We were only supposed to be walking past the pub. We ended up leaving with a baby crow in a box. This was the second time in two years we’d taken on a corvid rescue from the same spot in a densely populated urban setting. (See here for the story of Mortimer, this junior crow’s older sibling.) This story is ongoing - and I’m not yet convinced that it’s going to have a happy ending.
‘Rescuing’ an urban crow is not easy, not normally advised, and prone to difficulties with regards to releasing the young bird back into the concrete jungle. There are issues around whether it will be able to learn sufficient independent skills (reliable flight, feeding, and awareness of predators), and, even more important in the long-term, be accepted back into its crow family and the local crow community. It is ridiculously time-consuming.
So why did we take it on?
What stopped us in our tracks, Nik and me, when walking past the Newcome Arms that first Sunday in June, was the sight of a fledgling crow lying dead in the road, crushed under the wheels of a car. A couple of the pub regulars told us it had only just come down from its nest that same day, before its fairly brutal death.
The nest sits high above in the tall, slender sycamore trees, directly over the tarmac road and pavement, and has done for years. When the parents had tipped the flightless young bird out of the nest - as is normal behaviour in the crow world, where the youngsters live on the ground for weeks with their parents buzzing about - its resulting landing was tough, dangerous and ultimately fatal.
We also learned that there was a second baby crow that had also come down from the nest that day, and that the publican Ellie had this one safe inside the pub, in a box. Did we want to go in a talk to her?
As we went inside we looked north up Newcome Road and saw two adult crows - the parents - on a house roof, clearly searching for the surviving junior crow. It was an emotional moment to also catch sight of a third adult crow - presumably Mortimer - on the pavement opposite them, at car wheel level, looking either for food or its family member.
Long story short, we ended up taking the very young baby crow back to my house, and Nik and I reassembled the Crow Rescue Kit - a dog crate, perches, feeding bowls, a water bowl, bedding, a curtain cover for night time … I had stern words with the cats, and started hand feeding the crow all kinds of food dipped in water, such as minced meat and eggs.
‘Junior’ crow has responded well to being fed, and has quickly learned to feed itself and to drink water from bowls. It has pottered and jumped about uncaged in our gardens. It has connected with its parents who stay close by and alert to its presence.
After 18 days, its flight feathers still haven’t come through properly, and so it still can’t fly; and while keeping the young crow in captivity is a dilemma, letting it go now onto the pavement outside the pub would feel like deliberately putting it in harm’s way. It needs to be able to get itself off the ground and away from the urban dangers of cars, cats, foxes, rats and people.
‘There is an emotional element in rescuing a crow’
There is an emotional element in rescuing a crow, and it would be foolish to deny that. The sounds a young crow makes - a gentle caw - and the blue-to-grey eyes, the glint of their feathers, the open beak, the pink mouth, the feel of the tongue, the smallness, the lightness and the dependency, and the excitement at its parents’ nearness, evoke a human response. They evoke a deep sense of guilt and responsibility also.
I’ll write more about Junior’s journey in a separate blog piece, but I want to finish this piece by talking a little about the crow family’s situation at the Newcome Arms within the wider perspective. First, I don’t think the rescue is necessarily a selfish act, given the full context; but it is worth discussing the pros and cons.
A tree over a busy main road in a densely-packed urban area of flat-fronted terraced houses is really not a great place for crows to nest, so why do they nest there, given that crows are pretty intelligent creatures? What’s the trade off for them? Or are they doomed to never breed successfully without human intervention - and what are the ethics of that interference?
The crow parents who built their nest in the sycamores next the Newcome Arms, and who repair it and nest in it each spring, probably split off from a bigger crow roost in nearby Kingston Cemetery some years ago. Kingston Cemetery in Fratton is a ‘green lung’ and civic jewel. An 1850s demarcation of open space for burials, measuring 52 acres, it is girded round and dotted within by huge deciduous trees, conifers, smaller trees and bushes.
Why would a young pair of crows separate away from such an established colony to nest in a more urban locale?
It may be that the competition for food in the cemetery is intensifying. Not only are foxes and grey squirrels rife, but official notices in the cemetery specifically deter the public from feeding these corvids as ‘crows are pests’. Each day, the crows fly around the streets of Portsmouth to find food, and can be seen picking up dumped food waste outside terraced houses and fast food takeaway outlets. The crows still have to compete - with gulls, usually - but there can be good pickings for crows with good memories and fast reactions.
Another reason that has been suggested for crows moving into urban locales is that a city’s mean streets are relatively warmer than the surrounding countryside during cold periods, by a significant few degrees; and that street lighting gives crows a better view of and protection from nocturnal predators. Such predators - including other birds, and rodents like rats and mice that can climb into nests and kills and eat chicks, cats, and human actions like tree felling - can destroy a clutch in minutes, hence the parents’ evolved keenness to get the young crows out of the ‘sitting duck’ nest space.
Predators can kill - but so can cars.
The risks to the young flightless birds on the ground are obvious when it comes to a close study of the crow family from the Newcome Arms. All crows spend between 1-3 weeks on the ground after being ejected from the nest by its parents. That’s a long time for something bad to happen. Which is where this story started.
Sadly, Junior Crow died on the 2nd July. Junior had a short life but it was a good one, living for the majority of it outside of captivity, fed and watered, bonded with its parents and in a big garden under the overarching sky. It knew wind and clouds, sun and rain. Its end was mercifully swift and I won’t pretend I didn’t shed a tear. It was our crow of a thousand hours; and it’s gone back to the earth. I’ll write more about it when I’m ready.
Amendments: typos corrected 21st June 2019