Vail Daily column: Crazy corvids
As a naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center on Vail Mountain, I am commonly asked about the large black and white bird people see hopping around town. Perhaps to a local, this bird has lost its charm, but to anyone coming from east of the Rocky Mountains, the black billed magpie is a sight to behold. The beautiful blue iridescent wings give these tuxedo birds a bit of pizazz, but it’s not just their sleek look that makes them special. Among birds, these are an exceptionally intelligent and adaptable species.
Magpies belong to the same family, Corvidae, as some of our other noisy residential birds. The American crow, common raven and grey jay are a few of the other most commonly encountered species in the Vail area. These crazy corvids don’t opt for the warm southern retreats come winter, but rather elect to keep us company on the mountain all season long. You’ve undoubtedly seen these loud social birds soaring above the trees, cawing at your window or even picking through the trash. While these activities might not seem particularly unique at first glance, upon further inspection, you’ll see why this family of birds’ intellect is often compared to that of the great apes. Those loud raucous raven caws you hear in winter (which at 6 a.m. are certainly not ideal) may be males drawing awareness to a limited food supply, usually in the form of an animal carcass. This communication is key to the animal’s survival, especially in harsh winter environments. The variability and complexity of corvid communication is one of this group’s main intelligence indicators.
Survival of the Generalists
But even with all of the social and communication skills, these birds wouldn’t survive a Colorado winter if they had to depend on one particular food source, like many other song birds. Instead, these birds are considered to be generalists, or opportunists. Their beaks allow them to eat a variety of food, from insects to carrion to trash. Grey jays are actually called “camp robbers” in the Sibley Guide to Birds, and locally as well, and many a picnicker has been surprised by the swiftness with which these birds can steal your lunch. A large part of the success found in this group of birds is because they have been able to adapt to urbanization. While urbanization often gets a bad rap when it comes to wildlife, in the case of corvids, they have evolved alongside and grown very fond of, and dependent on, the food sources we provide, mostly inadvertently.
And if you still aren’t impressed by these fairly ordinary-looking birds, then there’s more. The common raven can live up to 60 years, and will reproduce with a single mate throughout its entire life time, an example of monogamy alive and well in nature. Studies have also been done on corvid intelligence, and it has been shown that crows, in particular, have the ability to recognize individual human faces. It seems counterintuitive, but scientists have shown that these birds have an intelligence that rivals that of chimps and dolphins, in terms of their communication skills, their ability to problem solve and to remember and predict actions. Quite impressive for a classic bird brain.
The corvids’ ability to work together, communicate messages, and eat a varied diet has allowed them to join the ranks of the Vail locals. And since we all know this is not an easy place in which to live, maybe this will have us looking at these birds with a new found respect.
Rachel Barfield is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center and is very thankful for these residential birds, but excited for the beginning of spring migration. Come join her for a snowshoe hike at the Nature Discovery Center located on top of Vail Mountain.