Believe it or not: parenting lessons from crows

Urban family learns from observing the behaviour of crows raising their young

Crows have much to teach us about parental roles

Crows have much to teach us about parental roles

By Kelly McKenzie

Columnist for Troy Media

My mother phoned me to tell me the good news. Crows have returned to nest in the pine tree, mere feet from her 7th floor apartment balcony. I didn’t bother to ask if they are the same pair as last year. It’s not important; they’re back. Let the lessons resume!

Over the years my urban family has learned so much from observing the behaviour of crows. Last May was no exception. From her front row viewing gallery, Mom provided daily bulletins on crow parenting. We heard how both the male and the female worked tirelessly to construct their cosy nest. Then once the eggs were laid, our self-appointed educator waxed on about the new parents’ strict division of labour. Initially, Mama crow was assigned egg-sitting duty and Papa crow food-provision duty. However, once the chicks hatched both parents took on the dual roles of food provision and protection.

The protection role, which demonstrates keen intelligence, isn’t new to us. Twenty years ago when my father discovered a dead crow in his driveway, he got a shovel and scooped it up, unceremoniously dumping it in the garbage can. Unfortunately unbeknownst to him, his actions were observed by relatives and friends of the deceased. For the next two weeks, whenever he appeared near the driveway, he was dive-bombed by swooping, squawking crows. It got so bad, he couldn’t get to the car without an unfurled umbrella. My mom was ignored by virtue of her innocence. This ability to discern “good” from “evil” is amazing.

I was reminded of this in May 2006 when my two children and I returned home from evening swim practice. Opening our backyard gate, we were unexpectedly greeted by a disembodied tinkly singsongy voice. “Your dog ate a bird . . .!” Closer inspection revealed the source. Standing, just on the other side of the fence, was the speaker, our three-year-old neighbour Zara, and her mother.

Horrified, I rushed to apologize to both for having to witness such a dreadful thing. “Oh please Kelly, not at all. In fact, Zara and I went into my bedroom for a better view. Your dog (our normally gentle six-year-old golden retriever Oscar) crawled along the ground to observe a crow that was sitting on the lawn. They stared at each other and then the bird kind of hopped. Oscar nosed it and tossed it into the air. It flapped its wings and then fell to the ground. The dog went boop with his nose and it fluttered into the air and then plummeted to the ground.” The woman was merciless. She went on and on to the delight of her beaming daughter.

We found Oscar hovering in terror at the backdoor. It was evident his actions hadn’t gone unnoticed by the neighbourhood crows. It was also clear that he hadn’t actually eaten the bird, more likely crushed it. Still alive, it was lying supine in the back garden. Sadly, its blue eyes revealed it was a young crow – a fledgling. It was probably resting on our lawn after an inaugural flight when Oscar first spotted it. What to do? Haunted by visions of my father and his umbrella, we decided to wait until dawn when we could see what we were up against.

The next morning, as the sun crept over the horizon, with Oscar locked firmly in the kitchen, my two children and I ventured outside. Huddled together under a golf umbrella, our largest, we crept towards the injured victim. It was now dead. As I leaned in with a shovel, my son standing at the ready with a green garbage bag and my daughter shielding our actions with the umbrella, the trees rustled with life. Crows. A serious multitude were on guard over the fledgling.

We needed to work fast. In seconds, the crow was in the bag. Reluctant to park it in the identifiable garbage can, we mutely agreed to make for the car hidden in the carport. As one, we shuffled, still shielded, the final 50 feet. Spine chilling caws rent the air and dozens of frantic vigilant protectors flapped and swooped from the trees in search of their now missing fallen member. The cacophony continued as we returned, gingerly, minus the umbrella and garbage bag, to the house. Our ruse worked. Having not seen us, the crows left us alone.

Yes, crows have much to teach us about parental roles, protection and loyalty. I look forward to the lessons of 2012.

~Column courtesy of Troy Media;  www.troymedia.com.