My Friend, Edgar Allan Crow

I have a thing for crows. Whenever I hear their calls, I can’t help but smile to myself and wonder what they are saying. Most people take them for granted, perhaps because they’re so common, yet few people truly understand how remarkable they really are. Highly intelligent and adaptable, crows aren’t appreciated enough. Until I met one very special crow, I, too, never gave them much thought. When she passed away this summer, I was genuinely heartbroken, and I miss her still. She was a good friend.

You may find it odd that her name was Edgar Allan (Crow). When she came in to the wildlife center where I volunteer (AWARE) for rehabilitation in 2010, we had no way of knowing her gender without performing costly blood work, so we made the best guess based on her weight. (Males tend to outweigh females, but they otherwise look the same.) Later, dedicated volunteers donated the funds for the lab work for each of our educational birds, but Edgar’s name had already stuck. Truly, for a singular bird, she deserved a singular name. I was privileged to develop a relationship with her over the course of three years.

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Edgar was missing a lot of feathers when she came to AWARE.

Malnourished and missing many of her feathers, Edgar was a pitiful sight when she arrived at AWARE. The feathers she still had were brittle and broken, some of them raw where they had broken off. Although the cause of Edgar’s condition was uncertain, we suspected it was a result of a “fast-food diet.” More than likely, Edgar was raised in an urban area, brought up on discarded human foods like French fries and hamburgers rather than a natural crow diet. Unfortunately, as a result of her poor nutrition as a youngster, her feathers hadn’t grown properly, and she wasn’t able to fly. With care and good nutrition, many of Edgar’s feathers grew in long and sleek over time, but unfortunately, never fully enough to set her aloft.

What she lacked in grace and appearance, Edgar made up for with her spunky personality. She was a very vocal bird, having several different calls with different meanings. (Crows can produce at least 25 different sounds and even mimic the sounds of humans and other animals.) Whenever I arrived at the center or she wanted my attention, she would call to me with exuberant caw-caw-cawing. When she was upset or frightened (brooms totally freaked her out), she would elicit a gruffer, earsplitting CAW-CAW-CAW, but she cooed softly when you stroked her sweet spots. When she was being playful, she giggled. No joke – giggled! Once or twice, volunteers even swear they heard her say a word or two.

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Edgar was a spunky crow!

Edgar could be mischievous and silly, and she often made people laugh. She loved to play “catch-me-if-you-can,” peck at people’s shoes, and walk around in her food getting her feet dirty. (Fortunately, she also liked to take baths frequently). She loved to play with paper – crumpling it, pecking at it, wetting it, and stuffing it in cracks and crevices. She liked to play with my scarves in the winter, too, so I made her a few of her own to play with. I would tease her by trying to put one on her. A few times, she let me! In the few months before she died, Edgar and I had perfected a really cute trick. I’d tell her to “kiss my beak,” and she would rub her beak against my nose. Someone once commented that I was brave to put my face so close to a crow’s strong, pointy beak, but Edgar and I had established mutual trust.

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Edgar loved her baths!

Because of Edgar, crows fascinate me. In my curiosity to know more, I’ve done a lot of reading about them. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that crows are among the smartest of all animals, but I’ve learned some amazing facts that you may find surprising:

  • Crows form lasting, close-knit family ties. In fact, it is not uncommon for three generations of crows to spend time together. Crows care for young, sick, and injured family members and protect them from predators. They even form “mobs” to drive predators away. Crows form monogamous breeding pairs and are known to pay extended visits to siblings or extended family living elsewhere. Young crows may spend several years with their parents, helping to raise subsequent broods, and juveniles often set up their own breeding territories adjacent to their parents’.
  • Crows are one of the few species of animals that makes and uses tools, and they are excellent problem solvers. They have been seen dropping acorns onto roads to be cracked by passing cars and dropping shellfish onto rocks to break them open. They have also been observed breaking off twigs of a certain shape to use as a hook for snagging insects in tree cavities. They even store these “tools” in safe places to use again and again. In addition, crows have also been known to drop pine cones on people getting too close to their nest. Sometimes, crows pull up unattended fishing lines and eat the bait or fish they find, which requires both problem solving ability and dexterity. They have also been known to tweak the tail of another animal to distract it while a fellow bird steals the animal’s food.
  • Crows are playful and curious. They drop and catch sticks in flight and play games like tug-of-war. They swing on tree branches and slide on snowdrifts. Sometimes, they’ll give a playful nip to the tail of a dog or other animal, then fly out of reach.
  • Crows benefit the environment. They eat insects and small animals that harm crops and gardens, as well as food littered by humans. They also eat carrion, helping sanitize the environment. Crow droppings spread seeds and fertilize soil.

If you still aren’t convinced that crows are amazing, or if you want to learn more about these incredible birds, check out the extraordinary story of Moses, a crow who “adopted” a kitten. You’ve got to see it to believe it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JiJzqXxgxo! In addition, the following fascinating study shows that crows can learn not only to recognize individual human faces and identify them as friend or foe, but will transmit this information to their crow mates: http://news.sciencemag.org/2010/02/caveman-or-dick-cheney-crows-know-difference! Ironically, as Cornell Lab of Ornithology ecologist and crow expert Kevin McGowan notes, whereas “crows can recognize people as individuals, we still see crows as just crows.”

Edgar Allan Crow gave me a gift by showing me how remarkable crows really are. Once you know more about them, it’s hard to think of them as “just crows” and not appreciate their intelligence, loyalty, and moxie. Pay attention to your crow neighbors who raise their families next to our own — you never know how they’ll surprise you!

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Back to the Wild

Much of the work involved in wildlife rehabilitation isn’t interesting or glamorous. Actually, a lot of it is downright gross. I learned that fact my first week as a volunteer at AWARE wildlife center when my trainer Tammi asked me to cut up a dead rat for an injured vulture, testing my mettle for dirty work from day one. Cleaning soiled enclosures, washing dirty dishes, processing filthy laundry, and other unseemly tasks make up most of the work — essential, but hardly pleasant. Feeding baby animals is gratifying, but it, too, can feel like work when trying to keep up with the demands of numerous animals requiring multiple feedings a day. But rehabilitation has numerous rewards, too. One of the greatest rewards is watching an animal return to the wild, especially when you have been closely involved in its care. I’ve had the privilege of releasing several animals back to the wild, including opossums, raccoons, turtles, geese, songbirds, and hawks, as well as squirrels I have raised (see my post Nutty for Squirrels). Each of these releases was memorable, but perhaps none more so than the long-awaited release of three young coyotes last week at dusk.

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Coyote brothers on the day of their release.
photo credit: Linda Potter

The three orphaned male coyote pups from two different litters were brought to AWARE last spring after their parents had been trapped and killed, a far too frequent occurrence. Understandably, some trappers have a harder time killing defenseless pups, so they occasionally end up in our care (such scruples from people who have been paid to kill the adults, but leave the orphans to be raised at AWARE’s expense!). Because I have been vaccinated against rabies as a precautionary measure, I was one of a few volunteers who regularly fed and cleaned up after the three pups. Every Tuesday for seven months, I delivered their food and cleaned their enclosure (which became increasingly foul as they grew older!), so I witnessed their growth up-close.

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So tiny when they were brought to AWARE as orphans!
photo credit: ajiiiphotography.com

Watching the pups grow from tiny, clumsy, defenseless balls of fur into sleek, wary, and powerful predators was an incredible experience. When the pups were small, I had to fight the impulse to shower them with affection, so I hated having to clap and stomp to scare them back when they occasionally became bold or inquisitive as I delivered their food. (Coyotes that approach humans too closely usually don’t come to a good end, so good rehabilitators are committed to reinforcing their natural fear of humans.) Within a few weeks, the pups’ instinctive wariness of people overrode their curiosity. Even though I’d never done anything more than clap, they were terrified each time I approached to feed and clean, hiding or pacing frantically at the far end of their enclosure. My heart broke to see them, but I knew this fear was necessary. As the coyotes grew, seeing them living a caged life became increasingly difficult. Although AWARE’s enclosures give the animals plenty of room to climb and move around, coyotes need to run free. Until they were full-grown and able to find food, catch prey, and defend themselves, however, releasing them would have been a death sentence. Still, even though they are now full-grown, these youngsters have been forced to strike out on their own at a much younger age than their parents would have required in the wild.

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Instinctively wary of humans, the pups tried to hide whenever I approached their enclosure, even after they’d outgrown their favorite hiding place.

??????????????????????????????? DSCN7753 ???????????????????????????????       When release day arrived, Tammi and I corralled the coyotes into a kennel, wrestling one frightened kid out from a corner, and then loaded them into the back of my minivan. (Never thought I’d count coyote wrangling among my skills!) My good friend and fellow volunteer Kelly joined me on a two hour ride to north Georgia where we had permission to release the small family on private land safe from hunters, cities, and busy roads. When we arrived, we parked near a wooded area and waited a short time for dusk to fall in order to give the coyotes the best chance to explore their surroundings without danger from humans. When the moment seemed right, we lowered the kennel to the ground and opened the door. The coyotes crowded to the back of the cage. Everything must have seemed so strange to them! After a few minutes, I stepped up to the cage and gave it a gentle shake. One coyote dashed out like a shot and was out of sight in the blink of an eye. Twice more I had to shake the cage before the remaining two coyotes were compelled to leave, but once they stepped out, their legs carried them full speed ahead until the fading light obscured them from our view. How fascinating to imagine all the new experiences and adventures they had on that first night of freedom! Did they seek each other out with yips and howls as night fell, or did they venture off in their own directions? What animal did they catch for their first meal? We’ll never know their fate, but we equipped them for the wild the best we could by helping them learn to recognize food sources, catch prey, and avoid humans. We wish them long, healthy lives.

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Ready for release — good luck, boys!

Note: Like a lot of wildlife, coyotes (and foxes) generally aren’t welcome near human development, where they are frequently trapped and destroyed. Relocating these animals (without rehabilitation permits) is against the law in Georgia, and in most states, I suspect. In addition, in many states they can be hunted without restriction at any time of year, and the federal government contributes to the slaughter of tens of thousands of coyotes each year. Efforts to control their numbers have actually only served to increase their population and expand their range, which was once limited to the western United States. Sadly, these animals are grossly misunderstood. Intelligent, adaptable, and family-oriented, coyotes provide important environmental benefits. Though urban sightings are becoming more common as wild habitats are destroyed, coyotes are naturally afraid of humans and rarely approach within thirty feet. With a few precautions, they pose little danger to people and their pets. For more information on these amazing creatures, please check out http://www.coyoteyipps.com

http://www.coyotecoexistence.com

To learn more about AWARE or to make a tax-deductible donation to help wildlife, visit http://www.awarewildlife.org.