The Crow: One Man’s Pest Is Another’s Scientific Fetish

Finally, proof that the crows downtown are more aggressive than their friends in the ’burbs.

University of Washington professor John M. Marzluff began his Seattle Crow Survey back in 2000, before authoring the prize-winning In the Company of Crows and Ravens with local illustrator Tony Angell. The survey's crows were caught, fitted with colorful ID bands, and counted in different Puget Sound regions to assess population growth. In his book and other published studies, Marzluff lent support to the notion that we've tailored our leafy green suburban environment to be a safe, fat feeding ground for omnivorous crows and their pesky kin (raccoons, coyotes, Canada geese, opossums, deer, black bears, etc.).Once widely despised and hunted by shotgun-wielding farmers in rural areas, crows began a huge local resurgence during the '70s, says Marzluff. Since then, their population "increased 30-fold," he notes. "It wasn't really a comeback—it was an invasion."As we chopped down trees outside the city and made our suburbs and city more crow-friendly, the Northwestern crow (Corvus caurinus) was displaced by the highly adaptable American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). As for the urbanized crow, I recently observed one of Marzluff's survey specimens wearing multiple plastic bands on both feet—crow bling, if you will. (The survey's Web page indicates 12 different hues of rings that, in varying combinations, allow citizen spotters to identify and submit individual birds to the site. As I watched on Spring Street, the crow was patiently showing its fledgling how to forage. Although my powers of scientific observation may be faulty, I believe they were eating dried gum, cigarette butts, water-bottle caps, and pennies.Marzluff's crows have been in the news—not the humble downtown flock, but his celebrity birds. The New York Times recently reported on his face-recognition study, in which seven lucky crows got to peck at volunteers wearing Dick Cheney masks (Caw! Evil!). Meanwhile, though the Seattle Crow Survey hasn't been regularly updated since late 2004, Marzluff and volunteers continue to catch the birds with net guns and tag them for reporting. (A new count will be conducted in December.)"Each bird has distinct bands," Marzluff explains. Once they've been lured by kitty chow and Cheetos, then netted, banded, and released, "we don't want to catch them again," Marzluff says, since the goal is to tag new birds for crow spotters to ID. Unfortunately, he notes, the remote-control net guns often catch the same Cheeto-crazed birds. (Cheetos, apparently, are like crack for crows.)Crows can live up to 30 years, says Marzluff, and juvenile crows can remain with their parents for more than a year. However, younger crows often get forced from the 'burbs into the city, looking for new territories. Call it crow gentrification. Says Marzluff: "It's gotta be hard for a young crow to eke out a new territory [in the city], because the good ones are taken."Downtown crows are bolder and more aggressive than their suburban and rural cousins. "Their defense of the nest is much more tenacious," says Marzluff. "Even though they have a crappy diet, the typical pair of [urban] crows have enough young to replace themselves. Downtown they're smaller territories, because they're richer territories. [Crows] go smaller distances between dumpsters. McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken always have food."

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