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Published: Friday, May 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Bird's-eye view of nest gives peek at world of crows

  • Baby crows reach toward the sky for food Tuesday afternoon in a pine tree outside the Herald building.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Baby crows reach toward the sky for food Tuesday afternoon in a pine tree outside the Herald building.

  • A mother crow sits on her nest Tuesday afternoon.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    A mother crow sits on her nest Tuesday afternoon.

  • A crow swoops at a seagull on top of the Herald building Tuesday afternoon.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    A crow swoops at a seagull on top of the Herald building Tuesday afternoon.

Our west-facing view from The Herald is spectacular. Along with Navy ships, Boeing jets and Olympic peaks, there's a new attraction. A mother crow is sitting on hatchlings in a nest just outside a newsroom window.
We're watching an up-close show of nature and survival.
Nest-building began about a month ago. Copy editor and bird lover Bill Pedigo first noticed a pair of crows scouting out a long-needle pine next to our building on Everett's W. Marine View Drive.
Crows made trip after trip carrying sturdy sticks to the chosen spot. The big nest, more than a foot across, is in a crook of the tree's high branches. It's a few feet below our second-floor windows.
For at least two weeks, the mother sat on five eggs, which were bluish-green or brown, speckled, and each more than an inch long. Her mate kept watch from a perch on a utility line, at times raising a ruckus to warn off gulls that got too close.
Eggs hatched over the weekend. By Monday, mama crow was sitting on hatchlings, her tail feathers pointing west. On Tuesday she hopped out of the nest long enough to reveal five wriggling babies.
"Basically what you're seeing is a standard pair of crows breeding," said Professor John Marzluff, who teaches wildlife science at the University of Washington's School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.
Marzluff is the co-author, with artist and naturalist Tony Angell, of "Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans." The book explores how crows, with brains outsized for their bodies, mate for life, adjust to their surroundings and learn to recognize and even scold people. "They mentally adapt to our world," Marzluff said.
The professor said we're now seeing the father crow, and perhaps an older brother from a previous year's brood, taking on food-delivery duty. "They're tending to that nest," Marzluff said. Incubation of the eggs lasted 16 to 18 days, he said. A crow will typically lay two eggs in urban areas, and four or more in places where food is plentiful, Marzluff said.
Mom mostly stays in the nest, except for occasional flights to "stretch, defecate and forage," he said. Dad brings home the bacon. From the Everett waterfront, "they could be picking up small crustaceans, fish, garbage, French fries or chicken from the urban environment," Marzluff said. "With small kids, they want mice, snakes, worms, lots of insects, any kind of high-protein item. Almost all bird nestlings are carnivores."
He said the big birds will fly in, throats bulging with food to be transferred to baby mouths. The nestlings first had naked pink skin but now are turning black. It will be a while before they have glossy black feathers. They'll go through a stage of looking "big and fat, like stomachs with a head," Marzluff said. "Then they'll get feathers and look like birds."
Although crows can live 20 to 40 years, disaster could come at any moment. Most babies "won't survive the year," Marzluff said. "They could all be killed tomorrow by a red-tailed hawk, or fall out of the nest." If they survive two years, chances are good for a long life. Crows produce one brood each year.
If the babies survive predators and other awful fates, Marzluff said they'll start leaving the nest after a month or so. "Time in the nest is variable. If someone throws a rock, they could bolt out of there early," he said.
If they stay, we'll see them walking to the nest edge, stretching and flapping wings. Crow parents provide no flying lessons, nor do they push babies out of the nest.
Marzluff shared a warning: "Be ready to be attacked, once they're out on the ground and can't fly very well. It happened with the cops," he said.
He was recalling The Herald's 2011 coverage of crows dive-bombing officers outside the Everett Police Department's north precinct downtown. "They're like velociraptors," Everett police Lt. Bob Johns said at the time.
"Almost certainly in the cop attacks, they were protecting a nest," said Marzluff, who then quipped "or it could have been personal."
Marzluff sometimes hears people say they have never seen a baby crow. They may have, but not know it. "They'll be big, almost full size, but their tails will be short," he said. Young birds have blue eyes and a pink "lip," a flap of skin between the upper and lower bills.
While those babies are learning to fly or walk, "the parents become very defensive. Anybody who comes into that sphere may get whacked," Marzluff said. "They will hit you with their feet. They can scrape and draw blood. It's not common, but it can happen."
Marzluff suggests staying far from the nest, or carrying an umbrella. If a baby is found on the ground, "don't take it to a rehab place right off," he said. The parents will still take care of it if the baby is put in a safe place in the tree, even in a hanging flowerpot filled with grass.
Marzluff said crows recognize mates by voice, and "around the roost clearly recognize their own young." It's not known how long they associate with their offspring.
Now that they have a home in The Herald neighborhood, they will stick around.
"It's the pinnacle of crowhood. They've got a mate and a territory. They're not going to give that up," Marzluff said. "They have a territory centered around that nest, and they'll visit and defend that territory every day for their lives."
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.
Story tags » EverettBird-watching

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