Carrion Crows

I was waiting for the Avanti on Wigan North Western station early yesterday morning. I saw a Buzzard circle in the distance and turned when I heard an unfamiliar rattling to the South. The only birds visible were a pair of crows perched on lighting stands, one by the northbound line into platform 5 and one across the way by platform 4. The latter bird flew across after another rattle and began what I can only describe as a curtsey to the former. The 08:38 to Glasgow Central swept in and I had to leave the crows behind. I found a similar sound around 1:20 on this clip from the Audubon Society.

On some mornings, I wake up with a start at a noise overhead – it’s a crow bouncing ever so slightly sideways across our flat roof. In the vagueness of waking, it sounds a bit like the security services about to storm the flat, or ninja burglars. Sometimes the crows add the vocals. On one rather grey morning last June, a proper murder of crows settled on the rooftops of Woodlands Terrace – I’d never seen it before and they haven’t been back in these numbers (I counted over fifty) but there is a small subgroup which regularly plays a King of the Castle game on the TV aerials up there.

I like crows; I look at them and they look right back at me. I think they’re sizing me up, a bit like the way I look at a potential fishing place. One way or another, I’m a potential food source for them. I might well hand some out, or I might just be some in due course. The eyeballs first as an amuse bouche, and then something fleshier when it’s softened up a bit, an earlobe, then a cheek perhaps to start? Plenty of time for the larger muscle groups when they’re a bit gamey. I wanted some contrasty crow pictures and I took matters into my own hands in the Kelvingrove Park one snowy day. I thought the crows would be starving  and incautious – I’d forgotten about the profligacy of the coffee cup generations (just go home and put the kettle on, eh?).

I had a small bag of sunflower hearts and pancetta and my fishing catapult; the plan was to treat the crows like the silvers I fish for, pinging a bit of bait at them and photographing them when they bounced into range. Massive crow fail! They either didn’t notice the offerings, or flew off if I dropped the food on their heads. A bit of loose feeding from the hand at close range was more effective and this chap came in close.

So I just drifted about, getting cold feet, and and I enjoyed a fair bit of what looks like play fighting.

This image is a bit grainy and it probably looks better as this “digital print”.

Crows can be solitary or they can occupy social groups  and there seems to be quite a bit of published work on Open Access. The term coalitionary aggression turns up – where a dominant individual recruits other members of a social group to attack (and perhaps kill) another individual, possibly as a way of manipulating a social group. The Kelvingrove Park population seems to at least contain one large group and certain individuals seem to play at attacking each other – no actual blows are exchanged in these encounters.

I also found a paper which discussed kin-based cooperative breeding. This involves grown offspring delaying natal dispersal and helping their parents to rear new young. The offspring of non-cooperative carrion crows from Switzerland were taken to Spain and raised in a cooperative population. Five out of six transplanted juveniles delayed dispersal, and two of those became helpers in the following breeding season, suggesting that the behaviour was learned in the new environment, rather than simply ancestral.

I enjoyed hearing about corvids in general on Radio 3 recently – Nicola Clayton described the raising of her pet Rook. I had thought of trying to make friends with some of the Park crows but lacked the commitment to make very frequent visits to them. I may well read Mark Cocker’s Crow Country in due course (it was mentioned in the broadcast and sounded interesting).

This autumnal crow had a good shout at me from the parapet of the bridge over the Kelvin into the Botanic Gardens. The picture dates from the days before the council decided to refurbish the bridge and paint it up like a public convenience (white and a remaindered shade of blue, like the Brighton and Hove Albion FC home kit). I like the distressed paintwork and the way it echoes the chap’s wonderfully leathery feet.

Seaside crows are always good value, indefatigably turning the seaweed. Are they eating insects or just speculating that a better morsel lurks under those piles of rotting vegetation? In Crow and the Birds, Ted Hughes has it as:

Crow spraddled head-down in the beach-garbage, guzzling a dropped ice-cream

No ice cream on these Ayrshire beaches, away with your English indulgences. My collected poems doesn’t tell me where  Crow and the Birds comes from (really annoyingly) but it seems to be from Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow from 1970.

The differences in scale between crows and the smaller birds are striking and if I were a Dunnock or a Robin, I would give them a wide berth.

However handsome crows may be, I would not like this to be the last thing I saw.

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