This post and photos are from an article I published in the German, wildlife conservation magazine Wildtierschutz Deutschland e.V.
Upon hearing the word 'corvid', many would immediately picture a glossy, black crow, a common sight in both rural and urban European landscapes. However, this is far from the only corvid around. In Europe, we are blessed with about a dozen species. From the large Raven with its massive beak, to the Jackdaw, not much bigger than a dove, from the crow with its jet-black plumage to the radiant Jay, dressed in hues ranging from lavender-grey to pink, and adorned with striking blue wing feathers. And while many harbor fears and dislikes towards these birds, the corvid family is a delightful cast of characters, each member holding its own unique charm and fascinating intelligence.
Corvids are extremely important to the environment. They are excellent pest controllers, eating insects and rodents alike. During years of a rodent and insect population surge, you can see hundreds of crows or rooks landing in fields, clearing them of the damaging pests. Moreover, by being scavengers and consuming carrion, they reduce the chance of disease spreading.
From the early days of human settlements, species of corvids, intelligent and opportunistic by nature, have intertwined their lives with our human habitats. Many legends, myths, and folklore stories were told about them. Many of these stories connected them to disasters, fear, and death.
In Celtic mythology, for instance, Morrígan, the goddess of war, fate, and death, could transform into a raven and fly over the battlefields, deciding the fates of fighters and the outcome of battles.
Associating ravens and crows with death and doom may not be surprising when you consider their dark colour, their scavenger behaviour, and the ominous sight of hundreds of them circling above the fields of carnage.
However, in modern times, it is mostly their behaviour during the nesting season that gives corvids their bad reputation. Corvids are known for their strong family ties and are protective of their chicks and fledglings. Some of us might have encountered crows trying to keep us and our pets away from their nesting places by means of threatening gestures. This, I experienced firsthand.
When I was a teenager, I found an injured Hooded Crow chick. I took it home and nursed it back to health. It loved sitting on my shoulder as I walked around the house. But its calling and cawing attracted dozens of other crows. They would perch on the nearby trees, roofs, and antennas. They quickly learned to identify me, probably by seeing me through the windows, and as soon as I stepped out, they would swoop at me. They never hit me but were close enough that I could feel the brush of their wing feathers against my face and head. I tried changing clothes, putting on hats, wearing sunglasses, but all to no avail. Whatever disguise I tried, they would recognize me. They kept following me from one rooftop to the next, calling and warning each other about the approaching enemy, years after I released the chick.
But recognising human faces is only one testament to their impressive intelligence. Corvids are one of the very few animals that design, create, and use tools. They shape twigs, leaves, and pieces of metal into hooks to extract insects from tree barks. That is, they can envision what a tool should look like before they make it, and shape it based on the materials they have at hand. Crows and rooks have been known to drop stones into water-filled tubes to raise the water level and bring a floating piece of food within reach.
Corvids have also learned to recognize traffic lights. In urban environments, they have been observed to crack nuts by dropping them onto roads for cars to run over, then they would wait for the light to turn red before safely retrieving the nut's insides.
In an experiment at the University of Cambridge, a crow named "007" broke the record for animal problem-solving when it solved an 8-step problem involving a series of puzzles that must be completed in order. This involved understanding the sequence of steps, using tools, and modifying its behaviour based on the task. When I watched this test, I could not help but wonder how many people would be able to complete such a test.
It is this high intelligence that makes the corvids so adaptable and enables them to thrive around humans. This has led to some corvids being categorized as pests, and in some countries, including Germany, they can be culled. However, in Germany, particularly in the Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, the hunting extends to all corvid species, including Jays and magpies. In these regions, they are hunted in the tens or even hundreds of thousands, without scientific or environmental justification.
Corvids are important to our environment. They are arguably the most intelligent of all animals around us. So, go out, spend time watching and observing these magnificent birds, and have your say. Should we allow them to be freely hunted? What restriction must we put on their culling?
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Thanks for reading, and happy snapping!