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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Crow territorality

by Jamie Lutton

I have been feeding crows for about six months now, and have noticed that the crows  have very strict rules among themselves about territory.  I walk 9 blocks to work, and am greeted by four distinct groups of crows.

There are three who sometimes come and fly up to the front door of my apartment; they sometimes are joined by a few others. Even though they fly inches over my head and caw at me quite vigorously, they will not follow me farther than a block and a half from my house. Sometimes, when I am not paying attention to them, they fly by on my right or left, zipping by me flying only a foot off of the ground in a long glide, and land in front of me, then stare at me, hopping around. This is to remind me that they are there, there, there, and they want a treat. Not all crows do this; only one or two crows in each group will greet me like this; older fat crows.

The younger ones hold back; stay in the trees, and just stare down at me. They might light down on the ground, but at a fair distance from me, and don't necessarily talk to me. This morning, I spoke to a father carrying a toddler, and the crows stayed in the trees, talking only a little; when I am with anyone else, they keep their distance, every time. One crow in the first group meets me every day in front of the same building, on the sidewalk, flying down and landing near my feet. He takes one treat I toss to him, walks with it for a few feet, then looks back at me, waiting for a second.  He gets very close to me; the closest any of the crows get, but not if anyone is around. He greets me on the edge of the boundary of his territory.

There is a second group of crows who greet me there, who prowl around the back of the QFC grocery store. They greet me joyfully, flying from the south to greet me, soaring a few feet off the ground, flying from behind to land at my feet, too, but peel off when I get another few blocks south past where I met them. I am often left alone between groups of crows; when I go around a corner of a block, say, they will all vanish; I have left their territory.

Then, a third group of crows discover me, as  I get within three blocks of my shop, and they 'sing' me all along the way to work, sitting on trees and wires, flying just over my head and landing on trees ahead of me as I walk south.  Our game on the last stretch on the walk to work is not to get the attention of the seagulls if one flies by.  I have noticed that the crows get very quiet then, so the gulls do not come over and steal the treats I throw. We have learned that this is necessary. I notice that the crows do not want to mess with the gulls, which are five times their size and look pretty aggressive.

Separate from these three, though loosely connected to them, is a big mob that hangs out on Broadway. There are about 30 to 40 of them, and they make a very loud fuss if they see me come up to the main street.. They dance on the sidewall in front of me on Broadway, skipping their hop and skip, then flying into the trees overhead, especially if it is in the early morning, and no one is around. They always hang out on the wires, in the trees, staring down at me, when I get my coffee at an outside vendor, waiting in great quiet groups. They only caw when I start to throw treats to them, as if to applaud me.I think this group's territory is the east side of Broadway, as they do not follow me very far south to my shop, and they don't notice me if I don't walk down a one street west in the morning. 

I have seen individual crows fight over territory. If a crow who is out of place flies over to get a treat from me, especially near my apartment, a local crow will trounce him. He will  chase him in the air out of the area, flying at great speed harrying him, rather like two airplanes in a war movie, but faster, or wrestling with him on the ground, in a quick harsh scuffle. The contact is quick and fierce.  I note that when I am at the edge of one territory, and near another, there are often struggles like this, though I might have put several treats on the ground, so that there is enough for all.  This is most evident when I am off of Broadway, in the border between small groups of crows.The big mob on Broadway do not seem to do this.

From what I have read and observed, crows can have a territory of only a few blocks, and do not leave it. At the end of the day, though, they leave that tiny area and fly several miles to gather and sleep in a huge group in the arboretum park on Lake Washington.I notice that crows get more and more scarce as the day goes by, in late winter as I write this. By three p.m., they begin to vanish, and by four, there are hardly any about (and I have looked). I think that they begin to fly to the park well before sundown. Perhaps the trip takes them a while. It is also very cold this March, and perhaps they are warmer when they are in their big group.

In the morning, I do not see them right at dawn; it takes a good hour for them to assemble from the park. And at first, they have to gather in the tops of trees, and talk, before they notice humans below them.

When it is windy, there are also fewer crows about. A few days ago, it was quite gusty, and I noticed that there were few crows around at all, and none in the open sky. They were sticking close to the buildings where they could be shielded from the force of the wind (gusting to 40 mph).  The ones I did see flying were struggling against the wind, and twisting about against the force of it.

Walking to work everyday has become an exercise like walking flying dogs without leashes. Last year I had gone about and asked several dog owners without success if I could walk their dog, as I was lonely, I like dogs a lot, had time for it, and also had trouble getting enough exercise. I had no success.

Now, my ''dogs'' have found me. I am always looking up, to see if I can see any crows about. When I throw a treat, I aim at a particular bird who has landed on the street or sidewalk, which has improved my throwing ability. He grabs the treat, flies off, and other crow usually presents himself to play catch. I toss treats, and the crows play  catch with me, all the way to work, each small group abandoning the game and a new group starting, as I pass through their territory.  

My cats have been very amused by a little game I play with the crows back at the shop. I have a railing just outside my bookstore, on the ramp, that has a flat top. I mentioned before that I put dog biscuits out there for the crows. Now, the cats all line up at the windows to wait for me to put a few out, and the crows land on the railing as I put the treats out, hopping up the railing to grab them. The standard pattern the crows have is to swallow one whole, and then grab two and balance them in their beaks, before flying away. I do think they regurgitate the one that they eat whole; I understand they have a sac in their throat for carrying food away in such a fashion. I can always tell the truly hungry crow, as he will attack the biscuit on the spot, breaking it up, and eating it piece by piece. The ones who grab several are saving them for a later time; they hide them in special hoards, for each individual bird. .

A friend who works at the pet store where I buy the treats says that she saw a crow pulling a dog biscuit out of a bush and eating it. I knew that they hid the food to eat later; but she was the only eyewitness I have to that behavior and the dog treats I give out.  I don't give that many out, only maybe 30 a morning, but the birds may have realized that this was food that would 'keep' for a while, and saved it for a rainy day. I have a vision that the roofs and bushes around my route to work are filled with hidden dog biscuits....

I have figured out the rough ages of the crows I am looking at.  The thinner crows are younger, and more timid; the fatter, are older and more confident and bold. I keep watching them, and whenever a crow is really shy, it is a thin one every time. I understand it takes four years for them to grow up; so I expect the thin crows I am looking at are anywhere from one year to three years old. The really fat crows, so fat that they have big heads, really filled out plump crows, are old, sucessful crows that have been around for five years or more. If you look carefully, you can see crows that are really, really fat flying about. They are the ones that are the boldest, every time, the ones that have made friends with me the fastest.

I expect in a few months the young crows born this year will be learning to fly, and be around; by June or so. For anybody watching, I believe that they have red or pink in the corners of their beaks, and red mouths. And they will be more awkward and shy, perhaps a birdwatcher might even be able to see them learning to use their wings.

It is a harsh fact that only about one crow in three makes it to its first year. Learning to dodge cars, raptors, and cats kills so many, as well as other kinds of  falling accidents. If someone who is reading this has  a crow 'dive bomb' their head this spring, remember that that is probably an adult crow that is worried you are too close to a young one that is learning to fly. Somewhere near your feet there might even be one on the ground who is winded and can't take off yet.

So, don't take it personally. It is just another sign of spring. They can't hurt you.

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