I saw something this week that upset me quite a bit. There was a post on an (unnamed) county birding Facebook group which raised the question of culling corvids (I won’t elaborate but the poster was clearly against it). In the comments on this post I expected to find – seeing as this was a group for people who like birds – people overall agreeing with the poster that killing crows to ‘save’ songbirds is utterly wrong in all but a few circumstances. I was proven drastically wrong when I found the comments to be dominated by many people (but mostly just one loony, as is often the case) claiming that magpies and other crows are a major factor in causing nationwide songbird declines, that their populations are out of control, that culling them wholesale is the only option and that ‘science’ backs up everything they were saying.
I would have expected these sort of comments on a Facebook page for gamekeepers, but to find out that apparently many birders believe these things to be true was shocking. I was partly upset because it was clear that scientists, conservationists and conservation groups have to a large extent failed to get across to the masses that corvids are not the problem and why selective, localised culling is okay but widespread slaughter isn’t. But mostly I was upset because it was yet another example of humans blaming nature for human-caused problems – people love a scapegoat and so often carnivores (or omnivores) are the ones to fill this role.
It was disappointing to see how obvious these peoples prejudice was; for example the only corvids ever mentioned were Magpies, Ravens and Carrion Crows. No-one was calling for a cull of Jays or Jackdaws I noticed; the two pretty and endearing corvids, despite both those species eating as many chicks and eggs as the others. It was also telling when one intelligent person mentioned Great Spotted Woodpeckers and how no-one was calling for a cull of that species even though they frequently break into nests to get at chicks and one of the ant-corvid gang expressed their surprise at this, saying that they hadn’t been aware woodpeckers did that.
Regardless of whether or not culling predatory birds to save other birds is scientifically sound, the people commenting on this post were clearly prejudiced against crows. I believe this is partly because crows are large, noisy and obvious as well as being common in suburban environments, so people often witness crows predating other birds nests, whereas they won’t often see a Grass Snake do the same. Also, there might be an element of tradition to it, even amongst urban people, as corvids are a ‘traditional’ target of gamekeepers and farmers that historically have been (and still are) killed on a large-scale to protect crops, livestock or game birds – old ideas die hard.
People like a villain, they like someone or something to boo and hiss at, something they can blame all the bad things that happen on, something to point a finger at. Trichomonosis is a disease that has severely affected Greenfinch populations in the UK, but protozoans smaller than the eye can see are not something you can easily ‘boo’ at. The same goes for the massive declines in invertebrate populations, which many songbirds rely on to feed their young; it is not easy for a human to notice that there are less spiders in the countryside than five years ago – even though it’s obvious to the birds and a major factor in their declines. Habitat loss, pollution of all kinds, chemicals in the food chain, changing climate, changes on wintering grounds etc. are the real problems but it is so much easier to just point at the crows and blame the cruel-looking birds with jet-black feathers and a harsh call that have always been associated with death and evil.
Just to be clear, it is scientifically justified to cull corvids and other avian or terrestrial predators in certain situations – conservation organisations do it all the time (although they don’t really tell people about it, which is part of the issue). At some sites where one or more declining birds breed (tern colonies for example) it is often necessary to reduce the predator populations locally in order to optimise breeding success and help increase the populations of the declining birds. But predators are never wiped out entirely (as on grouse moors, ahem) and this culling is only necessary because a variety of human-caused factors have resulted in an ecosystem which is very hard on specialist, niche species and benefits (or at least is less hard on) generalist, opportunist, adaptable species like corvids and other omnivores. The imbalance is not natures fault, it’s ours.
But localised culling to protect scarce breeding species does not mean that it is justified to kill corvids on a widespread scale in the name of saving songbirds, certainly not in suburban areas. Robust scientific research has proven that predation by corvids has negligible effects on breeding songbird populations. It just wouldn’t make sense for predators to wipe out their own source of food, it isn’t something that nature does, nature has a balance that self-regulates and that balance is only put off-kilter when humans mess around with it. I think there may also be an element of God-complex in this as well, with some people thinking that as the ‘dominant species of planet Earth’ we should control and have mastery over everything else. Because that’s gone really well so far.
To make my own opinions abundantly clear; I support good, strong, well-researched science and not what I call ‘grandad science’ where someone sees something once (like a magpie taking eggs out of a nest) and instantly extrapolates that as the general rule, using one observation as evidence for an argument without any genuine scientific research being involved. I love all birds and all wildlife, I hate to see any wild thing killed by a human for any reason, scientific or otherwise. I also know very well that seeing death and predation in nature is distressing and can appear through our eyes as cruel or unfair. But having emotions about something is one thing, using those emotions to justify lethal action against a perceived enemy is never right.
Crows are among the most intelligent of all animals on Earth, they are also full of character, are a joy to watch and I think they have a great beauty to them – they are as worth protecting as any Blue Tit or Song Thrush in my mind. To find out as I did that so many people (who should, as birders, have known better) are so incredibly misinformed and ignorant about corvids and hold such an unfair prejudice against them was genuinely distressing to me. I wish I could just wave it off as a few stubborn people who say a lot but can’t do anything damaging in real life. But then I remember that hundreds of beautiful birds of prey are killed every year in the UK because of the same prejudices – on grouse moors and lowland farmland alike. This isn’t harmless talk and it needs to be addressed, there needs to be education, preferably by those who can reach the most people and have the public’s trust – like the RSPB?
Gorgeous Carrion Crow image by Andreas Eichler.