Caw Caw of the Wild

The stealthy, predatory — and fascinating fish crow

By Susan Campbell

Everyone knows what a crow is, right? Well, no — not exactly. It is not quite like the term “seagull,” which is generic for a handful of different species. When it comes to crows, you can expect two species in the Piedmont during the summertime: the American crow and the fish crow. Unfortunately, telling them apart visually is just about impossible. However, when they open their beaks, it is quite a different proposition. The fish crow will produce a nasal “caw caw,” whereas the American crow will utter a single, clear “caw.” That single, familiar sound may very well be repeated in succession, but it will always be one syllable in contrast to the fish crow. Young American crows may sound somewhat nasal at first, but they will not utter the two notes of their close cousins, the fish crow.

Both crows have jet black, glossy plumage. Strong feet and long legs make for good mobility. They walk as well as hop when exploring on the ground. Also they have relatively large, powerful bills that are effective for grabbing and holding large prey items. Crows’ wings are relatively long and rounded, which allows for bursts of rapid flight as well as efficient soaring. The difference between the two species is very subtle: Fish crows are just a bit smaller, and probably the only way to accurately tell them apart is to have them side-by-side.

Fish crows are migratory across inland North Carolina. Before much longer, expect to see flocks of up to 200 birds staging ahead of the first big cold front of the fall. Most of the population will be moving generally eastward come October. For reasons we do not understand, some fish crows will overwinter in our area. Small groups are even being found on Christmas Bird Counts each December across the region. Because of in-migration, the number of fish crows along our coast swells significantly by mid-winter. Visiting flocks do not stay there long but are among our earliest returning breeding birds, arriving by early February for the spring and summer. Almost as soon as they reappear, they begin nest building. Interestingly their bulky stick-built platforms are hard to spot, usually perched in the tiptops of large pines. Furthermore, crows tend to be loosely colonial, so look for two or three pairs nesting close together in early spring.

Although fish crows are frequently found near water, they wander widely. They are very opportunistic, feeding by picking at roadkill, taking advantage of dead fish washed ashore, sampling late season berries, digging up snapping turtle eggs or, one of their favorite activities, robbing bird feeders with what often appears to be pure delight. But they can also be predatory. And though they are large birds, they can be quite stealthy. If you’re lucky, you might catch them stalking large insects in open fields or, at the water’s edge, frogs and crayfish. Unfortunately, fish crows are also very adept nest robbers and take a good number of eggs and nestlings during the summer.

These birds, as well as their American cousins, can become problematic. They are very smart and readily learn where to find an easy meal. At bird feeders, they will quietly wait until the coast is clear, especially if a savory lunch of mealworms or suet can be had.

Southern farmers, years ago, found a fairly effective deterrent was to hanging one of their brethren in effigy to keep flocks from decimating their crops. Recently I acquired a stuffed crow from my local bird store with the hope that this method would scare them from my feeding station and keep them from preying on nearby nests. Amazingly, it worked! I do move it regularly to keep the attention of passing would-be marauders. Of course, it is quite the conversation starter as well!  PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at susan@ncaves.com, or by calling (910) 585-0574.

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