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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

June 14, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Baby crows raise a ruckus

All over the city, baby crows are raising a ruckus, begging for food from their parents.

NewCrowOffspring.jpg

Alan Berner, photo

This parent has been busily tending this nest of baby crows tucked into a tree outside the office of Seattle Times Assistant Managing Editor Jim Simon. The crows don’t seem to mind the noise of all the traffic on Fairview Avenue just below them.


And of course, parent crows are belting it out too, scolding anyone or anything they think is bothering, or might bother, their young. Ever vigilant, they are alert to everything going on in their neighborhood.
Crows for Lynda 008.JPG
A parent crow stands watch on the nest.
Laura Gordon, photo

Put it all together, and June is the noisiest month of the year for crow families. A big part of it is the rowdy young are just now beginning to leave the nest, and following their parents around begging for food.
Their distinctive begging call, notes UW biologist John Marzluff, is just part of an elaborate repertory of sounds and calls.
“They probably do have language,” notes Marzluff, who is writing his third book on crows. “They have a very complex communication system that involves syntax, and symbolic representation.”
From clucking, rattling in excitement, cawing rapidly in fear or deeply out of aggression, every sound has a purpose, he noted.
“The number of caws, the scold versus cawing for vocalization, those are sounds that go with meaning,” Marzluff said. “Some would argue that is a language. We have paid a lot of attention to it, and decoded some of the basic messages and the complexity of how they combine these different sounds, and how they vary by individual, and by emotion.”
It’s not just our imagination: While it seems crows always have a lot to say, right now, as the young leave their nest, it’s a particularly noisy time, with the baby crows’ nagging begging calls, Marzluff noted. “While you are in the nest it helps to beg as you see your parent, to stimulate them to feed you and not your sib.
“And it is really important when you are out of the nest, and your parents might not know where you are. Plus you are a lot bigger, and mobile. And so all the young are following the parents around. It’s a circus. They have one job: to get fed. And they don’t want to miss out.”
Circus, indeed. Outside my house in Greenwood, the crow family that took up residence in the big pine has grown up, and the youngsters often perch on the wires across the street. Last Thursday morning, one of the parents was sitting on the wire as one of the young edged closer and closer, begging up a storm, until the parent finally stuffed something down its beak. Bother, pester, bother, pester, bother, pester… fed! So it goes in crow land, at least in my neighborhood.
Anyone out there with a photo or video of crow family antics in your neighborhood? Share it at Fieldnotes@seattletimes.com
To learn more about crow language and crow behavior, read the beautiful book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, written by Marzluff and artist Tony Angell, whose drawings grace the book.
To contemplate the value of enjoying nature in the city through the inspiration of a crow, read Crow Planet, by Seattle author, naturalist and speaker (and my dear friend, but it IS a great read!) Lyanda Lynn Haupt.

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