On Rota with the Endangered Mariana Crow

By Kevin McGowan
March 26, 2010
A juvenile, banded Mariana Crow cavorts in the Rota canopy, A juvenile Mariana Crow cavorts in the Rota canopy,

It’s an hour before dawn and our group is stumbling uphill toward our blinds. I’m carrying a small cat container that holds our captive Mariana Crow, Latte, and shredding my boots on the sharp limestone. Latte was once the breeding female in the territory adjacent to where we’re trapping, but she lost a wing during a fierce tropical storm. She was rescued by Sarah Faegre, the crow research field team leader from the University of Washington, who is as devoted and protective a mother as a bird could possibly have. Latte is amazingly calm for a wild bird; she was quite willing to take a katydid out of my hand on the first day we met.

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Dawn is breaking by the time we’re in our blinds. Latte is in her cage, and we’re hoping she’ll lure the territorial crows into mist nets we’ve placed around her. A rooster Red Junglefowl walks noisily through the forest, a species the Chamorro people introduced to Rota 3,000 years ago. Latte jumps around in her cage, pounding on her perch occasionally as crows do. The local pair finds her, and they start calling in aggravation at her presence in their territory. But that’s as far as they go: they stay in the treetops, and I never even get a look at them.

Trapping crows—any species—is a royal pain in the neck. It’s easy enough to catch crows in a field, but then it’s usually some naive fledgling or yearling. Catching a specific crow takes patience and luck. So I settle in and reflect on the differences between this island crow and the American Crows I usually work with.

A crow may be just a crow to most people, but I’ve been studying them since the 1980s, and this species sure looks different to me. They’re the same color (though some of the world’s 40+ crow species are black-and-white or -gray), but the body and bill shape of this bird stands out.  American Crows are big (weighing about a pound), glossy, and neatly put together, with kind of a triangular shape from bill tip to tail to feet. Mariana Crows are small (a half-pound), fluffy and scruffy, with more of an S-shaped posture. Instead of being neatly balanced they’re small behind with a great big, pointy bill. The white instead of gray bases of their body feathers stand out much more than I expected, adding to the disheveled look.

I spent several hours watching Latte indoors the two weeks we were in Rota. It was odd to watch a bird that is at once familiar and strange. She was clearly a crow, and when she pounded her perch or did a ruffle-shake to rearrange her feathers, I just had to smile in recognition. But when she called, she pulled her neck in and her tail down to accentuate her S-shape, instead of pulling the tail up and flattening the back to highlight the triangle that an American Crow would. She opened her wings slightly as she called, just like an American Crow, but instead of doing it at the wrists and forcing her wingtips together, she held her wrists tight to her side and separated the wingtips. Subtle but strikingly different to a bird-behavior geek like me.

In the field the two species are very different, too. Mariana Crows, like many southeast-Asian crows, forage in the forest canopy. Their behavior reminds me more of oropendolas than of “typical” crows of North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia, which forage on open ground. One proposed explanation for why crows never penetrated the Neotropical forests is that toucans and oropendolas were already occupying the role of big, canopy-dwelling, omnivorous bird.

After more than an hour without attracting the pair anywhere near the nets, Sarah calls it quits; she thinks Latte has had enough, and I never argue with a protective mother, especially when her “baby” is an endangered species. The crows have seen our operation, and all hope at surprising them into the nets is gone. This ends up being my last trapping attempt before heading home to Ithaca.

But, I’m ecstatic, not sad. I spent hours getting to know one of the most endangered birds on the planet, and earlier in the week even got to hold one in my hand. For an ornithologist that truly is paradise.

Comments

  • Excellent observations, insightfully described, by a brilliant researcher. Thanks for the post.

  • waw … very good observations and interesting … I am very impressed

  • Janet Feldberg

    Dear Mr. McGowan,

    Congratulations on your excellent work w. M. crows and your good fortune in getting so close. I have no expertise in ornithology, but was excited by the number of crows I found in Bayside, Queens, when I moved here 33 years ago. Since then, they have come and gone and a few returned again…and then there were none. But last week great news:five crows were circling over a corner of Cunningham Park at about 6:45 a.m. I pass there every weekday; haven’t seen them since.

  • Annie

    I have lots of “backyard birds in my backyard, I feed them everyday. A week ago, I looked out my window and to my surprise was 3 HUGE blackbirds. I scared them away because I figured they were after my little birdies I feed (chickadees,cardinals,yellow finches.)But then they came back again the following day. I know it sounds mean but I scared them again. But I must say they were very interesting to watch. Are they after my little birdies?

  • William

    I enjoyed your article about the crow,Latte from Quam. Have heard that they are intelligent and interesting birds.

  • E. George Strasser

    I was wondering if the brown tree-climbing snake that has invaded Guam could also be a problem for the crows.

  • anita vinolo

    Thank you for that article.!

    I feed all my neighborhood birds,but also”my”family of Crows,I feed them leftovers from our dinner,plus any fat or meat trimmed,from steaks etc..

    I feed them on our drive-way,so they can feel secure,a big open space.

    I have currently a family of five,but over the years,I’ve had as many as seven crows coming to eat.

    West Nile took quiet a few one year,but they have bounced back.

    The most exciting time is spring,when they introduce me to their offspring.

    I live in southern Ontario and I love all birds,but the Crows have a special place in my heart.

  • Charlie

    Kevin: Interesting that the Mariana Crow is in trouble. When I was there years ago the swiftlet was already gone and I heard something that the white eye was also in low numbers. What is the problem? No snakes and no pesticides. What else is causing the problems?

  • Thomas

    If there is a mystery within bird species, for me it is corvus. I’ve always gotten the feeling from their incredible calls, (Common crow in US),they were up to something that only they knew but were deathly afraid of letting us discover. I’ve tried to track them since a small boy to discover the secret. To no avail.

    Bring on more crow stories.

    No, those large black birds aren’t after your little birdies, they fly much too slow to catch them.

  • Thomas

    Those black birds fly much to slow to endanger you little birdies. Only a falcon has that capability, and it’s even too much work for them so they kill pigeons.

    Depending on what type of bird it is, you might get quite a treat from some of their antics. I’m speaking of grackels mostly. Their idea of a fistfight is seeing whose eyeball is tallest.

  • I really live vicariously through your dedication and work, and may you find a way to help this bird thrive. “Sarah calls it quits; she thinks Latte has had enough, and I never argue with a protective mother, especially when her “baby” is an endangered species.” Wonderful!

  • Sherril Guthrie

    I’ve got my fingers crossed that Sarah is successful in her efforts to help the Marianna Crow. I’ve been in love with crows for over 40 years – have helped raise three and have great respect for their family structure and dedication.

  • ALK

    Vancouver BC July 2008 watched two NorthWest Crows attack and kill a starling, pursuing it across our yard and into the next yard, continuing the attack as it fell to the ground, then eating it.

    It looked like a hunt.

  • jane weiner

    I have always been fascinated by the common crow. When I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time in 1996, I saw my first raven and fell madly in love. For me, it has remained the epitome of birds.

  • Ruth Camm

    Thank you for the wonderful article. Brookline (where I live) used to be a huge crow roost. Thousand of crows. I got to know a few of them quite well. One followed me around Brookline. Another one, a fledgling, ate nuts and seeds off my window sill, until his “father” (I presume) cawed right in his face. The fledgling visible wilted on the windowsill.

  • sky

    Love your website absolutely and delighted you are in the front lines helping the Mariana crows. I wish I could see a raven here in Virginia, but the crows are amazing … truly wonderful.

    I have admired crows all my life, grackles too, although as kids we were told never ever to touch grackles since they carried lice. I don’t know whether that was true or not, but I never touched them because they are unique and lovely creatures…not something to be pawed at. As soon as I moved to my new place, crows were everywhere. I love watching the big birds caw good morning and grumble at me as I feed the cats but not them everyday. The cats, for their part, look at the crows with caution. Apparently, there is a history for one of the cats who must have had a dispute with a crow and he never forgot the experience.

    Keep doing what you do.

    Namaste

    Shelley