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9th February 2019

January with the Longbridges Crows

I'm worried about Gil. Gil is the youngest of the tow-path crows, a sqab from last year, with flight feathers still pale and sparse. When I glance back to see their slightly crooked imitation of the parents' expert solicitation flights, bits of wings turn translucent, the bitter white light of winter mornings shining through. Gil is Dave and Sal's first squab, and he (or she - it's hard to tell with crows) is small. I've seen them feeding Gil, wings a-flurry with frantic begging. But is that happening enough? I worry that they might be making rookie errors like "he's small, he doesn't need much food" or "not feeding her will motivate her better to find food". Dave and Sal, the Horse Paddock pair, were the only couple to breed last year. Harry and Em (the original Longbridges crows, an established couple and parents to Dave) didn't breed last year. I don't know why. 2018 is the first year they've not had at least one squab, in the years since I started feeding them.

Solicitation Flight: A curved flight made around a food source (in this case, me and my box of nuts) a bit above head height. They'll normally follow up by sitting on a prominent branch and cawing loudly. Once in a blue moon they'll shuffle their wings a bit, too, but that's really a squab move, and adults crows like to keep food transactions on the level.

When I first started feeding Harry, I had a feeling that I wasn't the first. This January I'm definitely not the crow's one and only. Someone is feeding them chopped nuts, millet, and what looks like mixed seed for larger cage birds. I wonder if my co-feeder is a bereaved parrot owner. A wandering parrot turned up on Nextdoor about a month ago, but the story went silent, as it often does when things don't end well. Crows are smart, sociable, garrulous and happy to interact with humans. They're the closest things we have to a parrot in this country, and while the Longbridges Crows aren't tame, they're comprehensively habituated. You could come to them to remember what it was like, having a bird of your own.

Habituated: Accustomed to human presence, will not flee when humans approach. Crows are discriminating enough that they can be habituated for some humans, or decide how habituated they are depending on what the human is carrying. One day I walked along the tow-path carrying a pull-up banner slung over my shoulder in a black carry tube. The crows would not approach and hid from me, presumably because Harry or Em knew what a gun looked like.

The Longbridges territory has four crows in residence at the moment; Harry, the patriarch and/or matriarch (it's hard to tell with crows) and their mate, Em, who regards me with suspicion. Max, their squab from two years ago, now a handsome, healthy, glossy sub-adult, and one of the twin squabs from the year before that make up the four. Arbritrarily I'll decide it's Leia and that Luke's the one that's turned up at the Cricket Field territory down the tow-path, but it could be the other way round. There was a fifth, who turned up late last summer when Harry was having a hard moult and disappeared for a fortnight, but they weren't popular with me or the family (I called him/her "bad smell" because of they way they kept hanging around) and they finally flew off in early January. The remaining four are harmonious and healthy enough that I have high hopes for this breeding season, though it's too early for them yet to be sprucing up the nest site (a tree in the nature reserve opposite Long Bridges).

Moult: All birds shed their feathers and replace them, usually annually, in late summer or early autumn. This is a pretty hard time for a bird; there are periods of being unable to fly, poor insulation and waterproofing, it's absolutely knackering, and they're very vulnerable to predators. When Harry disappeared for so long I worried that the moult had done them in, one way or another. Harry's no spring chicken, after all. When Harry came back I cheered and punched the air.

The Horse Paddock pair, Dave and Sal (again, I'm making assumptions - I first met one of them as Harry and Em's subadult helpers, Dave and Sue, and I'm assuming that it's Dave I'm still seeing, and that Sue has moved on) also nest in the Nature reserve, in another tree on the riverbank, but they're still having to give a lot of care to Max. I'm almost hoping they don't decide to breed this year, to give Max the best chance, but given that they managed a squab last year, with such terrible weather, maybe I'm underestimating them.

Subadult: Crows, like many intelligent animals, take several years to reach breeding age. During these years they will hang out with older relatives, helping with foraging, nest-building, cacheing food, mobbing predators and feeding any squabs. Subadults are little more slender than full adults, as well as being substantially dafter.

Down at the modernist boat-house, Luke (or possibly Leia, or possibly even Sue or Dave) has re-surfaced with a new partner. An adolescent crow gang hangs out in the cricket field beyond the boat house, and initially I saw them as a gang, but as January went on it became a couple, albeit not a very secure one, yet. I'm spotting a third bird, sneaking around the trees, curious about me, interested in the couple. I wonder if unrelated adolescents might join couples sometimes to become a helper/additional mate. You can easily see where the value might be for a young couple uncertain that they're successfully pair bonded.

Pair Bonded: Crows mate for life, with the usual provisos - some pair bonded couples will split up, if one dies they will (sometimes, not always) seek another mate, there will sometimes be swaps, changes, break-ups.

The Cricket Field Crow Gang has a mirror crow gang across the river, in university parks. One of them knows me, and drifts across the river for a chat and some nuts from time to time. That's probably the last of my original habituates - Luke? Sue? I'm not great at telling them apart.

Crows. They're handsome birds, but look very similar. A few of them have behavioural tics that help - Dave, for example, likes to rock on dead branches, and ocassionally breaks them off, and seems to find this funny. Harry is very big and has a human-pleasing strut, which I suspect he cultivates. Max does an odd little hop-dance when I glance back to look at them feeding, a little nervousness perhaps going back to their squab year, when they were kept strictly away from me, bar a single introductory visit.

I do wonder sometimes what they make of me. A food source, semi-reliable, garrulous and chatty? Walks, talks, throws nuts? A little too tolerant of the magpies? If they have a name for me (and why not, I have names for them) it's probably something like Bright-headed messy eater. Or maybe just nuts.