Flightless crow is learning to adapt

Northwoods Notebook

(Betsy Bloom/Daily News photos) While this crow at Six Mile Lake faces some slim prospects to survive with a badly broken wing that has left it unable to fly, it has the advantages of being among the most intelligent species and a type of bird known for being very social and supportive of others of its kind. With a little help, it could manage to beat the odds, at least for the warmer months.

This crow has a major problem to solve. Luckily, it’s a crow.

It first showed up in March, foraging along with the other birds in our backyard where we daily scatter black oil sunflower seeds on the ground along with on the platform feeder and a cast-iron stove that has several flat, dry surfaces well out of any mud.

After initially being skittish, crows have been common visitors once they learned we posed no threat and were a reliable source of food. Perhaps that’s why this one gravitated here — it recognized a good, potentially safe place to nurse its injuries.

Because it became apparent early on as it strode into the yard that the drooping right wing wasn’t folding into place like it should — or opening up, either. This bird was grounded.

I considered calling a wildlife rehabilitator, but I sized up the crow’s condition and wary nature — it would head back to the woods whenever it caught sight of me even looking out a window — and decided even if I could manage to catch it without further traumatizing it, the chances of repairing such a badly broken wing were scant. The bird almost certainly would be euthanized.

Phyllis Carlson, a now-retired longtime wildlife rehabilitator in Quinnesec, had the same opinion after seeing the photos. The wing has healed enough now that it would have to be re-broken and reset to have any hopes of repair enough for flight, she said, adding that even had it been taken in when the injury was fresh the chances of a full recovery would have been slim. She’s seen enough birds with broken wings over the years — including her great horned owl, Journey — to assess which ones will be treatable.

She guessed from the position of the wing the break had occurred at the elbow, perhaps by being struck by a vehicle. It had the look of past bird-vehicle collisions, Carlson said.

But Carlson was surprisingly upbeat about its prospects. Lots of wild animals seem to adjust to handicaps we’d figure would be fatal, at least for longer than we’d expect, she said.

She recalled a coyote that was missing an eye and ear that kept showing up on her trail camera one year, until it ended up shot. That coyote probably had support from others in its group that helped it survive despite its limitations, along with being smart and adaptable.

Crows may even take that to another level.

Crows and their close relatives, ravens, are considered among the most intelligent bird species on the planet, as is much of the corvidae family, which also includes magpies and jays. A crow’s brain-to-body ratio is similar to human’s, several online sources state. Some experts have credited crows with having some levels of thinking equal to chimpanzees and young humans.

“They are capable of making rule-guided decisions and of creating and using tools. They also appear to show an innate sense of what numbers are,” according to a November 2022 Scientific American article by Diana Kwon. Other online sources document them solving complex problems and passing along knowledge to their offspring.

Kwon’s Scientific American article was on the possibility crows were “able to understand recursion — the process of embedding structures in other, similar structures — which was long thought to be a uniquely human ability. Recursion is a key feature of language. It enables us to build elaborate sentences from simple ones.”

That clever mind is in a body designed to tackle all types of tasks. Its beak is long enough and stout enough to grasp, stab, probe, pry, pick and defend itself. It is not small enough to be more vulnerable to attack, yet not too large to require more food. It has a varied diet that can range from eating grains to raiding garbage to picking at roadkill carcasses to killing small mammals and birds, though Cornell’s All About Birds website, www.allaboutbirds.org, advises it does struggle to open thicker skin if the animal is too large to swallow whole or dismember.

Even more importantly for this particular crow, the species is very social. They tend to live in family groups, according to All About Birds, with some young crows remaining with their parents for a few years to help raise the next few batches of chicks.

Carlson suspects it has companions still in the area that perhaps even roost with the injured crow at night, she said, adding the injured wing might be able to flap enough to reach the lower branches of trees, from which the crow can climb further up for refuge. The other crows can aid the bird in watching for predators, maybe even bring it food, she said.

“His best bet is handouts from you and help from his buddies and a whole lot of luck,” Carlson said.

Which the bird, being a crow, has been smart enough to figure out. I’ll keep accommodating it as much as I can. Perhaps at some point it’ll trust me enough to provide more. I’ll keep you posted on its progress.


Just a short note on spring migration so far. As anticipated, bird movement picked up in a major way with the warmer and more favorable conditions last weekend and continued through much of the week. Some of the new arrivals at Six Mile Lake included eastern phoebes, belted kingfishers, sandhill cranes, lots of song sparrows, several white-throated sparrows and the first tree swallows and a common loon on Friday. A northern harrier was gliding over the roadside ditches along M-69 in Felch Township.

Carlson said she’s had reports of northern flickers and yellow-bellied sapsuckers in the region as well; she’s seen one yellow-rumped warbler. One person in Delta County supposedly had a Baltimore oriole, which would be early. But if you wanted to put out oranges and grape jelly, there are other birds that appreciate those treats if the orioles are still absent.

According to Carlson, predictions are another strong wave could come this weekend.

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.


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