The crow family – can they be our garden friends?

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Scarecrows, shotguns, bird scarers …. people have a long history of battling with the crow family. But are they an asset or a problem in the garden, and are all corvids the same?

Corvid field, Kit Hill
Corvids on a field after it has been cut

When we (very reluctantly) had to lose the magnificent dying cedar tree at the foot of our garden, we also lost a large flock of starlings and a variety of corvids that had used the tree as a perch and magnificent vantage point over the row of gardens, hedge and fields.

Gradually, the corvids have been coming back, with magpies lining up to walk along our neighbours’ shiny, high new garage roof (a new vantage point). Jackdaws use our own badly capped chimney pots for nesting. Magpies fight, mate and generally cause a rumpus in the trees along the Cornish hedge, stirring up a cacophony of alarm calls from smaller birds. The occasional rook can be seen perched on the wall hoping to grab a mealworm from the ground under the bird table before I notice. One glance out of the window, and the rook is gone.

Corvids are omnivores and opportunists, using their great intelligence to find food in a number of innovative ways. They have demonstrated that birds can use tools, and they can learn or invent useful tricks, such as dropping nuts or other shelled objects from a height in order to break them.

Sadly, you are unlikely to see Cornwall’s national bird, the chough, in your garden as I write (June 2020), unless you live on remote cliffs with short, invertebrate-rich turf or heathland. I did see choughs flying over a small farm settlement on the Isle of Man, though. They were landing in small, rough cliffside fields to forage alongside grazing Loaghtan sheep, a local breed that was being kept traditionally, no doubt encouraging invertebrates through tight grazing, natural manuring and a lack of pesticide use or other agricultural disturbance. Fertilisers causing rank vegetation growth would reduce the ability of choughs to probe for invertebrates, for instance.

Magpie (Pica pica)

Highly visible flapping around in a tree, on top of the neighbour’s garage or strolling a little arrogantly across our lawn to the bird feeder in full view of domestic ducks, the magpie is quite a common sight. It can also hop along with a comically and athletically springy bounce, its black feathers displaying a gorgeous sheen that makes them appear blue, contrasting with the patches of white.

Magpies have a terrible reputation, largely because of their fame for stealing the eggs and young of smaller birds, but also in folklore where corvids are associated with death and the devil. Perhaps this is why we perform rituals such as saluting to avert bad luck when we see a single magpie.

The Victorians were so averse to magpies that they hunted them almost to extinction. In contrast, the magpie was associated with good fortune prior to the spread of Christianity. It is venerated in a 1967 song by iconic singer/songwriter Donovan and is the national bird of Korea. It is indeed an illustrious bird, with a gracefully long tail that may help it manoeuvre in the air. Magpies do steal eggs and chicks, but they also eat insects and their larvae, small rodents, grain and berries … in fact, many things as an omnivore, rather like us.

Magpie in tree
Magpie in the tree that used to be at the bottom of the garden

Some years ago, our late neighbours (or their friends) installed a Larsen trap in their garden, in which a caged magpie (or other corvid) lures in competing birds setting up their territories. When a bird lands on a perch on the cage, a trapdoor opens and the second bird is caught alive in a second compartment. If other species end up in the trap they can be released unharmed.

Advocates of such traps will argue that catching corvids helps preserve songbird populations. However, the RSPB states on its website: ‘research indicates that magpies do not pose a conservation problem to garden birds’ [….] It must be remembered that if challenged, anyone killing magpies in their garden may have to prove to a court of law that they had acted lawfully. This may be difficult given the lack of scientific evidence that magpies affect the conservation of garden bird species.’

Magpies’ reputation as thieves of shiny objects may actually be undeserved. Recent research shows that a bush full of glinting CDs is likely to repel rather than attract them. This might be useful if you want to protect grain, berries or other crops or garden wildlife from magpies.

Apparently, magpies can recognise themselves in mirrors, a feat (it is said) only achieved otherwise by humans, four other ape species, bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants.

Given the behaviour of humans towards birds throughout history, I suggest giving magpies the benefit of the doubt. We could take a step back and stop trying to be self-appointed arbiters over nature. 

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula)

Like the magpie, the jackdaw has a sheen, but this time a silvery one on the back of its head. It can be distinguished easily by its black cap, its short beak and its call of ‘chack chack’. Tame jackdaws have demonstrated the many clever tricks these adaptable birds can perform. Being corvids, they can communicate with eye contact, like us. They can also form same-sex pairs and live happily in communities.

Jackdaw that had come down the chimney
First jackdaw down the chimney – February 2014
Jackdaw that came down the chimney June 2020
Jackdaw that came down the chimney June 2020

The adults have pale eyes, but the newly fledged youngsters who appear down our chimney every few years  have gloriously blue eyes that turn brown before achieving the pallid adult colour.

Jackdaws and a wood pigeon (and a magpie has just left) under the bird feeder June 2020
Jackdaws foraging for scraps with a wood pigeon under the bird feeder (a magpie had just left)

The eggs are a beautiful pale blue with dark speckles, and the adults form strong pair bonds as well as living happily in small colonies. Like their magpie cousins, jackdaws are omnivores, able to eat seeds, fruit and invertebrates, as well as road kill and other carrion.

Our jackdaws stalk around the garden more slowly than the bouncy magpies. As they can eat slugs as well as insects and other small creatures, they could be thanked for their natural pest control rather than vilified for their love of chimneys as nest sites. Perhaps we should create alternative nesting holes for them, as they appreciate ruined buildings and cavities in trees and cliffs as well as chimneys.

Jay (Garrulus glandarius)

As a child I found a jay feather and its brilliant turquoise blue convinced me that it must come from a kingfisher, despite the puzzling black bars.

Since then, it seems to me that jays have become more common, but perhaps I simply live somewhere with more oak trees – jays do have a particular liking for acorns. Jays also consume a wide variety of insects, other small creatures including birds’ eggs, and seeds and fruit.

There are plenty of jays in the countryside around our village and I see them on many of my daily walks, usually flying away before I have a chance take a photo of them. I think they must see themselves as a target prey species of humans, which is a shame, as I would love to capture that wonderful pink, black, white and shiny blue in a good photograph.

A colourful jay wing feather
A colourful jay wing feather

Jays usually avoid our garden, although I have heard their harsh, rasping and decidedly untuneful call in the distance, and a friend living near tall trees has a jay as a regular visitor to her bird table. Apparently the best way to attract jays is with peanuts, although you must be careful to feed high quality peanuts intended for birds, and clear them up regularly to avoid poisonous aflatoxins.

According to one source, a jay may bury up to 3,000 acorns in a season, making them a valuable contributor to the conservation of oak woodland.

Rook (Corvus frugilegus)

Although usually seen in flocks in the fields, or nesting in raucous rookeries in stands of tall trees, rooks have recently ventured onto our garden wall when bird food is around. These large birds are easily distinguished from other corvids by the large, pale grey bill that seems to stretch too far backwards into the bird’s face, right up to the rather severe little inky black eyes. This contrasts with the much blacker bill of the raven – the largest British crow. The jet black raven also has an impressive shaggy-looking neck and a diamond-shaped tail that’s visible as it swoops and tumbles in the air above our neighbouring Kit Hill country park. I have also heard the distinctive deep ‘kronk kronk’ sound of the raven up there, which is very different from the raucous cawing of a colony of rooks.

A rook in the old tree that was at the bottom of the garden

Caching seeds is a useful rook behaviour that helps spread woodland. When I was a teenager, my mother managed to stop our neighbouring farmer from shooting all the rooks in a group of tall trees each year by pointing out that they eat leatherjackets. To attract rooks (or perhaps ravens – you never know), put food out on the ground, but don’t overdo it, as 2020 seems to be a great year for rats.

I have heard that you can gain the confidence of rooks by feeding them, although these gregarious birds do have to overcome a nervousness born of centuries of persecution.  

Garden damage and corvids

As they are large, active birds, corvids may cause some damage to plants in the garden, as well as stealing some of the eggs and chicks of other birds. However, if you have a wonderful wild garden, brimming with life, perhaps with your organic produce grown amongst a range of other, protective plant species, are you really going to notice? I am hoping by now that none of the readers of my blog have a sterile, tidy garden where neat little rows of tender plants would suffer very obvious damage if pulled up or pecked. If corvids are threatening seeding crops, the shiny CD technique may help, or a traditional scarecrow, perhaps.

The ‘Which’ website states: ‘Large birds in search of soil insects like ants, chafer grubs or leatherjackets, can make holes in turf. Blackbirds, crows, rooks, starlings, green woodpeckers and magpies are the birds usually responsible. If you reduce the insect population in the turf, you may lessen the damage caused by birds.’

Jackdaw with wings down
A jackdaw in the old cedar tree imitates Concord

I think the above statement demonstrates that these birds are a gardener’s friend by controlling ‘pests’, and that it would be better to establish a natural balance of invertebrates and birds rather than intervening to lessen the numbers of insects which, after all, coexist with plants and benefit the whole gamut of wildlife.

The corvid-friendly garden

If you would like to make your garden really corvid friendly, try doing the following if you can:

– Grow seed and nut-bearing plants and trees, including oaks with acorns for jays if you have room

– Encourage other birds to the garden. I find that the corvids spot the smaller birds feeding and come in to investigate

– Put out a range of bird seed and mealworms or waxworms for extra protein

– Have an area of shorter garden turf with good visibility. This will be a place where the corvids can hop about on the ground to forage and feed on earth-dwelling invertebrates (but remember to have areas of long grass to encourage other sorts of invertebrates, too)

– Grow tall trees or have other vantage points like walls for the corvids to land on, so they have a clear view and therefore less fear of capture

– Provide accessible water. Like smaller birds, corvids appreciate somewhere to drink and bathe

– Include cover. Dense shrubs and bushes will provide places where the rather large and therefore visible corvids will feel safer in your garden until they get to know you.

Corvids are intelligent enough that if you have time, you can quietly befriend them and if you do, you will have friends for life. Your friendly corvid will be able to distinguish you from other human beings and might even bring you presents to thank you for your kindness and understanding.

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