This archive post first ran on June 21, 2011
One of the Crow Questions I hear most often is, “Why do I never see baby crows?” In truth, it is likely that we have all seen plenty of baby crows–but we are misled by the human tendency to conflate “baby-ness” with small-ness. A few crows will jump from the nest before they are grown, and cannot yet fly. Such precocious chicks are quickly hidden beneath a shrubbery by their parents, and we seldom see them, though occasionally we might run across one of these fat, round, wide-eyed little fluffballs. Normally though, when a baby crow leaves the nest, it is about the same size as its adult parent, and now that it’s mid-June, we are in the peak of Baby Crow Season–they are everywhere. Physcially, you can recognize baby crows by: their bills, which have fleshy grayish-pink “gape” left at the base; their feathers, which are a dull matte brown-black, rather than the iridescent purple-black of the adult crow; their eyes, which are typically gray-blue, rather than dark amber as in adults; and perhaps their tails, which may be a bit stubby.
But the best way to tell a baby crow is by its behavior! Baby crows are not “dumb,” they possess all the native intelligence of their species. But they are naive. They sit quietly, looking slowly all around. They are approachable, and believe that just about anything–a bicycle, a giant cat with a bell, a raccoon, an SUV, you or me–is a strange, wondrous, and probably even a friendly thing. They have hesitant take-offs and rather bad landings. They look “sweet.” They are loud, begging for food from their parents with an annoying “waaaaaaaahhh” call. If you see a crow, and you instinctively think of it as a “baby,” you’re probably right. Watch for them–they are all around us, and they are super-fun to observe.
An aside: Ornithologists and even hard-core birders do not call young crows “babies.” “Humans have babies, birds have young,” we are told. True, true, but I believe it is a harmless colloquialism, and comes so naturally to our tongues implying, I think, an easy empathy that is one of our own species’ loveliest qualities. Still, if you want to be orno-hip, you can call these babies “hatch-year” birds through the fall, after which it becomes harder to identify them.
The other day I was riding my bike through the neighborhood, and saw a crow in the middle of the street. I rode up within two feet of her, and she looked up at me, wide-eyed, turning her head from side to side. The adult bird was on the wire above me, and just gave me a brief vocal scolding. I looked up and said, “What a lovely chick you have,” (then looked quickly around to see if there was anyone who might see that I am a Crazy Talking to Birds Lady). I stayed with the chick for several minutes, until she slowly walked to the sidewalk. Her parent was quite open-minded about my presence; if we are calm and unassuming, crow adults will often let us watch their young in peace. (But not always–see my earlier post about crow scolding and dive-bombing during this season of fledglings.)
By fall, most young-of-the-year will have grown their first adult flight feathers–their wings and tails will be shiny and new, but their backs and heads will still be a dull matte brown.
Enjoy the season of young wild creatures in our midst!
Thanks to Flickr users Joshua and Lepak pix for the lovely photos.