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The Story of Two Crows

One is American, the other speaks with a soft Scottish accent

Corvus branchyrynchos, the American crow, and its cousin Corvus ossifragus, the fish crow.

When our expanding family moved from our small house in Annapolis proper to a larger abode in Cape St. Claire on the Broadneck Peninsula, we were greeted by one of the more garrulous and distinctive birds in America, the crow. A large flock of the all-black avians was ensconced in and around the many trees that abounded in our new neighborhood.
    They did not sound like the crows I had grown up with long ago in Pennsylvania. These Broadneck crows seemed to have a different call all together, a low-pitched, nasal caw quite unlike the brash, raspy caw-caw-caw I was accustomed to hearing. It was as if these birds were possessed of a strong but soft Scottish accent.
    I discovered that not only did they sound different from the crows of my youth, the American crow (Corvus branchyrynchos), they were an altogether different species: the fish crow (Corvus ossifragus). Their numbers are significantly less than the American crow, but they are common to the wetlands and river drainages throughout the eastern and southeastern United States.
    Smaller than the American crow but not by much, the fish crow is otherwise a very similar bird. They are all black, quite intelligent and dine omnivorously on anything edible, including crustaceans, fish (living and dead), fruits, small reptiles and mammals and, unfortunately, the nestlings of other birds.
    Those ebony rascals ranged through our Broadneck neighborhood for a number of years — until one spring I heard the additional calls of the American crow echoing around the houses. At first I thought it was a melding of sorts, but after a day or so I realized the truth. A battle for territory was going on.
    The fight — and it was a loud one — lasted for the better part of two weeks. After that the nasal, Scottish accent of the fish crows that we had become accustomed to was replaced with the raucous caw of the American crow. This species then dominated our neighborhood for the next 20 years.
    A few weeks ago, however, I began to hear that Scottish burr once more. Their calls seemed to be everywhere at once as they began flitting through almost every copse of trees in the area.
    I then realized I had not been hearing crows of any kind for some time, years perhaps. Doing a little digging, I discovered that the reason for this absence had been a dire episode for crow populations in general.
    West Nile Virus, first identified in 1937 in Uganda, showed up in the United States in 1999 and within three years was widespread across America. A mosquito-borne infection that hit about 20 percent of humans with flu-like symptoms (and worse), it proved particularly deadly to all species of crows in the Americas.
    Ultimately, the fish crow proved somewhat more resilient (50 percent mortality once exposed to the disease), than the American crow (over 90 percent mortality). The overall crow population across the nation collapsed to about half of its previous abundance. Now that precipitous decline appears to have leveled out if not reversed.
    There is hope and some scientific evidence that both species are increasing in resistance to West Nile, but the change is slow. In the meantime, the territory of the more disease-resistant fish crow is expending due to the relative absence of the once-abundant American species.
    Today, it is once again pleasurable to hear the understated voice of the fish crow echoing about the Tidewater. Though sometime in the future the species may be again challenged for territorial supremacy, I am delighted to be remaking its acquaintance.
    Note: The raven, the largest bird of the genus Corvus, is also seen in Maryland but much less commonly. Ravens are noticeably bigger than both American and fish crows. Many of those around the Chesapeake favor purple and black.


Conservation Note

    The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission made a decision in 2012 to manage Atlantic menhaden as a critical part of the ecosystem rather than a single species and reduced the allowable commercial harvest. The results were an improvement in species population.
    Now, at the first sign of success, the Commission is considering increasing the commercial harvest.
    Communicating your displeasure at this action could reinforce the Commission’s resolve to protect the species: ASMFC, Menhaden Management, 1050 N. Highland St., Suite 200 A-N, Arlington, VA 22201 or BGOLDSBOROUGH@CBF.com. A personal written and mailed comment gets exponentially more consideration than an email.