Talking Crows on the Washington Coast? Who said that!

Coastal Crow
ocean sity marketplace carved sign by judy mcvay

Over the summer, I was chatting with Boaz Backus, the chainsaw carver guy who built Ocean City Marketplace in 1995, and son of woodcarving pioneer (and my friend) Judy McVay.

 

Boaz doesn’t live along the Washington Coast anymore but his legacy lives on in stories; about saving Dorothy Anderson’s cabin, drunk adventures, travel, carving, and his Dr. Doolittle relationship with animals. Which is where this story really begins.

First, let me say that hanging out with Boaz is a hoot. He’s a master storyteller, but you have to be weary ‘cuz everything he says must be taken with a grain of salt. And if you’re thinking “naw, I’ve got a fantastic BS barometer,” he almost always wears sunglasses which doesn’t help discern whether he’s joking or telling the truth.

Boaz Backus Chainsaw Carving

So, there I was, hanging out with Boaz on one of his many trips out here to carve and auctioneer when he started telling me about his friends, the crows that lived in Ocean City when he owned the place and still recognize him when he comes back to visit. He tells the long, funny version but for this blog, let’s sufficient it to say that one crow in particular has been following Boaz around for years, waits for him to get up in the morning and follows him across the street to the Sunrise Market when he’s out of cigarettes. And they’ve been doing that for years.

Crows on the Washington Coast

Until I read an article from 1987 about the crows that live in Ocean City, written by Larry Connelly for the Washington Coast Chamber of Commerce (which no longer exists), I didn’t believe a word Boaz said even though it was good entertainment. Now, I think there might be some nugget of truth in his tale and I learned a few things about the local crows – presuming Larry isn’t also a just another good ol’ North Beach “gifted” storyteller, of course.

Crows of the Coast

by Larry Connelly circa 1987

Coastal Crow

We have “crowbars” and “crows feet”, “as the crow flies”, and “something to crow about.” We also have Corvus brachyrhynchos, which is a heck of a name for the common crow. The North Beach is about midpoint in their Coastal Habitat, which reaches from Baja, California, to Northern Alaska. Being salt water oriented birds, they can be found on both coasts of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Regardless of where they are found, crows are gregarious, loud and aggressive, and are acknowledged as being the most intelligent of all birds as a species. Their family, which includes the Ravens, Jays, Nutcracker, and Magpies, have the largest brain for body size of all birds; are quick learners and associators, especially when food or danger is involved.

 

Weighing in at one pound each, with a wingspan of about 35 inches, and a body length of 18 inches, puts the crow into the medium-sized bird grouping. Mating season is late April through May in our area, and nests will be built in trees or high shrubs away from people’s activities; usually in colonies or groupings. The nests are constructed of sticks, heavy brush stems (including blackberry vines), and are then formed with mud and grass into a small bowl shape.

The inner lining may be made up of animal fur, moss, or other soft materials, even bits of cloth. After 4-6 blue-green eggs are laid they will be tended by both parents during the 18 day incubation period. Feeding, guarding, and caring for the young is a full-time project. If you feed the crows about this time of year, you will often see them fly off with what seems to be an excessive bill-full of fries or bread rather than eating it. They are probably “out shopping for the kids!” Feather growth is completed in about 25 days, and flight school starts with much encouragement from the parent birds. After a 10-day crash course in flying, the crows are nest-free and rejoin the local flock, and its daily hunts and adventures. 

 

Being all black in color allows the Crow, and its larger family member the Raven, to live in the far Northern areas of Alaska and Canada, where the black color allows solar energy to be absorbed. Their feathers will change in spring-molt just before mating and again in the fall before colder weather sets in. 

 

A Crow’s diet here on the beach will range from road-killed animals to whale meat. They do, sometimes rob other birds’ nests, but prefer something “good and dead.” Some are attracted to gardens for grubs, worms, and a little fresh produce once in a while. They eat anything we will, and learn which houses are worth hanging around! Living up to 20 years in the wild, they grow progressively smarter each season or after each event. 

 

Often when one bird is injured or trapped, a flock will gather in a mob to drive off the predator by sweeping close, calling loudly, and making attack-like motions. 

 

The calls and vocalizations we hear range from those of other birds to the sounds of children calling. They understand each other, and we people have no trouble recognizing most of the calls; especially those for food, danger, or mustering. They can be taught to speak human words and will associate those words with individual people. 

 

We had a three-year resident wild crow in Ocean City who would call “kitty, kitty” and say, “hello.” Rewards were always given, and this probably reinforced the speaking pattern.

 

Splitting a crows tongue to teach it to talk is an old wives-tale and surely leads to a dead crow. Being kind to your neighborhood crows will ensure the rapid clean-up of dead animals, removal of tons of grubs, caterpillars, and other insects. It will also provide you with hours of enjoyable observation; that is, unless you’re a “scarecrow.” 

I did a little research on Larry, just for fun. Appears he’s an octogenarian who now lives in Liberty Lake, WA. Thank you, Larry for your enlightening look into local crow behavior! Maybe Boaz isn’t always such a jokester after all 😉

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