Dear Bird Folks,
I’ve recently noticed that the water in my birdbath has been becoming dirtier a lot sooner than usual. I change the water regularly, but it’s dirty again in no time. The problem seems to be that crows are using my birdbath to wash their food. I’ve heard of “counting crows,” but what’s with these “washing crows”?
– Steve, East Dennis, MA
It’s called “table manners,” Steve,
I don’t know how you were raised, but my mother taught me that anytime I dragged garbage out of a trash bag or picked up a hunk of squashed skunk from the side of the road, I should wash it before I eat it. (I’ve tried to pass this lesson on to my own children with limited success.) Crows not only have good hygiene, they are also much neater than we are. The next time you stroll through the streets of East Dennis, check out the people who pass by. You’ll see shirts with ice cream dripping down the front, sunscreen on collars and coffee stains everywhere. Then take a look at the next flock of crows you come across. You’ll see no coffee stains, sunscreen or dripping ice cream. That’s because crows are always impeccably dressed and have a sense of style. You’ll never see a crow wearing pants that are too baggy or pulled up too high. Their hats won’t be on backwards and they won’t be wearing a shirt with a lame silhouette of a dog. I once thought that crows avoided humans for safety reasons, but now that I think about it, they are just embarrassed to be seen with us.
It’s strange that so many people don’t like crows because crows sure love people. Crows are the ultimate opportunists and nothing in nature provides them with more feeding opportunities than humans. We are always running over creatures with our cars or spilling nasty fast food in our parking lots. And who is there to clean up these messes? That’s right, the crows. Every morning of the year crows get up at the crack of dawn and go to work sprucing up our highways and parking lots, and they charge us nothing for their time. Yet no one ever thanks them. What a shame.
Crows’ diets are ridiculously varied. I don’t think we’ve yet to invent a cuisine they won’t eat. In addition to fast food and road kill, they will consume seeds, fruit and grain, and will occasionally rob a nest or two. They’ll wade into shallow water to snag fish, or dig in the mud for clams (without a permit, which annoys the heck out of the town). Other creatures that find their way onto the crows’ dinner plates include mice, lizards, turtles, frogs and snakes. Yes, crows eat snakes. Remember that the next time you are cursing crows for eating your birdseed. Would you rather have a few crows on your feeder or a bunch of snakes?
When it comes to intelligence, few birds, if any, are smarter than crows. They can count, solve problems, speak a few words of English and perform basic automotive repairs. But just like us, their smartness varies among individuals. For example, some people develop the skills needed to become scientists, while others end up in Spain being chased through the streets by stampeding bulls. The same thing applies to crows. Some scarf down food the second they find it, while others take time to prepare it first. If a crow finds, say, a stale hamburger bun, it may eat it on the spot. But some crows have figured out that if they dunk it in a puddle or birdbath first, it becomes easier to swallow. It’s like the song says: A spoonful of birdbath water helps the stale hamburger bun go down.
Sometimes crows aren’t moistening food for themselves, but for their kids. Some researchers have suggested that crows soak food in order to provide their nestling with needed moisture. Understanding crows is tricky. Even though they are common and ubiquitous, their wariness makes studying them extremely challenging. Plus, the diversity of behavior among flocks makes drawing conclusions difficult, and scientists don’t like to make stuff up. That’s my job.
Right now experts aren’t totally sure why crows dip food in water, Steve, but adding moisture content and improving ease of consumption are the leading candidates. But who knows? It could turn out that crows are actually neat freaks after all. Like everything else, more studies are needed. I probably should do my own research on this topic, but they are showing the running of the bulls on TV right now and I don’t want to miss it. And you know who I’m rooting for. Go, bulls!
On a different topic:
Last month I wrote a column about buying binoculars. After I wrote it I noticed that I had forgotten to mention one of my biggest pet peeves (and I have a lot of pet peeves). When you look through a pair of binoculars you should see a single round circle. For some reason the boneheads who make movies can’t get that right. We’ve all seen it. When the star is looking through binoculars, instead of seeing one circle, the view we get is two circles, side-by-side, like a sideways number “8.” That’s not how binoculars work. You should see one nice, round circle. If you see two circles through your binoculars take them back to the store or send them to Hollywood. Let those clowns figure out what to do with them.