Family Corvidae

There’s a family in town I’ve been keeping an eye on lately, name of Corvid.  I know one lady who really loves them, and invites them over for meals all the time — but mostly I’d say people around Seldovia just barely tolerate them.  I’ve heard all sorts of gossip about the Corvids:  “They make a mess,” “They think they own the place,” “Why are they so loud?”  Or this: “Dirty thieves!  You can’t leave anything sitting out, not for a second, or they get into it.”

I suppose all of those things are true, but the Corvids are also family-oriented, intelligent, adaptable, gregarious, entertaining, and faithful.  The Corvids are actually a lot like humans, from their most admirable behaviors, to the very rock-bottom worst.  Maybe that’s why we sometimes don’t get along so well.

Steller’s Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Northwestern Crow, Common Raven: these are the members of the Family Corvidae I’ve seen here on Kachemak Bay.  I’ve also been fortunate to have met the Gray Jay, Blue Jay, American Crow, and Fish Crow in the eastern U.S., and the Hooded Crow and Jackdaw in Scotland.  There are about 118 species in the family worldwide, so I still have a long way to go.

The Corvids are found on every continent except Antarctica, and live in all kinds of habitats — from the desert to the forest, the tropics to the tundra.  Only the New World jays have mostly blue or green plumages; the Old World Corvids are predominantly gray, brown, or iridescent.  The black crown, nape, and mantle of the Steller’s Jay makes him look like he’s wearing a dark hood over a fancy suit of indigo velvet.  The Blue Jay is even dressier, with a black necklace, gray breast, and white decorations on his wings and tail.  These two are among the world’s most beautiful birds, but I fear their beauty is often overlooked because of their grating, unmusical screams and bad table manners at the bird feeder.

The Northwestern Crow is truly a creature of the Pacific Northwest.  I love watching them behave like shorebirds in the intertidal zone, picking through the kelp and rock-weed for seafood.  When they find a mussel, they’ll fly up high above the pavement of Main Street, and drop the mussel from great heights to break it open, exposing the tender meat inside.  Cars driving down the street crunch and crackle the broken shells.

An apple tree by the post office has produced a bumper crop of fruit the last couple of years.  A hard freeze and high winds have been knocking the last of the apples down this week.  The crows are doing the mussel-drop trick to break open the smaller apples, but some are too big for them to pick up.  While I would never directly feed the crows in town, I did step on a few of the wind-fall apples, crushing them into bite-sized chunks.

Last winter I saw, brilliant against the perfect snow, oranges spilled from a dropped grocery bag. A crow was sizing up the situation.  Globe of orange, blank white snow, black crow:  it looked like a haiku, or a simple wood-block print.  An orange, in Alaska, in the winter?  How improbable.  The crow’s head was tilted to the side, puzzling out how to tap into this unexpected sweet treat.  Too big for the mussel-drop.

Corvids are smart.  Legendary for their facial recognition skills, crows appear to be able to recognize individual cars, too.  Hazel Brown has fed the crows for years.  I think she may have put food on top of her car for them.  Last year Esther Int-Hout bought Hazel’s car, and moved it down the block to her own driveway.  The crows followed the car, and were plaguing Esther’s driveway and upstairs deck, expecting to be fed.  “We need to tell them that Hazel doesn’t live here, Esther,” I suggested.  We went out to the car and told the crows, “Hazel isn’t around here, this isn’t her car anymore.  Go on now, we won’t feed you.”  Then we went up to the deck and did the same thing.  “They need to see your face, Esther.  Tell them this is your house.”  We giggled a bit, but she followed my instructions, and it worked!  The crows immediately stopped coming around.

(Maybe they gave up because Esther never fed them.  I admit it was not a very scientific experiment.  But I choose to believe they made the mental connection.)

Ravens and crows don’t mix around here.  The crows’ territory is the downtown area, and the ravens are up in the higher elevations, wilder country.  In Sitka, however, ravens rule the city – literally, figuratively, spiritually, and symbolically.  They even own the airwaves.  The local public radio station is KCAW, 104.7 FM, Raven Radio.  I spent last summer working in a remote field camp on St. Lazaria Island, about 15 miles from Sitka.  We had Raven Radio on in the cabin all the time.  My co-worker, Stuart, always hoped that the radio DJs would develop a signature tagline and actually croak out “Kay, Caaaaw!” or some other raven vocalization, but they never did.

We had both ravens and Northwestern Crows on St. Lazaria Island, and they maintained strict territories there, too.  The ravens had the northwest end, the crows had the east, nearer the cabin.  The crows on the island have a unique call I haven’t heard anywhere else.  They sound like a European siren, a long nasal cat-like “Waah-ooonh-ahh, waah-ooonh-ahh.” Sometimes they finish it on an ascending tone, making it a question: “Waah-ooonh-ahh?”  It made me smile every time I heard it, although I never did figure out what they were asking.

My Uncle Barry lives in Florida, and says the Fish Crows mock him when he’s preparing to putt on the golf green.  “Uh-uh!” one will call, just as he’s about to take his shot.  Barry stops and sets it up again.  Ready to swing the putter… calm… concentrating… “Uh-uh!” yells another Fish Crow.  I guess Barry gets mad, but maybe he should just accept their coaching.  After all, his last name is Crowe, and he used to be a coach himself.  Constructive criticism from kindred spirits.

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