Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Monday, August 24, 2009

Crow with a Pebble

Six or seven American Crows often come together to a birdbath in our front yard. They don’t stay long and don’t make a mess – they’re much neater than many of the other birds that visit. Several of them usually crowd together, perching around the rim to drink, then they take turns bathing in an orderly way, one at a time.

A few days ago, one of the crows picked up a smooth brownish pebble from underneath the birdbath, and carried it up and dropped it into the water. The pebble was oval-shaped, about the size of a pecan. The crow turned it over in the birdbath a few times and another crow tried to pick it up, but the first crow took it out of the water in its bill, dropped down to the ground and hopped a few feet away. It seemed to be possessive about the small stone, hopping further away from another crow that showed some interest in it.

We wondered why a crow would be interested in a small stone.

Crows are known to use objects as tools in several ways. In Aesop’s fable “The Crow and the Pitcher,” a crow uses stones to raise the level of water in a pitcher so that it can reach the water to drink it, and I found some references to more modern observations of crows doing something similar. But in this case, there was no need to raise the water level, and the crow’s interest was clearly in the stone itself.

I also found a few references that indicated crows and other corvids like and often collect shiny objects like foil or jewelry.

But the most likely – and at the same time, the most intriguing – explanation might be that these were young crows playing with something they found, though why this particular pebble was chosen from the many underneath the birdbath I don’t know.

The species account in Birds of North America says, “Juveniles and sometimes yearlings play with objects on the ground – e.g., bones, twigs, leaves – carrying them around, occasionally having tugs of war.”*

A.C. Bent refers to an account of young crows raised as pets that notes, “During the day the crows devoted much of their time to collecting and hiding objects of various kinds. As they grew older, berries and other food were hidden with the definite object of using it later when hungry.”**

*N.A. Verbeek and C. Caffrey. 2002. American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

**Alfred Otto Gross, “American Crow,” in Arthur Cleveland Bent, Life Histories of North American Birds, 1947, Smithsonian Institution, United States National Museum Bulletin 191 (Part 2):226-257. From the online collection,, selected and edited by Patricia Query Newforth.


Post a Comment

<< Home