LOUDENDALE, W.Va. -- Like many American households, the typical American crow family consists of a mom and a dad and several kids born in previous years that stick around for years helping to raise their younger siblings and build the family nest before literally leaving the nest themselves to mate and breed.
An American crow family unit can include a dozen or more individuals, ranging from clumsy, newly hatched juveniles and their young adult brothers and sisters to mated-for-life parents and an occasional brother or nephew of the mom or dad. Crows have also been known to adopt the offspring of unrelated neighbors.
While crows are common across all of West Virginia and most of the United States, "it is no ordinary bird," according to Kanawha State Forest naturalist Sara Miller.
Miller and Lynn Hartman, a graduate of the state Division of Natural Resources' Master Naturalist program, led a "Bird of the Month" program featuring the American crow at Kanawha State Forest last weekend. The kid-friendly event drew more than 30 attendees.
What makes crows extraordinary? For one thing, they are known to use tools to forage for food. Crows have been observed using beak-held sticks to retrieve insects from holes in trees and wooden fence rails that couldn't be reached otherwise. They have also been seen chewing on such sticks to make them fit into the holes better to improve their odds at reaching snacks of sought-after bugs.
Studies have shown that crows can identify individual human faces and remember for years those who have captured and banded them, or conversely, those who have given them regular handouts of food.
Crows have been seen working together to open garbage containers to provide a group banquet, and at this time of year, joining with other family groups to form huge flocks - sometimes involving hundreds of thousands of birds -- that gather nightly at winter roosts.
"In the winter, they gather together mainly for protection," Miller said. "If predators like owls or hawks come near, crows can swarm and harass them, and drive them off."
The "selfish herd" theory may also be at work, when it comes to huge flocks of crows at a winter roost, she said.
"This means that in a large group, those on the interior are going to be more protected than those on the outside of the group," Miller said. "This offers increased protection in numbers, like the emperor penguins in Antarctica, who huddle in large groups against the winter chill and kind of rotate - those on the outside move in where it's warmer and those on the inside are pushed outward."