As the crow flies…

Crows are fascinating birds. We see them around us wherever we live. Over most of India, we can easily recognize two species of crows: the grey-necked, slim-bodied house crow and the glistening-black jungle crow. Ornithologists classify crows under the family Corvidae. This family includes crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs and nutcrackers. Apart from jays, magpies, nutcrackers and treepies, the rest look similar to the familiar crows but with distinct differences. Most of the Corvids are gregarious and sociable in nature.

Crows and treepies are common in many parts of India, in towns and forests, respectively. In the Himalayas and northwest India, we can see other corvids such as ravens and choughs. Ravens are bigger than our jungle crows, whereas choughs are smaller and sleeker in appearance. The red-billed chough has a thin red beak and red legs. The alpine chough has a yellow beak.

Another interesting Corvid found in the alpine forests of the Himalaya is the spotted nutcracker. The scientific name of this species is Nucifraga caryocatactes which means “to shatter nuts”.

Crows are known for their intelligence. Remember the story of the thirsty crow that drops stones to raise the water level from the bottom of a pot up to the brim? There are few animals that use and make tools other than human beings. Caledonian crows, for example, use sticks to get insects and grubs out of decaying logs.

In a city in Japan, crows use a novel method to break open nuts. They fly to the top of traffic signals, drop the nuts and wait for the passing vehicles to crush them. Their intelligence does not stop there. They have also learnt to collect the kernel only when signal turns green for pedestrians to cross and vehicle traffic stops.

This behaviour was observed more than ten years ago and since then all of the crows in that neighbourhood have learnt this technique from one another: an example of transfer of culture in animals through learning!

Crows are useful birds. They play an important role as scavengers in urban ecosystems. There is not much research carried out on crows in India, especially on their behaviour. Watch crows and record any peculiar habits you observe performed by them. Share your findings with your friends.

This article appeared in the Hindu in School on 25 April 2012.

Picture: Large-billed Crow
Credit: T.R. Shankar Raman