With the winter weather in full swing, I love to watch any creatures traveling through my backyard. I have a plethora of squirrels, rabbits and other mammals. I also have many bird species that pass through and visit my feeders. This year’s deep snow has kept me from topping them off, so I have been throwing seed and peanuts down on the ground lately.
The other day I was witness to an extraordinary event. The usual squirrels, Blue Jays and Crows were visiting when the birds sounded their alarm of a nearby predator. They spotted a Cooper’s hawk and did their usual calling and flying at the raptor. I followed the performance as the hawk flew to a nearby tree. A Crow alighted on the very same branch and cawed at it. Then it began bobbing and puffed up its body. I expected to see this behavior. Then the crow broke off a small branch tip and “lunged” at the hawk. The crow did this a couple of times then dropped the twig. It looked just like it was using it as a threatening display. I have seen crows use tools before, but not in this manner.
Like any curious observer looking for answers, I headed to my computer and searched for any documentation on Crows using tools and especially as a threatening display. I was not able to find what I was looking for so I emailed The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I utilize the site frequently and since I am a member of The Clarence Bluebird Trail, we report our bird house data to them.
According to Project Feeder Watch Project Assistant, Anne Marie Johnson, they have a crow expert at the Cornell Lab. How fortuitous for me! The expert said the specific behavior has not been documented, but crows using tools is documented, and that’s essentially what was happening. The fluffing and bowing behavior is used primarily within the family and seems to be sort of “you don’t scare me,” or “I’m not taking that peck personally because we’re still family.” So perhaps the crow was trying to convey a position of strength rather than a threat.
This experience has been an eye-opener for me. When I am not diligently illustrating for my books and others, or trying to work on my own books, I spend time watching the world around me. Heck, I get most of my inspiration from watching people and animals. Now I have the great honor of witnessing an undocumented behavior. I can only imagine what interesting things I may view. Even now, as the crows call to each other, announcing the buffet of nuts and seeds I left out, I feel like writing about a flock of musketeers, dueling in my yard. On guard!