Intelligent, resilient, abundant: Meet the suburban crow

Early in this century, thanks to West Nile virus, many people were worried about the lack of crows in their neighborhoods. I'm here to say that crows are back.

I never feared for the crow or the other birds affected by West Nile. Given that birds elsewhere have adapted to the disease, there was little reason to think they wouldn't do so here.

When it comes to our neighborhood birds, you'd be hard-pressed to find a brighter member. At campsites, for example, crows will open and selectively pick through unattended backpacks. One report describes a crow that followed a milkman snapping the lids off the bottles.

If the beak doesn't work, it's tool time for the crows. At the University of Chicago, a captive crow dipped a plastic cup in water carried it in its bill for 15 feet and then poured the water into a container of dry mash. The bird was not trained to do this. It just put two and two together.

Combine this intelligence with the fact that the birds have been a nuisance to farmers, and the basis for the prejudice some have against crows becomes understandable.

Despite what we throw at them, intelligent and resilient crows persist. Given their eclectic tastes, finding food is relatively easy. A partial list of the menu at a crows' diner would include: insects, spiders, snails, snakes, worms, millipedes, fish, and roadkill plus cherries, grapes, poison ivy berries, and crabapples.

Finding a place to live is also not much of a challenge. They like the same kind of habitat human suburbanites do, open landscapes with scattered trees and small woodlots. Thanks to our clearing of dense forests and planting trees around prairie homesteads, the crow species is now more abundant than it was when European settlers first arrived.

So what do you do when the living is easy, you turn to drugs, I mean, bugs. In his marvelous book, "Natural Acts," David Quammen writes of crows, " … they are too bright for their own good." Then, Quammen shares with us an article from the Journal of Zoology titled Anting and the Problem of Self-Stimulation. When anting, birds, especially crows, either rub themselves with squished ants or lie on the ground and let ants crawl all over them.

Why? One theory put forth in the Journal article and by other biologists is that the general effect of anting is "similar to that gained by humanity from the use of external stimulants …" One researcher compared anting to "the human habits of smoking and drug-taking."

Of course, comparing crows to humans is, well, insulting to crows. As Henry Ward Beecher wrote, "If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows."

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