Fish Crow

Savvy, smart and best known by their nasal “caw-caw”

By Susan Campbell

So you might think that a crow is a crow, right? Well, not exactly. It is not quite like the term “seagull,” which is the generic name for a handful of different species found in the area. When it comes to crows, you can expect two species along our coastline: the American crow and the fish crow. Unfortunately, telling them apart is just about impossible. When they open their beaks, however, it is a different matter. The fish crow will produce a nasal “caw-caw,” whereas the American will utter a single clear “caw.” That single familiar sound may be repeated in succession, but it will always be one syllable. Young of the year may sound somewhat nasal at first, but they will not utter the two notes of their close cousins, the fish crow.

Both crows have jet black, glossy plumage. They have strong feet and long legs, which make for good mobility. They walk as well as hop when exploring on the ground. Also, they have relatively large, powerful bills that are effective for grabbing and holding large prey items. Crow’s wings are relatively long and rounded, which allows for bursts of rapid flight as well as efficient soaring. The difference between the two species is very subtle: Fish crows are just a bit smaller. Unless you see them side by side, this is not at all apparent.

Fish crows are migratory here inland in North Carolina. It seems most of the population moves generally eastward in late fall. So numbers along the coast swell in midwinter. But visiting flocks do not stay long and are the earliest returning breeding birds to the Piedmont, arriving by early February for the breeding season. Almost as soon as they reappear, they begin nest building. Interestingly, their bulky, stick-built platforms are hard to spot, usually in the tops of large pines. And crows tend to be loosely colonial, so two or three pairs may nest close together in early spring.

Although fish crows are found near water a good bit, they wander widely. They are very opportunistic, feeding by picking at roadkill, taking advantage of dead fish washed ashore, sampling late season berries, digging up snapping turtle eggs or robbing bird feeders with ease. But they are also predatory. Even though they are large birds, they can be quite stealthy. It is not uncommon for these birds to hunt large insects in open fields, or frogs and crayfish at the water’s edge. Unfortunately, fish crows are very adept nest-robbers and take a good number of eggs and nestlings during the summer.

These birds, as well as their American cousins, can become problematic. They are very smart and readily learn where to find an easy meal. At colonial waterbird nesting sites they will be mobbed by adult gulls and terns. This defense may keep the would-be attackers from success. At bird feeders, they will quietly wait until the coast is clear, especially if a savory snack of mealworms or suet can be had. Southern farmers, years ago, found that a fairly effective deterrent is to hang one of these birds in effigy to keep flocks from decimating their crops. Recently I acquired a stuffed crow from my local bird store in hopes that this method would work around my feeding station. I have also been concerned about both species of crow preying on nearby nests. Amazingly, it seems to be working. I do move it regularly to keep the attention of passing would-be marauders. And of course, it is quite the conversation starter as well.

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