A touch of light: crows

Crow feather detail © Mike Gillam

 

By MIKE GILLAM

 

If Aquila audax commands the skies at altitude, they must come to ground to eat, roost and breed and there the territorial rules change. Our majestic eagles suffer a fair amount of ritual humiliation from lesser passerines and most of all they must accede to the authority of crows.

 

Confrontations occur when eagles are alerted to the presence of a carcass by the activity of crows. Size, speed, agility, numerical strength and, of course, attitude matter in Centralia’s community of birds; an order that often places regal eagles at the bottom, strong and fast crows in the middle and the quick and courageous willy wagtails at the very top.

 

In legends and story-telling around the world, much of it addressing our preoccupation with death and the afterlife, carrion-eating ravens and crows loom larger than eagles. While eagles are frequently synonymous with power, associations with death and bad luck are often attributed to ravens and crows.

 

They are revered in the legends of First Australians as cunning and intelligent tricksters but also the givers of fire to humans, and messengers of bad news and prophecy. Ravens feature prominently in the Bible, the Quran and Greek mythology but perhaps my favourite depiction of ravens sees them as companions of Morrigan, the shape-shifting Celtic goddess of war, fate and death. She was said to hover over battlefields in the shape of a raven or crow.

 

They continue to enjoy great notoriety in popular culture, most of it violent and sinister. From barbed wire and battlefields, Hitchcock thrillers and murder mysteries, where would the film industry be without crows and ravens to set the scene – perched in leafless trees, on headstones in grey windswept northern hemisphere landscapes?

 

The Australian raven, Torresian crow and Little crow belong to the family Corvidae and are morphologically very similar. After decades of instruction by ornithologists making great use of the Aaark and F word repeated with varying combinations in pace, mirth and vigour, I still don’t recognise the difference in their calls.

 

In Australia, these typecast harbingers of death found a friend when they encountered that brand of bravado that requires us to laugh at the macabre and threatening. On 3 March 1975, our corvid culture reached a memorable zenith in telly land. With his rendition of crow calls, comedian Graham Kennedy was found to have used the F word in thinly disguised crow-speak. He was sanctioned by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, allowing me to avoid making the same mistake here.

 

Along with parrots, magpies and jays, crows and ravens are widely considered the most intelligent of all birds. The remarkable New Caledonian crow fashions tools from twigs, often including a crude terminal hook to force insects from deep crevices and other hiding places. They also exploit naturally occurring hooks on the edges of pandanus leaves and vines with thorns.

 

Anecdotal stories of crows and magpies killing one of their own – ‘assessed’ as badly injured and put out of its misery – are probably true. These observations may have given rise to the derogatory noun describing a flock as ‘a murder of crows’. If only crows could do more than just mimic humans. I put my crow hat on and try to imagine some appropriate nouns that could be applied to subsets of Centralian culture: a mirage of selfless leaders, an ego of politicians or an apology of box-tickers.

 

In Centralia I can’t imagine that crows pose a significant threat to livestock and stories from rural areas mostly refer to them feeding on afterbirth and occasional stillborn lambs as opposed to killing healthy animals. 

 

There are five Australian species, two of them Centralian. I suspect the corvids photographed for this article are all Little crows. In my experience over many years these are dumpster divers, carrion and caterpillar eaters. They avidly patrol popular lunch spots and school yards where there is always a surfeit of abandoned hamburgers, hot chips and Asian takeaway. While they will take unguarded nestling birds and on rare occasions a group may kill an injured bird for food, without any doubt a partially eaten chicken drumstick is more to their liking. After all, their suburbs are ours, places of waste and plenty.

 

The day I took this photograph of birds riding an updraft was partially overcast, the patches of sky between clouds impossibly blue. A cloud moved across the sun and lighting levels dropped, trees bathed in gleaming yellows surrendering to a very subtle blue. 

 

An unseen crow called out to its clan, a raucous and stuttering cry. Perched in a native pine, turning in the filtered top light, its black plumage acquired a new radiance. Silver highlights found the crow’s broad back and flat reflective tail, glancing across strong and contoured shoulders. Beak and claws shone like mirrors while feathers receiving less light turned an iridescent blue black.

 

This is the light that truly reveals the crow’s mojo. The birds make fabulous silhouettes but this is what I’m chasing and for the hundredth time I can’t get close enough, compositionally strong or sharp enough without spoiling the scene. In the right light the blue sheen of feathers persists long after death. In frustration I begin to photograph feather close-ups of lifeless crows. There are many dead crows to choose from especially beneath the town’s power poles and electrical transformers.

 

The crow’s mate arrived with two hungry silhouettes that called maa, maaa, maa in anticipation of being fed. The blue eyed male checked the carcass below for hidden threats and called encouragement to his young. They followed him down while the adult female kept watch, busying herself with matters of errant feathers and personal hygiene.

 

The hungry eagles in this story, two sub-adults, circle lower and lower, taking their time and reading the scene, checking on the competition and finding a strategic perch. Only three crows so that’s encouraging. A nearby bloodwood overlooking the carcass provides good line of sight and some useful elevation. For the next hour they must tolerate vigorous dive-bombing all the while waiting for an opening to join the feast or steal a portion that can be carried away to a safe distance and consumed.

 

Typically eagles remain perched and behave defensively in this situation, dodging the cut and thrust of crows and uttering plaintive cries in preference to chasing protagonists and wasting energy. Not only are crows faster and more agile, they have a great many friends and a wedge-tailed eagle with attitude is a unifying target.

 

Patience pays off and finally both eagles manage to glide and flap their way through a gauntlet of complaining crows and briefly eat at the carcass, stealing morsels to carry back to their perch.

 

This incursion seems to reinvigorate the crows and they take it in turns to swoop and torment both eagles. Eventually the crows combine their efforts and the intruders are driven from their perching tree.

 

One eagle sensibly goes to ground and adopts a submissive posture, its back against the rocks. His friend takes to flight with powerful wing-strokes, wheeling back and forth and even performing mid-air rolls in a desperate bid to skewer the alpha crow with powerful talons.

 

Now the juvenile crows add to the melee, even while hanging back out of harm’s way, watching and learning. Their whole family are calling constantly now, ever more enraged and strident, calls rippling outwards, relayed over and over by more and more crows until every crow within 500 metres arrives at the scene of battle. With upwards of twenty crows swirling around him the wedge-tailed eagle youngster learns a valuable lesson.

 

Spurred into action with the arrival of crow reinforcements, the cowering eagle in the rocks stops crying to his absent mother. With his mate taking all the heat, our trainee of the thermals takes to the sky and doesn’t look back. His combative companion is already at 300 metres and climbing, flanked by a determined group of crows, including one that seems intent on taking an eagle tail feather as a trophy.

 

Both eagles seek the safety of height where they know the crows will give up. The aerial combat is over, pride is restored for the crow clan and neither eagles nor crows get hurt.

 

The crows return in high spirits, flying to the crest of a nearby ridge where they hang in an updraft and shout with pleasure. To my eyes they appear to engage in some mad and jubilant victory dance followed by a brief rest, congratulations all round and then the flock disperses to all points of the compass. Crows reign supreme until next week!

 

RECENTLY IN THIS SERIES: 

 

A touch of light: Aquila audax

 

A touch of light: caper white butterflies

 

 

 

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5 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Helen Satour
    Posted June 5, 2020 at 4:23 pm

    I was watching two crows the other day swooping down on a dog. It was fascinating to watch, the dog was getting agitated because it couldn’t catch them.
    It was fascinating to watch!

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  2. Posted June 4, 2020 at 12:59 pm

    As a tiny infant the very first intelligible sounds I emitted was not “mum” or “mama” or any human word, it was the calls of crows.
    When I was a few months old my mother would sometimes put me in a bassinet under the porch or shade of trees; and crows would gather in the branches, maybe with the prospect of a feed in mind.
    In a role reversal of the usual interspecies communications between man and bird, I quickly learned to mimic the calls of the crows – I’m told I was very good at it.
    Sadly, I’m no Dr Doolittle, I’ve no idea how to interpret crow-speak; but no doubt there are some who hold I’ve been away with the birds ever since.

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  3. Trevor Shiell
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 11:05 am

    Have had some magnificent conversations with them here but none better than conversations with the late Tommy Burrows and the crows that frequented his chook yard.
    This is the stuff of legends!!
    They almost ate with him at his breakfast table, and set his menu.

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  4. Leigh Childs
    Posted June 4, 2020 at 8:59 am

    They must accede to the authority of crows. Love it.
    It made me laugh out loud. That doesn’t happen often.
    So enjoy your words and your turn of phrase. Love the up close feathers.
    Mike, have you read the book Feathers by Thor Hanson?
    In it he remarks that if he is not gobsmacked each time he is out in nature, it’s because he is not paying attention. Worth a read.

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  5. Psuedo Guru
    Posted June 3, 2020 at 8:14 pm

    Another great article – but crows make terrible noise every morning?

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