Monday, October 26, 2020
Home News Notes from the sticks: A hard life in the crows’ nest

Notes from the sticks: A hard life in the crows’ nest

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I DON’T suppose many share this view, but I have rather a soft spot for crows. They are beautiful birds and I have been entertained over the summer by a family with three chicks. Although the youngsters are the size of the adults, they watch gormlessly while the parents hunt for morsels, then harass them with piteous cries to be fed. Here is a video of a parent with only two chicks, and that looks hard enough work.

The young ones will hang around with their parents until the next nesting season, when they are chased away.

There are crows all over the world. The species we have in Britain is the carrion crow (Corvus corone).

In Scotland there is also the hooded crow (Corvus cornix), which instead of being glossy black all over looks as if it is wearing a grey body-warmer.

The similar rook (Corvus frugilegus) can be distinguished from the carrion crow by its unfeathered nostrils area, making the beak look longer, and its feather ‘trousers’. It is more of a flock bird than the crow, hence the expression: ‘If there’s more than one crow they are rooks, if there is only one rook it’s a crow.’

Crows are highly intelligent and adaptable. Here is a film of one working out how to obtain a treat.

Of course you don’t know whether the crow was trained (I would like to think not), but at least the film is unedited. Not so this well-known BBC clip of crows using cars to crack nuts, voiced by St David Attenborough. This has been heavily edited and it is impossible to be sure that things happened as we are told.

Before we moved to Lancashire we lived for about 25 years in Bromley, a suburb of London, and throughout most of that time we hosted a pair of crows which owned our garden and the ones each side. We called them Cameron and Sheryl, and could tell them apart because Sheryl was a little smaller and shyer than her mate. We knew it was the same pair because they very gradually became tamer and would come closer to the house, eventually staying in the garden if we were out there, even with our dog. Plus the male broke his leg (we wondered if he had been caught in a trap) and although it mended he always had a limp. He also lost an eye but soldiered on. We put out food for them, reasoning that if they were not hungry they would not raid other birds’ nests for eggs and chicks. I am not sure how much of this they do, though. The little birds loathed magpies and would make a huge fuss if they spotted one, but they didn’t seem to object to the crows. There would be occasional scuffles in the trees when other crows tried to invade the territory but our pair always prevailed, until a year or two before we left when a younger pair took over. They were very timid. We supposed that our pair had died since they had no territory but to our astonishment after six months they were back, presumably having turfed out the interlopers. By this time they must have been well over 20 years old, which is not unheard of, though unusual. When we left our neighbours undertook to feed them.

For our pair life must have been pretty easy but in a nearby park there were scores and scores of apparently unattached birds. Seeing them pecking at the frosty ground in winter, I could not fathom how they could possibly support themselves. No wonder they were always on the lookout for a territory.

It is often said that farmers dislike crows because they attack lambs and peck out their eyes. Again, there seems to be some dispute about how big a problem this is. Crows are carrion eaters, not killers, and I am not sure how much evidence there is that they go for live lambs. The trouble is that farming inevitably involves disturbing the balance of nature (this is not a criticism, just an observation) and it takes over land which wild species had to themselves for eons. There is bound to be some conflict.

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When we moved to a village near Clitheroe there was a white crow living in one of the outer parts of town. It was not an albino, which lacks all pigment so has pink eyes, legs and beak, but a leucistic individual with white feathers and black legs, eyes and beak. We used to see it fairly often for a few years, sometimes in the company of one or more standard black birds. However we have not seen it for a year or more so I guess it has died.

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We have had a gloriously sunny week in Lancashire and suddenly there are plenty of butterflies, mainly small tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae).

They are busily building themselves up to hibernate when the cold weather comes. I already have one taking an early nap on my bedroom wall, and last winter there were several. They may wake and fly on a warmish day but they usually sleep through until March or April.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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