The population of crows seems to be exploding in Grand Forks. That was brought home to me again on Monday, Oct. 18, when I came across a large flock of crows in a wet field just north of the city. There were at least 100 crows, some of them standing in puddles of water.

We tend to think of crows as scavengers, and that is how they sustain themselves in cities. Crows are omnivores, taking a wide variety of food items, from grubs and garter snakes to burgers and bacon – the latter thrown out by humans.

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On the landscape, they are predators, taking whatever food stuff is available, potentially insects and their larvae, earthworms and whatever seeds might be lying in the fields.

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Although crows are widespread in North America, they are relatively recent arrivals in urban areas. Crows took up residence in North American cities in the 1950s. In Grand Forks, they didn’t become common until the 1980s, about the time that the urban forest reached maturity. Although crows occur in open country, they seek mature trees for nesting and roosting.

These necessities limited their numbers across the Great Plains. Crows did occur in North Dakota. Lewis and Clark and the naturalists that followed them mention seeing crows along the Missouri River. The river valley was heavily forested, mostly with large cottonwood trees. It also supported substantial cities. The Mandan villages at the mouth of the Knife River were once among the largest cities in North America, and like modern cities, they would have produced a lot of food waste, and that attracts crows.

Like Grand Forks today, the Missouri River Valley was probably largely a winter residence while crows spread out for nesting. This is consistent with the seasonal habits of crows. They occur in open landscapes with scattered trees. Although the Red River Valley was virtually treeless, except for the riverine forest, the state did have forested areas, including the Pembina Escarpment and the Devils Lake region. Western North Dakota – despite its reputation as a treeless expanse – actually has exactly the scattered trees that crows seek. The northwestern quarter of the state is marked with groves of poplar, which we always called “popple,” and crows made use of these for nesting.

My father grew up in the Missouri River Valley. He was a keen observer of nature, if an unschooled one, and he remembered flocks of crows. My parents moved up from the river soon after they were married, but they didn’t move far. Our farm near Stanley, N.D., was an easy drive from the river valley. I vividly remember one autumn morning standing in the farmyard watching crows pass to the south. Dad explained that they were looking for winter shelter, and they’d find it in the valley.

Crows faced persecution from European settlers, including my own family. My older brother was always after crows with his shotgun. Crows proved a difficult target, however. I don’t recall that he ever killed one. In those days, there was a bounty on crows, but his effort didn’t bring a return, so he took to shooting gophers instead. They were easier targets, and more remunerative.

This points to the wariness of crows, one of their characteristics. They are intelligent birds, apparently able to recognize individuals. They disappeared when my brother appeared with a gun, but they never fled when I showed up, I think because I was more likely to be carrying a book.

The literature about crows is extensive, and much of it emphasizes their use of tools, a sign of advanced intelligence. As I write, I have a small pile of tomes about crows, including Lawrence Kilham’s “The American Crow and the Common Raven,” published in 1989 by Texas A&M University, the state’s land grant college. The initials stand for “agricultural and mechanical.”

Kilham was a virologist by training and an ornithologist by inclination. His advice to aspiring birders was “watch what you see,” and that’s exactly what I did Monday afternoon.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs