Crows are vocal and smart

Published 9:45 am Saturday, January 28, 2012

Column: Nature’s World

My neighbor Crandall stops by.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

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“Everything is nearly copacetic. I started out with nothing and I still have most of it. I remember having a Slinky back when I lived in a mobile home. It went down the step. That’s how things are going at Deepindebt Acres. I’m trying to slow down on my eating. I bolt my food. I bit my elbow the other day. The only thing I won’t eat for breakfast is lunch and dinner. I should go back to being a door-to-door salesman. I was rail-thin then. I knocked on a zillion doors because I was paid a nickel a knuckle. Pop is in the hospital. Somebody ran a stop sign and hit Pop’s pickup. He was driving his truck, a Ford Fossil, because it’s the only place where he is allowed to smoke. The other driver was talking on his cell phone and didn’t see the sign. That guy is so slimy, slugs pour salt on him. He claims it wasn’t his fault because Pop should have seen that he was on the phone. Pop didn’t say a word. He figures the silent hog eats all of the swill.”

“Is your father going to be OK?” I ask.

“Yeah, the doctor said he’ll regain the use of everything except his money.”


Backyard glimpses

It was a quiet morning. I drank tea at my desk. I listened to the silence. I went outside. The quiet ended. Crows became vocal. My yard has caw-waiting.

Crows are smart. A number of readers have sent me a video of a crow picking up the lid of a jar, placing it on the peak of a snow-covered roof and using the lid like a sled to slide down. It was play. The crow could fly, but it kept its feet planted on the lid. It wanted to slide down the roof.


Seeing swans

I trained my spotting scope on a pair of swans in open lake water on a sunny January day. The water was blue and the swans were so white. The sight reminded me of a collective noun used for swans. Some of my favorite collective nouns include a murmuration or affliction of starlings, a congress of crows, and an asylum of loons. As I looked at the swans surrounded by blue, my favorite became a whiteness of swans. Their contrasting beauty caused me to say something that I say often, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”


Shoveling snow

I don’t enjoy shoveling snow, but I don’t complain. I can’t gripe because I don’t live in Valdez, Alaska. A normal winter there brings 326.3 inches of snow. During the winter of 1989-90, 560.7 inches of snow fell on Valdez.

I shoveled without bellyaching and listened to the house sparrows chirp. They appeared to be enjoying the wicked winter weather. Some years ago, a house sparrow knocked down more than 23,000 dominoes in the Netherlands. People had worked for weeks setting up more than 4 million dominoes in an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for falling dominoes. A system of gaps prevented the bird from knocking more of the dominoes over prematurely. The bird was shot and killed. The dominoes fell after the bird.


A snowy owl with a bad GPS

The snowy owl breeds in Arctic regions, raising young in remote tundra. Record numbers have moved south this year. They alight in places reminiscence of their home — flat and nearly treeless expanses. Why are there so many here? Prey availability is the root cause. Their chief food source is the lemming. There was an abundance of the small rodents in the spring that resulted in a large number of owlets surviving to adulthood. The increase in juvenile owls put pressure on lemming populations and the birds were forced south in search of other food sources. Snowy owls are frequently attracted to tundra-like environments such as those found at airports. One snowy owl flew all the way to Hawaii — to the Honolulu Airport. Airport officials decided that it posed a threat to aircraft and shot it. It was the first snowy owl recorded that far south.


Q and A

“Why are all the birds I see perched on utility wires facing the same direction?” Birds fly and land into the wind. This provides them with maximum lift and control in flight. Birds have an easier time taking off and landing when facing the wind. Facing another direction would ruffle their feathers. Facing the same direction makes it easier to communicate. The streamlined profile stabilizes them. If the wind dies, the birds might face different directions.

“What kind of squirrel is a black squirrel?” It’s a melanistic version of the eastern gray squirrel. Black squirrels can exist wherever grey squirrels live. Melanism is an undue development of dark-colored pigment. Grey pairs may produce black offspring. Black squirrels appear to have been dominant throughout North America prior to the arrival of Europeans, since the dark color helped them hide in dense forests that tended to be shaded. Hunting and deforestation led to biological advantages for grey squirrels. The black squirrels have an increased cold tolerance because they lose less heat than grey squirrels.

“I hear about cougars being seen here. What signs should I look for?” Cougars are also called mountain lions, panthers, catamounts and pumas. The track of a cougar is 3 to 4 inches in diameter (approximately the size of or slightly larger than a baseball), with four toe prints around a lobed pad. The claws are retractable and typically do not show in a footprint. Cougar scat is large, usually more than an inch in diameter and highly segmented. It would likely contain deer hair and may be covered with dirt or leaves.

Thanks for stopping by

“It is only possible to live happily ever after on a day to day basis.” — Margaret Bonnano

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops — at all.” — Emily Dickinson




Al Batt of Hartland is a member of the Albert Lea Audubon Society. Email him at