock would start. We only had a short window of time in which the birds could be safely left ensnared in the net. We had to work fast and delicately untangle their wings as they fought and cried out against us. While holding the birds in our hands the pounding of their small hearts was an indicator of their stress levels. Students had handfuls of bagged birds waiting to be weighed, banded, and released. A goldfinch, then a titmouse, even a common redpoll. The birds were endless. It was a race to get them inside, observe the procedure of the wildlife biologists, release them, wash, rinse, and repeat. In the background of all this chaos, we heard them mocking us. “Caw … Caw … Caw …” Crows: The uncatchable bird. Earlier that morning, before the chaos, we had been told it was unlikely we would catch crows.
The morning began in my friend Paola’s silver Honda. The smell of cheap coffee and McDonald’s hash browns wafted through the car as we rolled up to the nature center at Homer Lake, barely 15 miles from the University of Illinois campus. We needed the coffee, because we were not yet accustomed to the early schedule for viewing and capturing migratory birds. Throwing on our warming layers, we trekked through the nature center until we reached a room crammed with our classmates. Hand paintings of trees and natural scenery covered the walls, and the trickle of water from the filtered turtle tanks filled the silence as we waited for our instructor and teaching assistant to join us. Once everyone had filed into this room, no larger than an average living room, we heard the rundown. We would first set up fine mesh nets called mist nets outside the center by the feeders to capture birds. Once the songbirds became entangled in the net, we would untangle them, bag them, study, band them, and then release them. The whole process, we were told, is quick once you get the hang of it.
As we untangled the mist nets, we saw a giant mass of corvids heading toward us. A voice in the crowd asked, “What would the protocol be if one of those flew into our net?”
The experienced birders chuckled. “It is highly unlikely. They are too smart. But if we do catch one, I’ll let one of you deal with that sharp beak.”
We laughed, but it struck me. They are too smart? The birds that frequent refuse piles? That farmers put up dummies to scare? That can’t be right. I am brought back to the royal garden in Sweden where I had my first up-close experience with crows. My classmates and I observed jackdaws (members of the crow family) battle over a slice of cheesecake at our café table. Sugar coated their beaks in an almost comical fashion. Surely these cannot be related to the geniuses capable of evading our clever traps. But as I would soon come to discover, there is much more to these creatures than I had previously thought. Many of the assumptions that I held were due to myths about crows I had been exposed to.
Throughout history, crows have been given a rotten reputation. Symbolizing death, bad luck, and even being accused of starting the bubonic plague, they have been met with harsh persecution. Crows have had to evade countless extermination attempts worldwide such as bombing, poisoning, and shooting. In Greek mythology the raven was associated with the god Apollo and was cursed with its jet-black feathers due to the raven’s inability to successfully watch over Apollo’s mistress Coronis. To a superstitious individual, the number of crows holds significance. If five crows are spotted outside of a home, disease will befall the household. Western literature has further spread crow hatred. The works of Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe have managed to give the bird a sinister meaning for their audiences. In Shakespeare’s famous play Macbeth, crows and ravens are symbols that foreshadow evil afoot, and the eventual death of King Duncan. “The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements” (Shakespeare, trans. 2021, 1.5.38-40). Shakespeare mentioned corvids so frequently in his writings that author Jemima Blackburn was able to write an entire book in 1899 titled Crows of Shakespeare.
Despite this unfortunate negative portrayal of crows throughout history, many species like the American crow have managed to persist regardless of humanity’s best efforts to remove them. They have been so successful it can be difficult to imagine a world without them. You can find them nearly anywhere: landfills, cornfields, backyards, stadiums, powerlines, and rooftops. Their characteristic vocalization and sleek glossy black feathers are unmistakable. The reason for their success can be attributed, in part, to their generalist nature along with their impressive intelligence. Capable of thriving in diverse habitats, they inhabit most areas of the continental United States.
Crows do more than survive; they are fiercely intelligent. In one study a crow named Betty was able to select the appropriately sized wire to create tools to reach inaccessible food in a lab. Tool use, a trait often associated with the beginnings of mankind’s rise to power, has been widely observed in New Caledonian crows. These geniuses have been observed manufacturing spear-like tools out of pandanus leaves to acquire grubs under leaves.
Crows’ intelligence is not exclusively mechanical, but emotional as well. Author Thom Van Dooren noted in his book Flight Ways (2016) that crows have been observed to leave offerings on dead crows. Grieving death is a trait, like tool use, that is unjustly associated solely with humans. We like to believe that we are the only beings truly capable of perceiving life and death on this planet, but this is a wrongful assumption. Grieving crows would beg to differ.
Another one of the more renowned crow studies was done by researcher John Marzluff, who used troll-like masks on volunteers capturing crows in the wild. This study proved significant in demonstrating that crows can recognize “good” and “bad” people. Crows would attack and taunt volunteers and continued to do so 14 years after the initial study. This ability to recognize individuals is an important trait to have to survive the Anthropocene and years of persecution. An internet trend recently emerged in which people attract and feed crows to gain their trust and receive shiny gifts from the birds. It is important for crows to remember these safe sanctuaries and be able to distinguish friendly backyards from those that deploy netting, spikes, and electrical deterrents to eliminate them.
Some species of crows have not been as lucky as the American Crow. The Hawaiian crow, otherwise known as the ‘Alalā, is extinct in the wild. This is not because they lack the intelligence of their American counterparts. Like their New Caledonian relatives, they, too, have been observed to use tools to acquire food. Unlike their relatives, however, they were devastated by the swift colonization of Hawaii in the 19th century. Habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and persecution all led to the downfall of the ‘Alalā. This loss, along with the overall loss of 50% of avian biodiversity, may have led to a cascading effect on the forests of Hawaii.
While crows are fascinating in and of themselves, they are essential to ecosystem health. Threats to crows are threats to all, as the Hawaiian examples shows. Susan Culliney and her colleagues examined the role of the ‘Alalā in shaping plant communities and developed a study to determine the importance of the reintroduction of the ‘Alalā. Birds are often important dispersers of seeds for plants. As they carry seeds away from their parent plants, they decrease the chance of intraspecific competition. Birds gain a meal from the fruit around the seeds, while the seeds hitch a ride to a new location that could increase their ability to thrive. Multiple large-fruited plants in ‘Alalā’s past range are now rare or endangered. The reintroduction of ‘Alalā to these areas could help restore these plants and trees to their natural abundance.
Scientists also developed an experiment on a captive ‘Alalā population in which they recorded eating, carrying, and caching behavior (food-storing behavior) along with seed germination success from droppings and pellets. Some plants experienced possible negative effects from crows ingesting their seeds but most noticed little to no effect, while others like the threatened Hō‘awa experienced greater success after crow ingestion. This shows that these crows play an essential role in their ecosystem’s function. Their loss has caused irreparable damage to their native habitat as a direct result of human actions. The scientists’ results suggest that restoring the ‘Alalā population could save conservationists time and thousands of dollars by allowing the ‘Alalā to do the work of reforestation. This plan, however, relies on the survival of ‘Alalā in the vastly altered environment of present-day Hawaii. The stretches of forests which they are historically accustomed to have been replaced by invasive species and parking lots. It is imperative that these natural processes be restored because seed dispersal comes effortlessly to these native dispersers. Culliney and her colleagues urge conservationists in Hawaii to consider focusing on strategies such as captive breeding efforts and developing suitable restored sites to allow the ‘Alalā to function as productive members of their native habitat.
Persecution, habitat fragmentation, and climate change still impact multitudes of species today — not only our charismatic crow. According to some scientists’ predictions, we are undergoing the sixth mass extinction event. The loss of one creature is enough to cause a cascading effect on other organisms along with their habitat. Often, we take for granted the ecosystem services birds provide, like seed dispersal. These services often become overlooked, and the fate of these creatures teetering on the brink of extinction relies on the stories we tell. Through stories, creatures like crows become more than a name, and instead a part of something greater. It is not merely the loss of one species but an unraveling of their way of life that impacts their fellow creatures, plants, and us. Our fates are interwoven with those of crows and all of the creatures in their ecosystems. Stories like the ‘Alalā must be shared if they are to have a place with us in the future.
Though the ‘Alalā population might still have a chance to recover and be reintroduced to their native range, the same cannot be said for other fruit-eating bird species that once inhabited the Hawaiian island chain. It is up to us now to restore these natural places for future generations of humans, birds, plants, and other lifeforms. This begins with telling their stories. They are not a nuisance to scare away, trap, bomb, poison, and shoot. There is an ecological significance associated with every creature, even us.
This is what I am reflecting on as I continue my avian research in Illinois. These days, I’m waking at 3 a.m. to ensure I get to the field site on time to help a graduate student with her lark research. We pull a long rope with attached soda cans through a field to flush out the eastern meadowlark mothers from their nests. It is grueling work. We walk for miles through lumpy grassland, but I dare not complain. Our aim is to better tell the stories of meadowlarks. We want to capture birds who were once tagged so we can tell the story of where they came from. We want to know how many nests they are laying and how many are successful.
Most people that I am close to don’t care about crows and have never seen a meadowlark. They have never heard their stories, but now that I am a working bird conservationist, my roommates and my family hear about my work and now share concerns about the declines of these birds. They send me photos of birds and it warms my heart. It is imperative to share these stories with our friends and families, and to continue being curious and seeking them out so we can appreciate our beautifully entangled world and the intricate relationships woven throughout.
When you’re next idly watching a crow, be aware the crow is watching you back. They know our patterns and our routines. As our landscape becomes scarred by human hands, they observe these changes. As the prairies and wetlands of Illinois have become obsolete in the age of corn and soy, these birds have had to improvise, adapt, and overcome. As weather patterns become more unpredictable and hazardous, they will need to take shelter somewhere. Watching crows, I wonder if they’re thinking, “What kind of creatures are these humans?”
About the Author …
Lily Reynolds is a senior majoring in Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences with a concentration in Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. She is passionate about pollinators and birds and hopes to work with them further as a field technician before applying to graduate school programs in wildlife conservation.
This article was written for ESE/ENGL 360, a Certificate in Environmental Writing course.
Dooren, Van Thom. Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth.