By John G. Woods
The last week of February, a local birdwatcher saw a crow carrying a long stick in its beak as the bird flew towards a large Douglas fir on the southern flanks of Mount Ida.
Crows often choose these large trees as nesting sites. The stick was obviously intended to be used as material to build a new nest or repair an old one. That’s all I needed to declare that spring has arrived.
Officially known as the common raven, these birds are considered exceptionally intelligent. The stories and traditions of the peoples of North America, Europe, Asia and North Africa tell of a species that attracts human attention. Here in the Shuswap, they are our hiking and skiing companions through mountains and valleys, in all seasons. As the largest species of the largest group of birds in the world, perching birds, we notice crows and they notice us.
A large tree or a cliff are typical nesting sites for crows. Birds do not tolerate intruders near the nest, especially hawks. I saw a pair of crows aggressively chasing a red-tailed hawk that had accidentally (or so it seemed) flown over the crow’s nest.
Crows’ mastery of flight can seem almost magical as they fold their wings to dive, spread their tails and wings to soar, and flip onto their backs to fly upside down. While you can see all of this just by looking up, my favorite crow sighting is from the top of the cliffs where you see them eye to eye instead of eye to sky. The Shuswap has many cliffs that are ideal for voracious viewing. Two of my favorites are Enderby Cliffs and the lookout on the Rose-Swanson Trail.
It takes about three and a half weeks for a clutch of crow’s eggs to hatch. It takes another four to seven weeks before the young leave the nest, and even then the young remain in contact with their parents for an indefinite amount of time while frequently making loud calls that I decipher as “feed me!” From carrying sticks to helping juniors transition into adult crow society takes several months, which is likely the reason for their early nesting.
While it might seem odd to think of birds laying eggs while there’s still snow on the ground and ice on the lake, crows aren’t our only early nests. Horned owls and Canada jays are also recognized as early breeders. Incubating adults of these species will often have a layer of snow on their backs as their body heat and fluffy feathers keep their eggs nestled warm beneath them.
How to differentiate a crow from its little cousin the American crow? Great question and sometimes it’s hard to be sure. Most of the time, I rely on their different voices. Although both have a wide vocal range and variety, in general, crows give a deep croak or croak, while crows have a higher-pitched croak. Of course, they say a lot of other things, but if you listen to these species-specific calls, you’ll probably be able to separate them. If the birds are silent, identification is more difficult because other body characteristics are more difficult to judge. Crows are larger, with a sturdier beak and a tail that often resembles a diamond or wedge in flight. Crows are smaller, with thinner beaks, and often have a more perfect fan-shaped tail.
Shortly after the first stick-carrying crow was seen locally, another birder in Salmon Arm saw a mature bald eagle flying with a stick in its talons. Another sign of spring! Expect a deluge of birds and a sea of their voices as we go through March and April.
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