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THROUGH THE WOODS: Our other crow

The fish crow. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

MOST PEOPLE DO NOT REALIZE we have two species of crows in our county. Our most common and usual crow is our American crow at 19” long, and our least common and smaller species is the fish crow at 15” long. The fish crow has been a southern bird until about the last 30 years, when they worked their way up the coast and up the Hudson River. I regularly find them at Clermont State Park, Hudson, Troy and Saratoga Springs. They are a scavenger species that feed on shoreline debris, berries, eggs, other bird’s nestlings, carrion, grain, basically anything.

They have very ably adapted to finding food in our civilization. If you shop in Greenport along Rte. 9 the fish Crows hang out with the gulls (larger) on trees, poles and rooftops and wait for whatever looks edible. They love open dumpsters and watch for generous patrons at fast food places to throw some french fries their way. Sometimes they deftly steal food from the gulls.

Fish crows are small, all-black crows, but the two crow species can overlap in size so the only reliable way to tell them apart is by their calls. The American crow says, “caw, caw,” and the fish crow has a higher-pitched hoarse call that sounds like, “cah” or “cah-ah.” The actual call can be found online and is easier to learn by hearing it rather than by trying to describe it. Anyway, if you are out in one of the shopping center parking lots and hear a funny-sounding hoarse crow it is most likely a fish crow. If you share some food they will be ever grateful friends.

Crows belong to the corvid family which includes jays and ravens. This is a very intelligent group of birds and studies have shown that crows can recognize faces, and will sit and study you if you stay near them for long. This can be a bit unnerving. Somehow they make you feel they are smarter than you are and can stare you down in a very self-assured way. Their eyes are grayish brown and younger fish crows’ eyes can be an eerie gray. They do have the upper hand because they can easily fly away.

In spring they pair up for the nesting season and I have already seen some sitting close together and “talking.” Only the female makes the nest, usually high in a tree and it is used only once. The male stays around but doesn’t help with the new family. The nest is a messy collection of sticks and the female fills the center nest cup with soil, hair, bark and pine needles, depending on what is available. She lays 2-6 bluish-green eggs with brown markings which hatch in 16-19 days. The nestling period is 32-40 days. By fall the parents separate and many Fish Crows may gather together for the winter. If they migrate at all it is for relatively short distances to join one of these groups.

The Troy to Cohoes area had flocks of 20 or more roosting and flying together this winter. They gather at the Mohawk River and especially like the open Dunkin Donuts dumpster near a park. After the leaves were shed last fall there was what appeared to be a fish crow’s nest just north of the Greenport Burger King next to the parking lot. These birds will hide food in places like grass or trees for leaner times or to assure enough food for the nestlings so that was a perfect spot.

More studies need to be done on our smaller crow. I plan to spend more time searching for an active nest and observing as much of their behavior as possible. I love all the intelligent corvids, and the fish crows will be entertaining as well as educational.

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