April 27, 2013 in Washington Voices

Front Porch: My complex, fascinating neighbors

By The Spokesman-Review
 

They exist among us. Live and breed, squawk and scavenge. Jet black and cocky, they don’t care what we humans think, nor do they have to.

Throughout the year they swoop and dive, shouting their call across the sky as they bounce from limb to limb in the tall ponderosa pine trees that surround Spokane Valley. Many residents view them as a progenitor of the popular game Angry Birds. But crows are not angry – they’re highly intelligent, curious, a tad pushy, at times belligerent marauders with fierce protective and adaptive abilities.

I find crows fascinating. I’ve watched them soar across the sky, hop along our yard, stare at me when I speak to them. They seem to understand, possibly a byproduct of their humanlike social behaviors. Not only are they social but I’ve also read they’re astute problem-solvers, able to decide, calculate and carry out a mission effortlessly.

I had to test this fact. Two weeks ago, their familiar raucous call brought me to the front window. I watched as they rooted about the ground, searching, cocking their heads, thinking. It was time to experiment.

Crows are omnivorous and unfortunately I was clean out of spiders, eggs, insects, fruits and vegetables, so I took small pieces of bread and placed them on the top of the porch fence. Two pairs of dark eyes watched. “Would you like a bit of food?” I said laying the pieces in a row. One flew up and perched on a trailer next door, the other stared from the ground as I walked back in the house.

The crow on the trailer swooped down to the lawn then hopped onto the porch rail. It picked up the bread, piece by piece, but soon realized it had crammed too much into its beak. It spit some out, flew up into the tree and returned to snatch the remaining pieces, leaving one large piece behind.

The crow returned, eyed it, cocked its head and then this ingenious character solved the problem by stepping on the bread and pulling bits off. I smiled at this funny and far too smart bird.

Wildlife amazes me and I’ve taken an admiring interest in the critters that many consider nuisances, trying to understand their role in this world, why they tolerate us and how they survive despite all we do to them.

To better understand these neighborhood inhabitants, I clicked on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website and discovered the American crow and the raven are relatives of the corvid family and common throughout Eastern Washington, although ravens are likely to live in less crowded areas. Tail feathers differentiate the two – ravens have wedge shaped tails and crows have fan shaped tails.

Both mom and dad build the nest and tend to the young. In fact, last year, our neighbors found themselves in the middle of a crow rearing marathon. Early morning squawks were heard repeatedly much to our neighbor’s dismay as the parents cajoled their chick to take flight but also defending the youngster against harm. One afternoon I watched as they flew above while their fledgling hopped along the lawn and woe to anyone who came too close.

Crows and ravens are family oriented, converging in spring and summer in groups of two to eight, then gathering in late summer, fall and winter to form communal night roosts. It appears humans aren’t the only ones who love to party.

Above all, what I’ve noticed about these interesting creatures is that they’re part and parcel of what makes up our world. Many think of them as useless scavengers, irritating and mean. I find them a fascinating, complex and highly intelligent addition to the neighborhood.

Voices correspondent Sandra Babcock can be reached by email at Sandi30@comcast.net. Previous columns are available at spokesman.com/columnists/.

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