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Where Do Those Crows Fly?

By Susan Juetten

One of the special aspects of living in Washoe Valley are the daily opportunities to view birds (and wildlife ) life in action. Washoe Valley is designed a Nevada State Important Bird Area, a label reserved for places of unique importance to our avian friends.
Recently, a reminder of this richness came from a friend who lives near the state park on the valley’s east side. She swore she saw a great gray owl in a tree in her yard.  Gray owls are magnificent boreal creatures, the tallest North American bird with the greatest wingspan. Great horned owls, on the other hand, are common residents of the valley. So I wondered if she was not mistaking one for the other. Some Internet digging proved that she could have been lucky and spotted a great gray – a few are winter residents of the Sierra Nevada, their farthest-south point.
Now a story about a far more common resident – crows: My neighbor and I, on our morning dog walks up lower Jumbo Grade, have lately observed large contingents of crows, 30-50, flying together, always in a northerly direction. We speculated they are headed for the dump at Lockwood, crows being common visitors to landfills, about 25 miles northeast of Jumbo Grade as the crows fly, possibly literally. I became aware of how close we were across the Virginia Range to Lockwood back in 1998, when the Sierra Chemical Plant in Mustang exploded.  I happened to be walking on my road that January morning, and the two blasts, which killed 4 people and injured 6, were so loud I thought they originated just a few streets away.
More Internet searching (allaboutbirds.org from Cornell University’s bird lab is a great source for bird info, including recorded calls) revealed that crows in some areas lead a double life, maintaining a year round territory with their extended family, but also peeling off to join giant flocks in dumps and fields, and roosting together at night.  So is that what we are witnessing on Jumbo Grade, a crow gathering to visit  that faraway landfill?
One afternoon a week or two ago, I heard a frightful racket coming from the direction of the ridge to the east of my house, and looked out my kitchen window to spy a merlin , a smallish raptor of the falcon family who was making the kik kik kik sound typical to his kind only with a frequency and urgency I’d never heard (A merlin is often after the small birds feeding in my yard). S/he was making those urgent cries because s/he was being harassed by crows – I counted 7 of them, flying in great loops around him and coming in close to harass him (or her). I waved, shouted and stomped, wanting to break up the fight for the sake of the outnumbered merlin but the mass of birds was high, and whirling rapidly east away from me (never have liked the aggressive ways of crows, and would not like them to take over the territory around here occupied currently by magpies). The next day while driving to Carson City I glimpsed a half dozen crows pecking in the stubble of the alfalfa fields on Eastlake. Was I just noticing crow activity there for the first time, or are they moving in?
I do love observing the ways of our valley’s wild coinhabitants, free still from utter control by the human species. (photo by crowdive on flikr.com)

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