The Sopranos with feathers

Stories from a day of bird searching

The day starts with chatting about the Black Death over bagels, then detours to garbage piles and ends with a goofy interview moment —one of the best days I’ve spent in a long time.

An American crow dubbed “UK” in a study in Ithaca, N.Y., watches scientists as closely as the scientists watch the crows. Kevin McGowan
High in a tree, Kevin McGowan prepares to band nestlings and tag their wings so he and crow-watching colleagues will be able to monitor the birds throughout their lives. courtesy of Kevin McGowan
Anne Clark does much of her crow watching from her red Subaru, which some Ithaca crows now recognize as a source of dog food and intermittent handfuls of peanuts. Courtesy of Anne Clark

Some of what happened during this visit with crow researchers in Ithaca, N.Y., went into the story “When birds go to town.” Just a single sentence, though, deals with one of the most entertaining aspects of a day with Team Crow. The three researchers I meet — Anne Clark and Jenn Campbell-Smith, both of Binghamton University and Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — not only know crows, but also know individual crows and their family dramas.

The team’s neighborhood lore goes back to 1989, when Kevin started banding and keeping track of American crows in a swath of Ithaca and surrounding territory. By now Anne and Kevin, as well as Jenn and various other students, have banded more than 2,000 crows. The birds don’t get names, just a two-character designation such as “AP.” AP is one of the celebrities of the project, the American crow with the longest documented life on record anywhere. He’s 18 years old now, so there’s talk about whether anyone has seen him lately.

Knowing the birds so well has a downside, says Anne as we breakfast at Ithaca Coffee Company. When West Nile virus struck in 2002 and 2003, it killed about 40 percent of the crows. “You felt like a doctor during the Plague,” she says. With no way to help, all she could do was record the deaths in the team’s vast genealogy. People were leaving bodies on Kevin’s desk chair, she remembers. “We’d say, ‘Oh no! Not so-and-so!’”

I begin to get a sense of what she means as she starts the day’s task of driving around looking for active nests. She parks near the entrance to a country club and a cemetery, and one of the first crows to fly into trees nearby is a young male that may have killed his uncle in a fight. Last year the researchers found the uncle’s dead body with peck injuries, and the young male had apparently taken the uncle’s place as the breeding male. The uncle had lost a leg to infection, and Anne speculates that he could have been pinned and fatally pecked in a breeding-season battle that a fully fit bird would have escaped.  It’s sensational for Ithaca bird gossip, she says, since this would be the first crow murder that even Kevin had noted.

Deaths do occasionally shake up the territories and family arrangements, though. Down and around some residential streets, Anne points out the crows of another notorious family, quietly pecking near trees on a tidy lawn. This territory once hosted the thriving family of a long-established breeding pair. The old female died, and the old male eventually replaced her with a young female that one of his sons had been courting. Now life isn’t going so well: The young female doesn’t seem that closely bonded with the father of her former suitor, Anne says. When the old male lowers his head in a gesture inviting her to preen his feathers as any good mate would, she ignores him.

Anne is observing most of this and the activity of other crow families from the driver’s seat of her car. If she is driving along and notices something intriguing, she pulls to a stop and lifts her spotting scope from the backseat where the superb instrument rides in what looks like a round, padded dog bed. It’s unnaturally unhairy, because it’s not a dog bed but a scope bed.

Staying in the car helps in not spooking the crows she is keeping such close track of. These urban birds are wary of people and of novelty. But the birds do have their ways. Anne describes setting out food in one of those scary novelties: a small box of clear plastic.. Crows watched the box but didn’t approach. Squirrels ventured in, snatched the food, dashed a short distance and cached their prizes. When the squirrels set off to search again, the crows flew to the cache and retrieved the food, success without having to get close to a new object.

Behaviors like these make designing crow experiments especially tricky. Jenn says she has been warned that crows are too smart to study.

As daylight wanes, Anne, Jenn and Kevin meet up at a great crow-watching spot: Cornell’s composting facility, where long, parallel ridges of food scraps and other waste attract dozens of crows. There, working the faces of the compost piles is AP. He has lost his territory to another male, a calamity that explains why he is foraging in the free-for-all compost paradise too big for any single crow to monopolize. The good news, though, is AP is still hanging on.

West Nile, murder and everyday attacks from predators—there are lots of ways for crows to die, including getting shot by a hunter. Kevin says he gets phone calls every once in a while from people who have killed a crow carrying one of the project’s bands. Although he’s polite, Kevin says he does perhaps tell the callers a bit more than they want to know about the deceased, about how the bird left behind two young daughters or was helping his aging mom with the nesting chores, for example.

As we talk about hunting birds that don’t seem like good eating, I realize too late that I am actually saying to Kevin, “Have you ever eaten crow?”

He’s again polite, though, and just answers the question: “Yes.”

“Don’t tell me it tastes like chicken,” I say.

“No. It tastes like blue jay.”

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.