BIRD OF THE MONTH: AMERICAN CROW Corvus brachyrhynchos by Mark Pendleton ©2017 Mark Pendleton
This is the first of a three-part series on a trio of birds found in southern New Mexico; the American Crow, the Chihuahuan Raven, and the Common Raven. They all belong to the Corvus genus in the family that includes Crows, Jays, Magpies and Ravens—the Corvids.
Crows and Ravens are some of the most intelligent—and maligned—birds on the planet. They’re also some of the most widely recognized worldwide. After all, most of them are large, jet black birds with similar voices, habits, and appearance.
You might be unaware that three species of Crows (American, Fish, and Northwestern Crows) live in the U.S. A fourth, the Tamaulipas Crow, a very rare Mexican visitor to extreme south Texas, looks and sounds much like them. Only one, though, the American Crow, is in our area. In fact, the worldwide birding database eBird, shows no confirmed sightings of any of the other species of Crows in Doña Ana County from 1900 to the present.
From the point of view of a birder—your author—who often has fits distinguishing very similar species from one another, that is just fine! With the American as the only Crow likely to be seen here, it means one less difficult identification to make.
American Crows are medium to medium large (40-50 cm or 16-20 in in length, sometimes up to almost half or it tail) birds with jet black iridescent feathers with an average wingspan of 85.34 cm to 1.6 meters (about 341/2 to almost 43 in). On average, they can weigh from 11.2 to 22.4 oz. (317.4 to slightly more than 635 gm.) The only other birds in southern NM with which one could reasonably confuse them are the two North American Raven species (the next two birds in this series, which like the Crow also have black eyes, bills, legs and feet) and American Crows are smaller than both. A large American Crow can look the same size, or maybe even a bit larger that a small Chihuahuan Raven, though, so size alone is not enough to differentiate between the two.
Another distinguishing feature between American Crows and Ravens (both Chihuahuan and Common) is bill shape and size. The American Crow’s scientific name is from the Latin and translates into English as “short-billed (-beaked/-nosed) Crow”. Indeed, it has the shortest bill of all three; Crow beaks aren’t as heavy, and they’re straighter than those of Ravens. By comparison, Raven bills are massive bludgeoning cleavers with a classic “Roman nose” shape.
Flight profile and voice are the two final diagnostic characteristics to help you distinguish between Crows and Ravens. A Crow’s tail, unless it’s fanned out is squared off at the end, even then, it will be shorter than a Raven’s. A Crow’s wingbeats are also much more labored than a Raven’s; it looks almost like they’re rowing through jello, or as if they’d tumble out of the sky if they skipped a single wingbeat! Ravens also frequently soar and glide; Crows almost never do either. The “caw-caw-caw” of crows is one of the most widely recognized bird calls in North America. Ravens, on the other hand, possess a repertoire of croaks, gurgles and “cronks”. All three are expert mimics, too, but all Raven vocalizations are distinctly more guttural and croaky than their smaller cousin’s calls are.
During the winter, there are vast flocks or murders of crows in the Mesilla Valley. This is a recent phenomenon. The upsurge in Crow population is directly correlated to the increase in pecan acreage dating to about the early 1960s.
Pecan growers generally aren’t fond of crows, as they see the flocks descending on their orchards in winter as voracious marauders and fight back. Yet, the crows thrive. This is a microcosm of the relations between Crows/Ravens and humans for millennia. The birds of the genus Corvus are among the most intelligent in the world, with some having a brain to overall body mass ratio comparable to humans and the higher apes. So, despite human efforts to exterminate them, including dynamite, poison and other means of wholesale slaughter, they thrive.
Indeed, The American Crow and Chihuahuan Raven are supremely adept at adapting to our presence in and modification of their environment. In areas where they both occur (such as southern New Mexico in winter) mixed flocks of these two Corvids foraging in dumpsters, fast food parking lots, agricultural fields—in fact, anywhere where human activity offers them an opportunity to scavenge for food—are a common sight.
All crows are omnivorous and opportunistic in their diet. Fruit, vegetables, grain, berries, nuts, other birds’ eggs and young, small reptiles, amphibians, mammals, roadkill, garbage, carrion all go down the hatch. Being as intelligent as they are, these opportunists are also proficient tool users. Crows living in coastal areas frequently drop clams and mussels onto rocks to smash the shells open, much as gulls do. So, the next time you see a large, broad winged, short-tailed all black bird, or a flock of them, stop and take a closer look. See if you can spot the American Crows in the group. When you do, remember Henry Ward Beecher’s comment: “If men had wings and wore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”
The Bird of the Month feature is brought to you by the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society, the local chapter of the National Audubon Society.
To learn about MVAS and its activities, including monthly fieldtrips and beginner bird walks,
To give you a bit of a sneak peak, here's what will --with some minor revisions--be appearing in the February 2017 edition of The Ink. Thanks to Roy Van der Aa, the publisher of that paper for permission to quote this material.
Greater Words and Things by Mark Pendleton ©2017
Saludos, Readers Estimados! ¡Greetings, Esteemed Lectores! Jumping right in, there are several events/programs at Branigan Library sure to interest many of you this month. To find detailed information on happenings at the Library, visit http://library.las-cruces.org and click on Library Events. When the next page appears, click on Printable Calendar of Events.
The Branigan BookClub (BBC) meeting this month—6:30 pm Tuesday the 21st—features a special treat. Shelley Armitage, the author of February’s book will be with us to talk about it and guide the discussion. The book is Walking the Llano: A Texas Memoir of Place and it’s a lyrical and clear-eyed meditation on place plotted with the coordinates of family, geography, history, topography, memory, friendship, love, aging, social change, and a deep connection to the land. Central to the story is Armitage’s family farm near Vega TX, about 30 miles west of Amarillo. Her prose sparkles with a poet’s sensitivity to nuance and grace. Her abiding love for the land is never sentimentalized into unreality. And, her love of family and young girl’s wide eyed wonder at life is never far below the surface. Tying the meditations together, and prompting many of them, is Armitage’s stage by stage hike of the Middle Alamosa Creek’s 30-mile winding course north from the farm to the Canadian River.
If you relish reading and reveling in deceptively simple sounding, richly textured writing that’s suffused with warmth, humaneness, love, yes love and respect for the land, then look no further. This book takes its place alongside the works of Wendell Berry, John McPhee, Terry Tempest Williams, Leslie Marmon Silko and a host of others who epitomize the best in modern American prose about the land.
Ms. Armitage will have copies of the book for sale and autographing after the meeting. So, here’s your chance to meet a truly gracious person, get a great book and have her sign it all in one evening! I’m sure many of you will not want to miss out! For more info, contact me at either the e-mail or phone number listed at the end of this column. You can also read Shelley's blog at http://shelleyarmitage.com/ and/or visit Good Reads to check out what it says at: www.goodreads.com/author/show/473201.Shelley_Armitage
Another book whose stunning language left me gasping in admiration is Ron Rash’s novel set in the North Carolina mountains, Above the Waterfall. Les is about to retire from a long career as a sheriff; Becky is a park ranger trying to exorcise demons in her past. A couple weeks before Les’ retirement, a meth bust and its aftermath threaten to not only wreck their tentative relationship, but maybe even their lives as well. In some of the most moving and hauntingly beautiful language imaginable, we watch a modern tale of loss and redemption unfold. This story grabs you in the gut from the very first word and long after you’ve finished, you’ll still be marveling at its hold on your imagination! You can find the Library’s copy at FICTION Rash.
There’s one Library closure this month. It will be on Monday the 20th in observance of Presidents' Day. We’ll re-open on Tuesday the 21st at 9 am. From all of us at the Library to all of you and yours, we wish you an enjoyable, happy and safe holiday.
Once more, we’re out of time and space. As ever, if you have enjoyed reading these lines even half as much as I enjoyed writing them, then you’re well on your way to more fun than is legal in numerous jurisdictions! Now all that remains is my reminding you of a few important precepts: Non Illegitimati Cauburundum! ¡Es mejor morir de pie que vivir de rodillas! Never! Never! Never! Give! Up! Never! Ever! Say! “Die!” and above all—KEEP ON READIN’!
Mark Pendleton is Outreach Librarian at
Thomas Branigan Memorial Library
in Las Cruces NM. He regularly contributes “Greater Words and Things” to The Ink.
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 575.528.4001