Crow’s storied history welcome at birdfeeder

Crow showed up in the early spring. One gray morning he was there hopping blue-black beneath the feeders amidst the birds that were just passing through, the rose-breasted grosbeaks and burnt orange orioles.

After a just a few weeks those birds left with their colors and continued on their migration. Crow decided this was a good place to be, I guess. He has been here ever since.

Crow is not a problem except that the smaller birds seem to stay away when he flies in for a snack. A few times Becky and I have decided that he has eaten enough and in the interest of fair play have opened the door, causing him to spread his large wings and flap away.

Our human idea of justice takes precedence over nature’s, we argue, if for no other reason than we provide the food in the first place. Besides, we enjoy watching the other birds, too.

Stories have long established Crow as an intelligent bird. Aesop tells the fable of Crow, half dead with thirst discovering a pitcher with only a small amount of water left in it. Though he tried, he couldn’t reach down far enough to get at it.

He had almost given up when a thought came to him. Crow took a pebble and dropped it into the pitcher. Then he dropped another and another again and again until at last the water level rose up to where he could reach his beak in and quench his thirst. (Moral: Little by little does the trick.)

For those of you who need more objective evidence, science has weighed in on Crow’s intelligence. Experiments designed based on the Aesop fable show that Crow indeed will use pebbles to get at a goal — in one experiment, the prize was a worm. Other research shows that Crow and his crew can recognize human faces, conspire with one another, use tools and adapt their behaviors to solve problems.

Crow hadn’t been at our feeders for very long when we witnessed his adaptability in action.

At first, Crow ate the crumbs that fell to the ground from the hanging suet cage. He would clean up after other birds who clung to the cage and pecked at the cakes. One morning about a week after his arrival, I saw him cock his head as if thinking, then suddenly fly up to the suet cake and try to peck at it.

It took him a few tries, but soon he was successfully jabbing the suet then dropping down to eat. I know it is usually an error to apply human motives to animals, but a bird thinking is what I saw.

As I said, when Crow eats, other birds mostly leave him alone. One bird that doesn’t seem intimidated by Crow, however, is Pileated Woodpecker. He is nearly as big as Crow (both between 16 to 21 inches according to Peterson’s Field Guide) and boasts a sharp beak to boot. Recently, I watched as a standoff developed between the two.

Pileated Woodpecker swooped in (he really does swoop) and landed, gripping the side of the wooden post that holds the suet. Crow landed on the ground about the same time. It was clear neither one was leaving.

Crow hopped around on the ground underneath looking up while Pileated clung to the post slowly moving around to keep an eye on Crow and to position himself for the leap from post to suet cage. Neither one seemed to be giving in until finally Crow, weary of the dance, I guess, flew off and Pileated had the suet to himself.

Throughout history, Crow and his close cousin Raven have been depicted in stories and myths from around the world. Sometimes as a trickster, sometimes as a good omen, sometimes as a bad omen and sometimes as a messenger from the Divine. Although I might be reading too much into it, I like to think of Crow as a new friend who has graced our lives.