Spotting some spooky birds near Halloween
Halloween and the surrounding time is a big deal for a lot of people. Many love having the excuse to dress up in costume while some are celebrating other holidays instead of or in addition to Halloween, such as Dia de los Muertos. I was never a big costume person, and while I do love the candy, the part I was substantially more enamored by as a child were the spooky themes, the history, the imagery, and the myths.
I have long been immersed deep in the fantasy and sci-fi genres of media, so it honestly makes sense why I am fascinated by these aspects and there are some pretty specific images and legends that evoke that Halloween feel. Stores and houses are decorated with witches, cauldrons, ghosts, pumpkins, and a few of my favorite feathered friends: crows and ravens.
These birds with their distinct “caw, caw, caw” calls belong to a family of birds known as corvidae. They are not more notable in the fall than they are any other time of year, but they are definitely a common theme in the spooky month’s decorations and an evoke an equally well-known imagery in stories. Crows and ravens in particular have long been seen as omens and their presence can evoke an association with death or evil, and as such they are famously used in writings to evoke a specific dark and ominous theme such as in The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe.
The corvid family contains over one hundred species, but crows, ravens, and jays are the ones you are most likely to see in the United States. Other members of the corvid family like rooks and magpies are primarily found across the ocean in Europe and Asia. For example, I first saw a magpie in a park in Dublin, but there is one species of magpie, the Back-billed magpie, that is found in areas of the western US. Among each of these birds are a variety of species. The crow you most commonly find here in the United States, is not the same species you would find in Europe or Africa, and although scrub jays are common in other areas of the United States, in the northeast, you are more likely to find a blue jay.
It’s not always commonly known, but it is true that blue jays, stellar’s jays, scrub jays and any other jays are in the same family as crows and ravens. One doesn’t usually picture them with crows, but listen to the sounds they all make and you might begin to see some comparisons.
Although they have somewhat of a negative reputation, in reality crows and ravens are highly intelligent birds, and while they do eat carrion, or already dead animals, they also eat seeds, nuts, insects, and mice, which is why you so often pass flocks of them in fields. Speaking of flocks, the name for a group of crows is a murder, which only adds to their negative associations, but is also only one of the strange names given to groups of various birds.
Crows are a bit smaller than a raven and if you see them from above or below you can use their tail shape to tell them apart. Ravens have a more diamond shaped tail, while crows have a tailed that is rectangular with rounded edges.
Each member of the corvid family has their own quirks, but one thing I have always found interesting about American crows, and a few other corvid species, is that they are cooperative breeders. This means that a breeding pair will have multiple helpers, including their offspring from years past and other family members. Although these nosy neighbors can sometimes be a nuisance and occasionally there are just too many cooks in the kitchen, the presence of a certain number of helpers may increase the likelihood of survival for the nestlings. It also makes it easier for everyone to collectively build the nest and get food as the nesting pair basically have built-in babysitters available and it is easier to defend a specific territory.
Although I love these strange birds, many people find them to be creepy or a nuisance. However, I was delightfully surprised when I heard that cast iron crows were being installed on the trailside swing recently put up on the yellow trail here at Audubon in memory of Rose Stark. I know that I’m a strange one who loves bats and spider and crows, but it’s nice to hear that there are other people who love this ungainly, often misrepresented, and occasionally obnoxious bird as well.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are still open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is partially open, including restrooms, the Blue Heron Gift Shop, and some exhibits. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling 569-2345.
Chelsea Jandreau is a nature educator at the Audubon Community Nature Center.