Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ravens, crows and magpies: more than meets the eye

Members of the corvidae bird family are year-round residents of the Wood River Valley

Express Staff Writer

The mere presence of these birds gives rise to fear, loathing, respect and admiration.

Across the American West in places like the Wood River Valley, they can be seen occupying a wide range of habitats including the highest peaks, mixed forest and meadow areas, riparian corridors and vast sagebrush seas.

Likewise, they also can be seen in the contemporary world's downtown city streets and suburban neighborhoods. They have even found their way into the shared lore of numerous native societies and onto the pages of many famous works of literature.

They're our mysterious and highly intelligent neighbors: the common raven, American crow and black-billed magpie—masters of adaptability and cunning.

Each of these birds—as well as their related cousins, the jays, scrub jays and nutcrackers—belong to the family of birds known as corvidae.

While loved by some and equally despised by others, ravens, crows and magpies nonetheless share an important place in the Wood River Valley ecosystem, Bellevue resident and avid bird-watcher Kathleen Cameron said.

"They have a valuable place," Cameron said. From her beginnings as an amateur bird watcher in 1993, Cameron has gone on to check off more than 530 species on her life list of North American birds.

Although many people harbor low opinions for corvids, Cameron believes they have as much of a place in the native landscape as any other species of bird or animal.

"They each have their own beauty," she said.

During the winter, ravens, crows and magpies play an important role scavenging for carrion in place of turkey vultures, which have flown south to warmer climates, Cameron said.

"That stuff has to be cleaned up," she said.

Magpies are a particularly attractive and interesting bird, Cameron said. While it may come as a surprise to Westerners, many bird watchers from the East Coast of the U.S. will drive hundreds of miles to view them, she said.

A case in point: When a black-billed magpie was recently spotted far outside its normal Western range near Toledo, Ohio, birders from all over descended on the area to try and catch a glimpse, Cameron said.

"People were just very excited about it," she said. "People from Idaho think that's pretty funny."

People travel to enjoy magpies' interesting social antics and their shinny coats of black, white and green-colored feathers.

"To watch the light play off that iridescence," Cameron said.

Corvids such as ravens and crows have held the fascination of humans for as long as history has been recorded, Cameron said. This fascination has seeped into numerous literary references over the years.

"Clearly they've captivated humans," she said.

Black-billed magpies are of particular interest to Pocatello resident Chuck Trost.

Trost's 25 years studying magpies have made him a recognized authority on the species of birds and also helped earn him the status of professor emeritus from Idaho State University. Trost wrote a 20-page section on magpies for the scholarly "Birds of North America" series that describes the life history of birds that nest in the United States and Canada.

Many species of corvids—and magpies in particular—display interesting social and hierarchical tendencies, Trost said.

While in the field conducting numerous research projects over the years, Trost and his students often watched as black-billed magpies gathered around the body of another magpie that had died.

Although he hesitates to call them funerals, Trost believes the displays are tied to the complex social structure magpies have among each other.

"Anybody who's dead is an opening in the hierarchy," he said.

Magpies and other corvids are also known for their bravery and bravado. Gathered in flocks, corvids often work together to harass and drive away large and aggressive species of raptors such as sharp-shinned hawks.

"They kind of show off around predators," Trost said. "It makes you laugh when you see it."

In this way, magpies can be seen as something of a protector for vulnerable species of songbirds.

"Magpies will actually save a lot of birds by being in your yard," Trost said.

Some believe corvids actually cooperate with predators on the hunt. In the far north, Eskimos claim ravens lead predators such as wolves and bears to their prey.

"I think they're quite capable of that," Trost said. "I don't take anything for granted with these guys."

Another interesting thing about corvids is the monogamous male-female bond they establish. Still, these interesting attributes aside, many people still regard corvids—including magpies—with suspicion.

"There's a lot of prejudice against them, which is unfortunate," Trost said.

For farmers and ranchers in particular, this prejudice has a lot to do with the tendency magpies have to attack open sores on livestock, Trost said. Magpies are also notorious for raiding the nests of songbirds.

"They're just opportunistic," he said. "But we're opportunistic, too."

While corvids have survived quite well alongside humans, they've also fallen victim to deliberate actions meant to control their populations, Trost said. Poisoning programs meant for them or other species of predators have long taken a toll on corvids.

"They're heavily sensitive to some of the things we do," he said.

Over the years, Trost has often gone public with his defense of magpies and other corvids.

"I periodically write letters to the editor," he said. "I defend them because I consider them a fantastic bird."

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