23 January 2005

(68) City Life

Once strictly a denizen of the countryside, the species Corvus brachyrhynchos now includes many individuals who have taken up living in metropolitan areas. These urban crows have discovered they can lead a pretty good life in the big city, indeed, probably safer and more productive than back there in the countryside. For one thing, they're not being shot at all the time by Farmer Brown and his hunting fraternity. That alone gives city living a definite edge over the bucolic life.

Not only that, it seems everybody else is moving to the city. Oddly enough, the crows' mortal enemies - the hawks and owls - through circles of circumstance, have a large contingent of city dwellers.

Why all this emigration to areas of high human popolation? Are there other reasons? And it's not only hawks, owls, and crows we're speaking of. It's includes such diverse bird groups as gulls and vultures, and amongst the four-legged animals, coyotes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossoms, and others. And, they're still coming. So, what's going on here?

It's worth repeating that the safety factor is a big determinant. With no damned fools poppin' away at you all the time,that in itself means an easier life-style, just from the point of view of not being on edge all the time and having to eternally teach your young-uns how to tell a gun from a mop handle.

The city is also probably a bit safer from the dangers of speeding automobiles, but just a bit. Large urban and suburban areas away from freeways are definitely safer. Areas that are bisected by freeways not so much so. Never-the-less, street-savvy birds like crows are quick to cope and can frequently be seen casually feeding along busy streets close to passing cars.

If a realtor was trying to interest a crow family into moving to the city, he would have many other selling points. The easy availability of food would be at the top of the list, and the big city has it all. Shopping malls, new and old, offer wounderful places to glean for food of all discriptions from all parts of the world - Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Italian, plain old American - you name it. Add a few fast food outlets and you're talking steady meals - crow food, constituted largely from what homo sapiens throws away. And, the super markets! Mamma mia! The dumpsters out back are like cafeterias!

Let's talk environment. In recent decades, much of the countryside has bcome desertified, one-crop big-business enterprises stretching across fields as far as the eye can see - with nary a hedge-row or patch of cover to be seen. Only the occasional woodlot can be seen here and there, and these are usually barren, uninviting places for humans or crows.

On the other hand, the city has become an environmental oasis. The city has residential areas with beautiful landscaped yards, parks of all descriptions (from city parks to huge, rambling metropolitan parks), large wooded cemeteries, zillions of huge stately trees and, more often than not, several environmentally rich riparian corridors where rivers and creeks bisect metropolitan areas.

All of this has been too much for the corvus family to resist. For the last twenty years or more, streams of crows have been moving to the city and adjusting their habits accordingly. There are big trees to nest in; there is a dependable and delicious food supply, there is a user-friendly environment with plenty of natural things to eat, including eggs and the young of smaller birds.

Have I mentioned back alleys? I think not. Back alleys and other such neglected "out-of-sight" areas were just waiting for the arrival of the newcomers. They are perfect places for playful crows to carouse around in - and maybe pock up a snack from an overflowing dumpster or garbage can.

This is where it's at! Habitats galore. Enough for everybody. And not as many pestides and herbicides either.

And, lest we forget, guess who else is taking up city living? Why, the hawks and owls, of course! And the crows love this development! Well, it's a love/hate relationship, but the truth is, they wouldn't have nearly as much fun without making a hawk or owl's life miserable.

When a hawk or owl shows up in their baliwick, they are on him in a flash, diving through the air, twisting and gyrating through the branches, perching as near as they dare to the hapless target of their disdain. They're like a street gang of tough hoods or, when fifty or more are congregated, the scene become like something out of Star Wars. All of this accompanied by a horrible cacophony of sound - a true murder of crows!

The hawks and owls are showing up in populated areas for the same reasons the crows are -a better diversification of habitat, and lots of smaller prey (like around bird feeders)to provide many a tasty meal. The crows? They're used to them. They just never seem to get the message that it's a "eat or be eaten" world out there. And, of course, the crows are pretty hypocritical about all this because they're pretty high up on the list of predators themselves.

Oh, sure, they eat a lot of stuff besides red meat - and eggs, and nestlings. The truth is, they are garbage-mouths, not only in thir vociferous outpourings, but regarding their diet. They will eat just about anything! And, while we're on the subject, some authorities have pinned some very serious charges on the crows, such as being largely responsible for a dramatic decline in the numbers of nighthawks.

Why nighthawks? Because nighthawks have a propensity for nesting out in the open, on flat-topped city roofs, for instince. It doesn't take the neighborhood crows long to spot this situation and before you can say Jack Sprat the eggs become egg nogs.

Now the circumstances have come full-circle. The street-wise, crafty crows have become the Number #1 victim of the West Nile Virus. Their dead bodies are being found more and more often. And, unfortunately, the story doesn't stop there. Or, rather, I should say the virus doesn't stop there. At bird treatment centers where the dead and stricken crows have beem taken, there has been an alarming increase in the deaths of the resident raptors.

Talk about Darth Vader