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Wildlife Column: Something to crow over, maybe?

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The carrion crow really does carry a burden of a rather bad name – associated with its identity as a bird that scavenges and lives by eating carrion and offal or other waste, or else by taking the eggs or young of smaller birds. Nevertheless, like its cousin the magpie, the carrion crow is highly intelligent and sociable; finely adapted to a highly successful lifestyle.

Yes, they will predate birds and eggs but this is nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. The crows are one of nature’s great success stories though for a couple of centuries or perhaps more, they have been under the cosh from human persecution as ‘vermin’.

The crows were despised by gamekeepers who saw them as a threat to the eggs and young birds that they were charge with fostering for the shoot. Today the carrion crow has increased in numbers and will even now venture into gardens to feed – not only highly intelligent but very adaptable too.

My neighbours Mike and Vicki have a favourite carrion crow which they feed – he (or at least we think it is a ‘he’) is now known as Russell (Crow!).

It is a toss-up between Russell and the magpies as to who gets there first when suitable food is put out. My experience is that they really do like the skin off cooked chicken drumsticks and will arrive within minutes when I put food out. Indeed, sometimes you actually miss their swooping down and silent departure – but the food has gone.

Carrion crows are highly territorial and nest apart from other pairs which distinguishes them from the rook and their smaller cousin, the jackdaw. Furthermore, carrion crows will object noisily to, for example, a bird of prey passing too close to their territory; or in Norton where

I live, the local heron flying over. Such an intrusion will be met by noisy and persistent mobbing until the offending bird has departed suitably admonished! Closely associated with people and with intelligent, complex behaviour, crows feature in both folklore and literature; most recently perhaps in Mark Cocker’s lovely book ‘Crow Country’.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues.