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updated: 7/11/2013 8:15 AM

Rabbits rule since crows vanished from neighborhood

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  • Acting out Aesop's fable about a smart crow, a rook, a member of the crow family, drops stones into a tube to raise the water level and bring a worm into reach during this experiment a few years ago at the University of Cambridge.

      Acting out Aesop's fable about a smart crow, a rook, a member of the crow family, drops stones into a tube to raise the water level and bring a worm into reach during this experiment a few years ago at the University of Cambridge.
    Associated Press/The University of Cambridge

  • Examples of "as the crow flies" have been more difficult to see since the West Nile virus devastated the suburban crow population.

      Examples of "as the crow flies" have been more difficult to see since the West Nile virus devastated the suburban crow population.
    Daily Herald file photo

  • This 2002 photo shows a dead crow, probably a victim of the West Nile virus, in Glen Ellyn. The suburban crow population went from a record high in 2001 to a record low because of the deadly virus.

      This 2002 photo shows a dead crow, probably a victim of the West Nile virus, in Glen Ellyn. The suburban crow population went from a record high in 2001 to a record low because of the deadly virus.
    Daily Herald file photo by Bev Horne/bhorne@dailyh

  • Video: This is one smart crow

  • Video: Smart urban crow cracks nut

 
 

Every night, I pull into my garage knowing they'll be waiting in my backyard. At least one, maybe a half dozen. Fearless, brazen, they know they can do whatever they want and that I will be powerless to stop them.

Ravenous rabbits treat my yard as their own personal salad bar. They nibble flowers down to the nub. They use my sidewalk as their bathroom. They dig holes in our neighbor's otherwise flawless grass. They obliterate my blooming bleeding hearts as if they have a political agenda. They eye our lone tomato plant quivering behind a swath of fencing designed to keep out chickens.

That's when I wish our neighborhood watch was still packing crows. When I moved into this neighborhood in 1990, crows, concealed in a nearby tree, would swoop down and lay waste to nests of adorable baby bunnies before they could grow into pesky, garden-munching rabbits. It was a graphic display that upset folks who watch nature films and pray for the prey to escape, even if it means the predator's family will die slowly of starvation.

In the local battle of fur vs. feathers, I always rooted for the crows. Even with a wingspan of 3 feet and a body that weighs a pound and stands a foot high, it isn't that easy for adult crows to kill baby bunnies.

"Crows love meat, but they don't have the tools to kill much," says crow expert Kevin J. McGowin, ornithologist and editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University. "They peck them at the base of the skull."

Works for me.

In addition to baby bunnies, crows eat shrews, mice, young rats, insects and a host of things many suburban homeowners and gardeners might like to see eaten. "They eat Japanese beetle larvae," McGowin says.

But the avian predators haven't eaten much in our suburbs since about 2001, when our crows fell prey to an outbreak of the West Nile virus. The Palatine-based Prairie Woods Audubon's Great Backyard Bird Count in February turned up 151 birds, 12 species and just one crow. Local bird watcher Doris Johanson, a longtime board member of the Audubon-Chicago Region office, noticed how crows vanished seemingly overnight from her neighborhood in Des Plaines, and she says they haven't returned.

"The area you are in got just hammered," McGowin says. "They (crows) were at the high point, and they dropped to the low point in one year."

While crow populations downstate and across the nation have recovered, "the research seemed to indicate that West Nile was worse in urban areas than in rural areas," McGowin says, adding that crows didn't start breeding in cities and suburbs until about 30 years ago. "It's just not coming back."

And that's too bad. In addition to helping with rabbit control, crows -- whose flocks are ironically dubbed murders -- serve as good role models.

"They are not gangs. They are families, and they have better family values than some humans," says McGowin, who has studied and written about crows for more than 25 years. "They are all over family values. When one crow is in danger, they all come to the rescue. Not all animals do that."

Some animals flee in an every-antelope-for-himself mentality. Some animals whip out their cellphone cameras and video the peril to post on YouTube. Crows are there for each other, and not just during a crisis.

"The kids don't go off for a couple of years," says McGowin. As many human parents know, offspring might extend that home stay to six or eight years, depending on the availability of food, housing and potential mates. But the young crows don't just hang out with buddies or play video games.

"While they are waiting, they stay home and do chores. They feed the young, guard the nest, baby-sit the young," McGowin says. Those family ties generally help more crows survive into adulthood.

"A bunch make it to 10 years," McGowin says, noting three males he monitored lived to be 19.

Crows also build communities, where families of crows (from the childless couple to the congregation of several generations) sleep together in trees and help each other find food sources and keep safe.

"It's sad not to have them," concludes McGowin, who notes that crows recognize humans and form relationships. "They're pretty cool."

Yet, crows don't seem as beloved as less admirable birds. Before the rabbits ate my bleeding hearts, my liberal self might have suggested that racism enters into the bias against crows. I picture some folks hating ink-black crows but having no problem if a white snowy owl zoomed in and ate bunny bunches for breakfast. The more you know, the more you might prefer a murder of crows over a gaggle of geese, a covey of grouse, a colony of gulls or a parliament of owls.

"The whole term 'murder of crows' is a derogatory term. It's playing on the whole northern European dislike of big, black birds," argues McGowin, who prefers a gentler, kinder name for families of crows. "I'd like to call it a bouquet of crows."

Perfect. My backyard needs one bouquet that could fight back against rabbits.

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