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Signs of Spring Update: February 22, 2002

Today's Report Includes:

Photo by Laura Erickson

photo by Laura Erickson

Something to Crow About!
What's the second largest songbird in all of North America? If you said the American crow, you're right. Only the raven is larger. Neither of these birds sings a melodic song, but scientists still consider them to be true songbirds, and you should be hearing from them right about now.

Many people get crows confused with grackles and other blackbirds. If you get crows confused with grackles and other blackbirds, we've got help. For tips in identifying the black birds around you, take a gander at Journey North's

Crows are found throughout winter in most places of North America, but right in the middle of February they suddenly start acting differently. They get noisier. They snap twigs off trees. They fly around carrying branches. What's going on?

Crows are one of the first genuine harbingers of spring. In February, as days grow longer, any thaw in the frozen north encourages them to start courting and defending a territory, which is why they suddenly grow louder. And one of the ways they cement the bond with their mate is to start building a nest. The frozen days of mid-February are actually a smart time to start building a nest that requires branches, because frozen trees can be brittle, making it easier to break off small branches.

Crows are birds that most people notice. Some people like them a lot. Crows are intelligent, inquisitive, and sociable. They are devoted to their family and acquaintances, and they eat a lot of insect pests. Bird watchers often notice secretive owls and hawks by hearing crows mobbing them.

But many people dislike crows, too. Their calls are loud and raucous. They don't wear the colorful feathers of other songbirds. They feed their own babies nestling robins and other littler songbirds. They eat grain and fruit, and they are so abundant that sometimes people consider them nuisances. What do you think the expression to "eat crow" means? (It is an expression meaning to be forced into a humiliating situation. This probably comes from the fact that crows are partly scavengers, and their meat isn't very tasty, so people sometimes made fun of others who had been unsuccessful at hunting and could get nothing to eat except crows.)

Crows in Mythology and Folklore
Crows are so big and noisy and noticeable that there's little wonder they've been important characters in stories the world over. Native American stories often have clever crows being outfoxed by ravens. The ancient Greek word for crow was very similar to the word for time and their word for the god of the harvest. Middle Ages pictures of the Grim Reaper usually show a crow nearby. Crows were also used for telling people's fortunes. An old poem goes:

One crow for sorrow,
Two crows for joy,
Three crows for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five crows for silver,
Six crows for gold,
Seven crows for a secret never to be told.

Try This! Literature Link
Search for fables or tales with crows involved. Share tales as read-alouds and discuss the role of the crow in each tale. Then write your own fables, tales, or poems with crow characters.

Teacher Tip! Link to Lesson on Testing Bird Intelligence
Ornithologist John K. Terres wrote that birds in the crow family have probably achieved "the highest degree of intelligence" found in any birds. To find out how scientists figure out how smart different animals are, see background, activities, and journaling questions in our lesson:

Similar to and Different From Humans
Many people consider crows to be more similar to humans than any other bird. Research crows using an encyclopedia and/or other resources. Then send us your answers to:

Challenge Question #5:
"List at least five ways that crows are similar to humans. List at least five ways that crows are different fro humans."

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Try This! Discussion or Journaling Questions
  • Henry Ward Beecher wrote in the mid-1800s, "If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows." What do you think he meant?
  • Do you like crows? Why or why not? Describe something about the crow's voice, appearance, or behavior that you find especially interesting, cool, or even unpleasant.

Farmers vs. Blackbirds: Response to Challenge Question #1
Photo Courtesy of Ann Cook

In our February 1 report, we described the dilemma that large populations of red-wing blackbirds cause for farmers growing sunflower crops. We asked you to look at the facts and then: "List as many alternative actions as you can think of that would help Dakota farmers to solve their blackbird problems." Thanks to these students for sending good ideas for a tough challenge:

"Possibly one of the alternatives that Dakota farmers could do is to take out from the nest three of the five eggs and not let them develop," said Iselin Middle School 7th graders Jill, Christine, Amy, and Briana.

Sixth graders Dylan and Kate from Ferrisburgh (Vermont) Central School also put their minds to the farmers' plight:
  • "The farmers could put up bird feeders up around the fields. Then the blackbirds wouldn't be hungry when they flew over the fields so they wouldn't eat as many sunflower seeds.
  • People might donate money to pay for the seeds.
  • Put up nets over sunflower seeds to prevent the blackbirds from eating them. The problem with this is that some birds might get tangled in the net.
  • Make a giant scarecrow.
  • Find a way to put a coating on the sunflower heads that would not be toxic but would prevent the birds from eating the seeds.
  • Experiment with smells and see if there is a smell that the blackbirds would avoid.
  • Maybe you could experiment with different sounds, other than Willie Nelson. There might be some sounds of certain animals that they would want to avoid."

(NOTE: If you would still like to give the problem some thought, go back to our February 1 report and see Redwing Controversy with links to lessons.)

Winter Sleep Out: Response to Challenge Question #2
Photo Courtesy of Ann Cook

Photo by Ann Cook

"List as many advantages and disadvantages as you can think of for a chickadee to sleep in a tree cavity in winter."

Hooray for first graders from Ferrisburgh, VT, who really covered the question well! Alicia, Lane. Gabriella, Daniel and Jenna think that it would be an advantage for a chickadee to sleep in a tree cavity for the winter because:
  • It would help keep it warm and dry because it would be out of the wind and the snow.
  • It would provide some protection from predators, like hawks or foxes. The bad part about sleeping in a cavity would be:
  • Ants might bother you.
  • It might be hard to find a cavity or the right size hole to sleep in. * The tree might fall down if there was a bad storm.
  • The tree could catch on fire if lighting hit it.
  • If there is a bad ice storm, the cavity might get iced over.

Bird expert Laura Erickson adds that it takes a lot of time and energy to excavate a cavity, and a lot of time and energy to discover a cavity that is already constructed. Many small animals roost in cavities, and often steal cavities from chickadees, so they have to waste energy defending, too. Chickadees have tiny beaks, so have to excavate their cavities in rotten wood, which means sometimes the tree with their cavity falls down in a storm. Sometimes ice rain actually seals the hole of a cavity, and a chickadee can't get out again.

Speak Chicka-deese? Response to Challenge Question #3
"What call will a female chickadee give when she wants to say 'Hiya, big boy. How's about giving me a lil' ol' bug?'"

Three chirps for those wonderful Ferrisburgh First Graders who did it again! Ms. Thurber, their teacher, says they "are pretty sure that when a female chickadee wants to have a bug, she will use the Broken Dee Call to let the other bird know! They figured that out looking at the Chickadee Dictionary. They thought it was neat to hear the sounds."

Listen to the Red-winged Blackbird's Song
Wait for download; 130 K file.
Courtesy of
Lang Elliott

Get Ready for the Red-winged Blackbirds!
On Feb. 17, observer Steve Scott reported from Antioch, IL: "This is the earliest sighting of the Red-winged Blackbird in the past 10 years. We have had a very mild winter this year and I am not suprised to see them so early. Spring must be just around the corner. A lot of the waters are open here already." So watch--and LISTEN--for your Red-winged Blackbirds to arrive. Spring might just "spring-up' early this year!

Report your "Signs of Spring" sightings to Journey North.
Remember also to share your sightings of first frogs, earthworms, red-winged blackbirds, barn swallows, emerging leaves, flowing sap, melting ice and other spring events. Your observations will be incorporated into "Signs of Spring" updates according to the schedule above. Thanks for sharing!

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Question:

IMPORTANT: Answer only ONE question in each e-mail message.

1. Address an E-mail message to:
2. IMPORTANT: In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #5.
3. In the body of the message, give your answer to the question above.

The Next Signs of Spring Update Will be Posted on March 1, 2002.

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