I have now covered all but two of Britain’s resident Corvids on this blog; I have quite enjoyed learning more about these intelligent birds and I hope some of my readers have found them interesting too. The Carrion crow Corvus corone and the Hooded Crow Corvus cornix are very closely related and similar in appearance and behaviour so I am looking at both in this post.
Carrion: This species is easily our most widespread crow with around 1 million breeding pairs in the UK, found in most habitats from sea cliffs and farmland to urban parks and gardens. It is often confused with the Rook but has an all-black bill with bristles covering the nostrils, smooth plumage without the ruffled ‘trousers’ or peaked crown of the Rook and is much less gregarious. Worldwide it has a range covering most of western Europe (except Ireland and northern Scotland) as well as populations across central Asia, including a sub-species in the far-east of China and Japan.
This is a species so familiar that most of the time I (and most people) ignore it – however it is one of my favourite birds to study close-up. They can be quite tame so when I have been close to a Carrion crow I am always impressed by its attractiveness; the sleek, streamlined plumage is of such a dark black it is like looking at a bird-shaped void in space, yet when the light hits it there is a subtle flash of blue-purple which gives this bird some class. They always have a strutting, confident posture and eye you with a superior air, though more likely they are checking if you are carrying food.
They may not be as sociable as the Rook, yet they often form groups in winter, usually juveniles, and will feed in large flocks with Rooks. They nest alone, often high in a tree or on a cliff and are monogamous. They are not especially showy birds, they rarely perform aerial stunts or ‘play’ in the wind as Rooks and Ravens do but are nonetheless skilled fliers and often harry birds of prey to drive them away from nests or to steal prey. They are, as most Corvids, very intelligent when it comes to obtaining or storing food, often using tools or utilising the environment – such as placing mussels or nuts on roads so that traffic crushes it open for them.
Considering their jet-black plumage and habit of eating dead things it is of little surprise that they are regularly associated in folklore with death, bad omens, war, the devil, witches etc. etc. It is a huge crow that hunts Tweedledum and Tweedledee in ‘Alice through the looking glass and what she found there’ by Lewis Carroll and they also feature as evil spies for the Morrigan in Alan Garner’s ‘Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and as similar henchmen of evil in Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’ books. But in the real world they were (and still are) targeted by gamekeepers, farmers and even on occasion conservationists due to their taste for other birds chicks and eggs.
Hooded: This bird is almost exactly genetically identical to Corvus corone and will even breed with it to produce viable hybrids on occasion where their ranges meet. The only difference seems to be its appearance – having a pale grey waist-coat of feathers – and its distribution (found in Ireland, Scotland north of the Great Glen, Europe from the far north down through the eastern countries to the south-east Mediterranean). Yet there is not as much hybridisation as might be expected (it seems that they prefer their own kind).
There are roughly 260,000 pairs in the UK, although in winter a few continental birds appear in southern England – explaining why it has a folk name of ‘Royston Crow’ after the Hertfordshire town where flocks may have wintered. Alternative names include ‘Hoodie’ in Scotland, ‘Corbie’ also, Scotch crow, Danish crow and Grey crow.
I have seen this species on a Greek island, where they are quite common, it was a little unexpected as I had associated these birds with the Scottish highlands all my life. It is in the south of Europe where they are one of the hosts for the Great-Spotted Cuckoo (whose main host is Magpies), a spectacular bird that is a brood parasite like our Cuckoos except the Cuckoo chicks do not evict the crows eggs or chicks – it is raised with them, like a type of sinister fostering.
This crow has also attracted its fair share of folklore, not surprising for such a striking bird, but not as negative as with the Carrion crow; in Scotland it is closely associated with fairies and their doings – which can be both good and bad. Shepherds would make offerings to them of meat to prevent them from attacking their livestock and in the Faeroe islands women would use them to divine who they would marry, depending on where the crow flew.
These two species were once considered one and the same, even cornix and corone both mean ‘crow’ and it is perhaps their confused relationship that has brought them the most interest from people. Yet they should be celebrated for their success; both are intelligent and adaptable species which are common because of their generalist approach to survival. They are independent, aloof, they use humans but do not rely on them, they make us suspicious with their harsh calls and dark feathers, yet on closer acquaintance are fascinating and pretty birds.