Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, October 24, 2015

Trick or Treat

Do you see a trick or a treat when you look at this photo? I can see beauty in the shape of the crow's wings and the wide fan of the tail feathers. However, somewhat hidden in this photo is evidence of a darker side of crows.

This week I was attracted by the loudest cacaphony of crow calls I have ever heard. It was not the usual sound of a dozen of crows harassing a perched predator. Nor was it the peaceful sound of crows gathering to roost for the night. The pine trees in the Arboretum were full of forty or fifty crows, calling chaotically. The noise was almost deafening.

From a distance they seemed oddly focused on the ground. As I approached, I noticed a crow on the grass. Initially, I wondered if I was observing a crow funeral.

Taking a closer look I realized there were actually two crows rolling around in the pine needles. 

As the birds shifted and struggled, it became obvious they were fighting.

 I had never before seen crows in combat.  

Ironically, a few days earlier I had just responded to a reader who asked, "Is nature cruel or is it just the crows?" This was after crows had consumed a robin's eggs out of a nest in her backyard. The essence of my response was,

... From the crow’s perspective, they simply found food when they were hungry. Still, I am sure, the experience was painful for the mother robin. If she could talk she would no doubt call the crows cruel. I do not believe the crows ate the eggs in order to take pleasure in her pain. I suspect eating the robin’s eggs felt similar to a human having a ham and egg breakfast...

...If the robins had no predators they would reproduce without end until they ran out of food, mostly worms, insects and small fruit. The next generation of eggs might hatch, but lacking food most of the nestlings would slowly starve to death. Then the few who were lucky enough to survive would simply cause the cycle to repeat, endlessly. This would not be pleasant. Predators keep the population under control by eating the individuals, or their eggs, that are easiest to consume. This causes the prey species to become more intelligent about hiding themselves or in this case, their nests. The mother robin’s pain should motivate her to build her next nest, in a more hidden location. We are just beginning to learn that the knowledge from these types of experiences can be passed from a parent to an unborn offspring for multiple generations, as a result of epigenetic changes. Over millions of years this same type of encounter has been repeated over and over. The prey creatures that were smart enough to find better and better hiding spots have survived. This pruning of the ancestral tree of life is what has caused intelligence to evolve, in the form of crows, ravens and especially humans...

I was stunned to see crows at each other's throats. Clearly, they were trying to do each other harm. I had no way to tell if they were intending to be cruel. I do not even know why they were fighting. Was this a mating competition, a territorial dispute or a response to some sort of insult, like road rage fallen from the sky?

It appeared to me that the other crows were trying to persuade them to stop, as opposed to cheering on the fighting. Still I can't be sure if I was truly understanding the crows intentions or projecting my own thoughts and feelings. 

A few crows gathered closer.

The intensity of their concern seemed evident, although their interest in the well-being of the brawlers appeared to be offset by fear.

The birds on the ground were totally absorbed in their struggle. They ignored everything around them. 

My attention was also consumed by their struggle. I had no idea that a gardener was approaching from the opposite direction.

The battle continued.

Finally, one of the surrounding crows made a physical attempt to intervene.

The intervening crow pulled on one of the combatants.

The effort failed to stop the fighting.

At this point the gardner threw something in the direction of the crows. The pair took to the air and the whole flock dispersed. Clearly, nature has two sides. Nature provides both sunshine and darkness, sickness and health, life and death and in this case both competition and compassion. 

Only by fully understanding the complexities of nature can we be sure that our actions are harmonious, positive contributions to the future of life on earth.


More Crow Stories:

Two week's ago I asked readers to share their experiences with crows and the foods they eat. I hope you enjoy reading the responses as much as I did.

From Bill Anderson, Edmonds:

...I once saw a crow flying off with a garter snake in its bill. 

From Susan,

Just read the latest Union Bay blog about crows. There's a really wonderful essay by Ian Frazier on crows from a few years back that you should find and read (if you haven't already)...

From Brenda Burnett,

I've also seen crows scavenging on the beach, flying up and dropping a shelled treat to break it open like gulls do. I appreciated the info on crows picking up dead sticklebacks off the water. I saw that on Union Bay a couple of years ago and wondered if that was unusual at all--wondered what had killed the fish, especially. Sounds like an annual event...

From Jackie in Sammamish:

I have 4 crows who live and dine in my yard next to a wetland in the Sammamish Plateau.  The first pair bred in 2013 and now the 4 crows have become bullies in my yard.  They have become a nuisance at my suet feeder which I have used for 12 years to feed flickers, downey woodpeckers and pilated woodpeckers (whose families have grown and come back to learn to eat every year).

I have attached 3 squirrel baffles surrounding the suet feed on a high hooked pole.  One baffle is directly below it, the second is attached at a side angle with masking tape to the pole, and the 3rd baffle is hung upside down below the suet feeder.  The crows have learned to fly aside the baffles to peck at the suet so they and their crew can feed below.

I have 2 bird baths which are cleaned every day because the crows drink, bathe and wet their suet lumps in them.  The crows are very smart and seem to defeat every suet protection I create.  (By the way, duct tape will not stick to plastic baffles - you have to use plain old masking tape in vast amounts.)

The 4 crows sit on my upper roof gutter and wait until they see me in the kitchen early in the morning, and then they bang the gutters with their beaks, waiting for me to refill the suet feeder as well as toss out apples for 2 orphaned fawns who graze in dry and cracked ground in the wetland due to the drought this year. .  They also peck at the apples.

My flickers, downey and pirated woodpeckers attempt to feed at the hung suet feeder but the crows attack them immediately.  I have several generations of each of these magnificent woodpeckers/flickers and am sorry they have stopped coming to my feeder.

I have tried many things to get them to move on, fearing that next year there will be 6 crows.  This family of 4 doesn’t seem to belong to any larger group of crows in the area which I hear in the woods.  They even have figured out how to land on the blue recycling bins on trash day and peck at the slit below the usually cracked lids of my neighbors bins  to access any tidbits they can drag down the street and eat any scraps.  They love pizza boxes which end up on the street where the 4 congregate to feast on the smears on the lids.

The crows constant noise annoys my husband and next door neighbors but I am intrigued with them, as much as I wish they would move on.

The crows also peck at the rabbits who dine on our organic lawn and especially when the rabbits have discovered apples thrown in the wetlands for the orphaned fawns.

Good luck with your crows.


Happy Halloween! Hopefully, we will all experience more treats than tricks.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature lives in the city!


What Bird Am I?
Can you determine what type of bird this is? The answer will be in next week's post.

Last week's bird was a great blue heron.


  1. This is absolutely a brilliant and fascinating job of photojournalism, Larry. I am so impressed.

    1. Thank you! I only wish I had been around to see what set them off. :-)

  2. The woman whose crows take over the suet feeder could change to the type that has a double cage. Flickers' necks are long enough to reach the suet, but Crows' necks arent. Smaller birds just crawl in through the outer cage to get their share.

    1. Mary,
      Brilliant idea! Pileated woodpeckers also have long necks, beaks and tongues so this could help 2 out of the three types of woodpeckers she mentioned.
      The downy woodpeckers have shorter necks but are very willing to hang upside down to get at food. It would be interesting to test a hanging bowl that covers the suet on topped around the sides so that the only access is from the bottom. The suet could be held in place by very fine wires that would be easy for a downy to hold on to but more challenging for a crow. I have no idea if it would work but it seems like it would be worth trying.
      Thank you for your creative insight!

    2. Mary,
      Sorry. I was so excited I stopped reading before I responded. When I finished up I reread your suggestion and realized I had missed the sentence about the smaller birds. your suggestion works for all three woodpeckers and is more elegant and efficient that my bowl idea. Thanks again!

  3. Neat! My most interesting crow experience was seeing a funeral. I heard them from my former apartment in North Seattle, and went outside. One of them had (presumably) been electrocuted up on the power line. It was a moving sight.

    1. You were lucky to have such an opportunity. I have been told about them, but have never had the chance to observe the process. You would think that with the hundreds, if not thousands, of crows in the area there ought to be a fair number of chances to see a crow funeral. Thanks for sharing.