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Amazing Crows

From "The Ozarks Herbalist" coulumn
in The Ozarks Mountaineer (
Copyright© 2007, Jim Long

Amazing Crows

Sometimes I take my laptop computer with me, and drive to the lake to write. The lapping of the waves, the quiet spaces, are inspiring to me.

One day as I was staring out at the whitecaps on the water as a strong wind was blowing, I noticed four crows assembled on a dead tree that was laying out from the shore, in the water.
The old tree had only two or three limbs sticking out a couple of feet above the water. The crows appeared to be having a discussion, turning this way and that, making short caws toward each other. Finally one of the crows hopped past the others, along the old tree trunk. He kept hopping until he was on the very tip of the limb. The others watched in silence.

Suddenly the crow leaped off the end of the limb with his wings spread. The wind, was brisk, and as I watched, the most amazing thing happened.

The airborne crow simply hung suspended in the air, about three feet above the water, about two feet from the end of the limb. He didn’t move, nor flap his wings. The strong wind made the perfect lift, just like speed causes upward lift on an airplane and he hung there, motionless, for about two minutes.

The other crows were having a fit, cawing and jumping around and so he flapped his wings a couple of times and returned to the tree trunk.

Then another crow took his place, jumping from the end branch and he hanging there, suspended, motionless for about three minutes this time. Then the next crow took that one’s place.

Over the next fifteen minutes, the crows took turns, one at a time, leaping off the end of the limb and hanging suspended in the airlift of the wind, motionless. It was a game and the crows were obviously having a great time. Over and over again, each one took a turn and the others seemed to cheer their companion on, and received the same cheering when it was their turn. Finally a car drove past and they flew on to another adventure.

I love crows. They are so amazingly intelligent and can learn to use tools, such as a straw to stick into an ant hill to draw out the ants. Or standing on one end of a beverage can to tip it their way in order to drink what’s inside. A National Geographic photographer recorded on film some years ago, a group of crows that took turns laying on their backs and sliding down a slick, snow covered hillside. Crows, it seems, have the ability and intelligence, to have fun.
Nearly every morning I begin my day by soaking in my outdoor hot tub outside my bedroom door. Nearly submerged there, like a hunter in a duck blind, I can watch as the crows disperse over their territory before sunrise.

Crows gather at night in large colonies for protection. They’re a very communal bird and are said to mate for life.

Just as the sun begins to lighten the eastern sky, the emissary crows (that’s what I call them) leave the flock and disperse, one about every half mile. As soon as one is on its post, you’ll hear it call. It’s kind of an, “I’m here, on duty, looking for food, guarding the territory.”

Another will call, then another. From my submerged spot in the hot tub, I can hear crows, one by one, respond in all directions, from across the lake, from the other side of the hill. One flock covers several miles.

Once posted, they begin to look for food, and to look for predators, as well. If an owl is anywhere to be seen, one of the emissaries lets out the alarm and other crows come and surround it, tormenting it until it moves on elsewhere. Hawks, too, are unwelcome in the crow’s territory and get bothered until they move on.

But crows also seem to have a respect for hawks. Sometimes you will see them torment the hawk to drive it away. But I’ve also watched crows and hawks having what appears to be a game. The hawk can easily get away from the crows, simply because it can fly higher and dive quicker than a crow. But they will glide and parry like two planes, rolling over and over, diving, flying on updrafts until one or the other gets tired and moves on to the work of finding a meal.

Crows have a vast language of communication. I’ve learned to recognize the difference from a crow that’s found food, from one that has forgotten to report in from his station. When one gets busy or forgets, the nearest emissaries repeat their calls several times. If the forgetful one doesn’t respond, several come to check out the problem. If they find the crow was ignoring them, an argument ensues. Or sometimes the one who has been silent suddenly realizes he’s neglecting his duty and responds with a call that resembles, “Yes, yes, I’m here, quit yelling at me.”

My father once told me that he had a pet crow when he was a child. He said that crows could be taught to speak human words and I’ve heard from others that this bird can learn to mimic other sounds. My father’s pet crow was a constant companion anytime he was outside on the farm. Then one day, when my grandfather was plowing the garden and the crow was following along behind the horse and plow, eating bugs, he ate a millipede. My father said the crow made odd noises, then died a few minutes later. Evidently crows in the wild know better than to eat millipedes.

Many people don’t like crows and believe they are harmful or bothersome. I enjoy having them around and every time I watch them, I feel I learn something new. And, if you watch them long enough, you will get to see them playing games, drinking from beverage cans (they like beer) and generally acting like a bunch of clowns.


rcpmac said...

I agree John they are truly amazing animals.
Check out the talk by Joshua Klein: The amazing intelligence of crows -

Betsy True said...

great column!

Susie said...

I came across this page while looking for that 1994 or 1995 National Geographic photo. My best friend and roommate at the time taped it to our dorm wall. We still joke about it.

In other crow news, crows can indeed learn to talk if raised by humans. I am familiar with a crow in a wildlife rehab place who says (loudly) "Oh well!" followed by mock-giggles. Cracks me up every time.

rcpmac said...

I have to relay a crow story that I just heard from an eye witness. This person who often observes bird behavior noticed a crow rummaging through the garbage during our recent cold snap. The crow located a slice of bread and flew it up to a chimney top equipped with one of those flat metal rain guards. The crow deposited the bread on the hot metal plate, stationed himself a short distance away and waited a couple of minutes until the bread was defrosted and warmed up before retrieving it.
I joked that the next step should be rummaging around in the garbage and returning with cheese.