by Arabella McIntyre-Brown
For city dwellers, one of the magnificent natural spectacles in winter is the streaming of crows across the urban sunset, as hundreds, even thousands of shrieking birds fly to their night-time roost. If you wonder why, and whether it’s an ill omen, you’re not alone.
In fact, the noisy mobsters are mostly jackdaws, with some rooks, some crows.
This roosting behaviour is a winter thing; they go back to the family homestead when it’s time for love; corvids mate for life and have their young at home for up to five years. Two-year olds leave home to find mates, and like rural Romanians, the boys bring back a wife, add another nest to the homestead. They protect each other: go near the young or the vulnerable and you’ll be mobbed by watchful guardians.
Roosting in the city in winter has several benefits: cities are 5-10 degrees warmer than open countryside; city lights give them protection and make it easier to forage. There’s safety in numbers against predators such as large owls and hawks; their greatest predator, humans, don’t shoot them in the city, whereas farmers frequently take pot-shots at them. In fact, corvids eat almost anything, but more than 80% of their food is plant material. They’re almost vegan. They will go for squashed or rotting roadkill, but they find it easier to glean grain from crop fields, and best of all, they raid rubbish dumps and snaffle discarded food on the street. Another reason for becoming urban dwellers. Ask the foxes.
You can spot the three different birds quite easily. Rooks and crows are about the same size, but rooks are shaggier and all black, except for a long, triangular, pale beak. Hooded crows have pale grey sleeveless jackets with a high collar; black heads, wings and legs. Their calls are similar, a deep rasping caw from a 80-Gauloises-a-day habit. Jackdaws make louder, high-pitched ‘ciac-ciac’ calls – they’re the sopranos in the corvid chorus. If you’re close enough, jackdaws have tell-tale pale grey or blue eyes; they’re much smaller and wear mid-grey collars and aprons.
In one house, I was surrounded by jackdaws living in the eaves; five or six pairs around my flat. I got to know them well, loving to watch them and take endless photos. They’re funny, jackdaws, sociable, cheeky, clever. I fed them from my window: one greedy git would stuff two grapes in his beak and spear a bit of bread too; he’d struggle to get off the ground with his prizes. Some would leap, catlike, to grab a fatball on a string, or they’d perch on the branch and pull the fatball up so they could stuff their faces. The greenfinches were furious. Same with the peanut feeder (peanuts are corvid crack): bluetits and nuthatches didn’t get a sniff once the jackdaws had a foothold.
If you believe that corvids are bad luck, symbols of war and death, ditch your superstitions. Corvids love to play – with each other, with toys (they love shiny objects), with other animals. Crows are tail-pullers. They’ll sneak up and yank the tails of cats, dogs, foxes, wolves, eagles, gulls – whoever’s not paying attention. Search on YouTube for vids of corvids skateboarding down a snowy roof; lying on their backs and rolling down a snowy slope; grabbing a leafy twig by one foot and dangling upside down. Joyful birds.
The family Corvus has over 40 species worldwide; in Romania we have:
Raven (Corvus corax), Corb
Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix), Cioara
Rook (Corvus frugilegus), Cioara de câmp
Jackdaw (Corvus monedula), Ceuca/Stancuta
Magpie (Pica pica), Cotofana
Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes), Alunar/Nucsoara
Jay (Garrulus glandarius), Gaita
The corvid family are all passeriform (perching) songbirds. The 8th most intelligent animal in the world, they are second only to parrots among birds, with long memories, face recognition, the ability to make and use tools, and count to 9. They have a wide vocabulary of calls and some can be trained to mimic human speech.
In the company of crows & ravens – John Marzluff
Corvus: A life with birds – Esther Woolfson
Crow Country – Mark Cocker
Bird brains – Candace Savage
Dozens of videos on YouTube, just search for corvids
Arabella McIntyre-Brown’s bilingual book for children, Dalia and her Pet Detectives has a hooded crow as one of the central characters.