Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

March 4, 2013

Black & White Thoughts

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:11 am

A crow out on the ice stand s out like a sore thumb. You couldn’t ask for more of a contrast than a black bird perching on a field of white river ice such as I saw recently on the River Raisin. Every time this coal-colored bird mixed in with the resident group of Ring-billed Gulls their proximity became a study in black & white and this idea prompted me to some thoughts. I can only go so far with this thought without quickly becoming redundant redundant, but there are a few semi-intelligent things can be said about this. I do not feel constrained by intelligence, however, so I will simply allow my mental stream to flow.

The lone member of his kind at that particular place and time, this bird was feeding upon scraps such as dead fish, dead fish, and a few more dead fish (see how quickly I became redundant). It frequently stopped to call as if notifying any local crows that it was owner of this patch of flat cold. There were no local crows about, but perhaps this bird was keeping them away. The gulls paid no attention to him, nor did he pay attention to them. For a while they were equals among scavenging birds.



Crows are a very vocal species and when they issue a “caw” they throw everything into it. Their whole body rocks up and down like a teeter totter. When calling (caw-ling), crows typically perch high up on an exposed limb in order to make their announcements. Typically calling crows are not hiding crows – they are in your face crows. In this case, the bird was totally exposed out in the open and took the opportunity to trumpet his thoughts.

What those thoughts are will range from territory, local gossip, and food announcements (see They are relayed in a series of bursts ranging from one to nine caws and the order of calling seems to make for a fairly complex crow language.  Since crows can count, recognize human faces, and identify dangerous items such as boom-boom sticks there is little doubt that crow talk is not idle chatter. For instance, my River Raisin Crow obviously knew that I could not walk out on the ice and was not holding a boom-boom stick (it was, instead, a snap-snap box). I was, therefore, not a threat and thus the reason I was able to get fairly close (something hard to do with wild crows).

Corvus brachyrhynchos, the scientific name of this species, means “short-beaked” but, as any observer can see, their beak is actually quite large. In fact it would be fair to say that the beak is “honking large.”  Apparently the original name referred to the comparative size of this member next to that of the closely related Raven which has a truly honking large beak. Even though it fades in contrast with that of the Raven, this substantial beak is an adaptive trait to a life of eating everything. True omnivores, these birds eat seeds, rotten meat, garbage, and field mice with equal relish. They are fairly competent predators and will catch and kill small critters – ripping them asunder with that large beak.

I do have one more crow thought to present. Crows aren’t really black, you know. Yes, they are very dark and their primary pigment is a deep brownish black.  In bright sunlight they have a somewhat purplish overtone, but they do not express the iridescence of other blackbirds such as grackles. This effect is called structural color and results from the bending of sunlight due to feather structure.

An ancient story about the crow tells the tale of an annoying white bird who constantly warned buffaloes of approaching native hunters. The bird was nabbed by the angry hunters and thrown into the fire. It re-emerged as a blackened being but was not silenced.

To the honest human observer they present shades ranging from white to coal black.  Look at a crow when it flies on a sunny day and you’ll see that the feathers reflect the bright light. From an artistic view one can’t properly draw a crow by just drawing an outline and filling it in with solid black. To do so would create a crow silhouette. White areas are crucial to the identity of the crow and to any thoughts regarding them.


1 Comment »

  1. Your drawings are just simply flat-out amazing! You’ve posted a few before, but this crow is just mind blowing. I’d love to have a copy of that to frame and hang on the wall. You got the full arrogand attitude of the critter. Thanks as always for sharing your view of the world. I seldom comment, but always love your postings. Thanks for the great information you share.

    Comment by Karren — March 7, 2013 @ 8:53 am

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