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Caw-Fully Close! Understanding Crow Nesting Season

May 16, 2016

Clever and charismatic, Northwestern Crows are a common neighbourhood resident in urban and suburban areas along the coast of BC. While typically spotted benignly hopping along grassy boulevards in search of tasty morsels, or perched high in trees calling to their flock-mates, baby season can bring out an unexpected side to these familiar faces.

The sudden onset of crows scolding, swooping, and even dive-bombing unsuspecting people as they make their way to home, work, and school can seem as if someone issued a bird battle-cry. However, sometimes all it takes is a shift in our perspective – in this case, to that of an anxious avian parent – and we’ll see this behaviour in a different light. Nesting season is a vulnerable time for babies and parents alike, with eggs and young chicks at risk of predation. This risk is amplified as fledgling birds begin to leave the nest. For their first few days they are not fully flighted, and rely heavily on their parents to keep them safe as they venture further afield.

Baby crows spend about a month in the nest after hatching, and once they leave the nest they spend the first few days fluttering from branch to branch within their nest tree as they build up their muscles and flight skills. However, in urban areas we frequently remove the lower tree branches for safety and visibility. This means these fliers-in-training end up down on the ground, often in quite exposed areas – dramatically increasing the need for vigilant parental protection to ward off danger.

So, when we’re strolling down the street – enjoying the sunshine, checking our phone messages, or chatting with a friend – and suddenly we’re accosted by a squawking or swooping crow, we can safely assume we’ve ventured a little too close to a nest or a baby. Crows have a complex family structure, and first-year birds will often become assistants at the nest site, helping to defend the nesting territory in exchange for some of the food gathered for the babies, and some lessons in successful parenting! However, that means that there are often several sets of avian eyes on the lookout for risks, and unwary humans sometimes merit a warning dive to encourage us to keep a safe distance.

To minimize these aerial warnings, the simplest solution is to temporarily alter our travel routes to keep a little more distance around known nest sites, and to post friendly warning signs in high traffic areas. No way to avoid passing close by a closely-guarded crow nest? Umbrellas provide a portable visual barrier to add a little extra distance between yourself and the concerned parents, and are often enough to prevent a defensive fly-by. By July, the babies are well on their way to independence, and the adults become much calmer at this point.

If you do spot a young crow in a vulnerable area, or with no adult birds visible in the area, the best step before intervening is to seek advice from a wildlife rehabilitator – often there are measures that can be taken to reunite babies with their parents, but sometimes these young birds need further help. The BC SPCA Provincial Call Centre (1-855-6BC-SPCA) can offer advice and assistance.

The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is a not-for-profit organization reliant on public donations. Our mission is to protect and enhance the quality of life for domestic, farm and wild animals in B.C.