Family Dynamics in the Nest
Assistant Professor of Biology Andrea Townsend and three students spent the summer raising and nurturing a family of crows. Erin Bryant ’21, Emma Walsh ’21, and Celine Yam ’21 worked on a research project to successfully hand raise four crows for research, outreach and teaching purposes. American Crows are considered to be the most intelligent birds, but in captivity, they can become afraid of humans unless they are hand-raised.
The students spoke about what they learned through the project.
How did you conduct your research?
First, four crows were collected from nests in the surrounding area. Po and Sunny are sisters, who were collected from the same nest. Asher and Pippin, the two boys, were collected from two different nests. At this point, their eyes were closed, and they had to be fed a specially formulated diet every 15-20 minutes within a carefully controlled nest-like environment. As they grew older, we spaced out the feedings more, and they were allowed to eat new things. Eventually, they left the nest and entered the aviary/playground we built for them, where they could explore and learn to fly. We made sure to spend lots of time with them (playing, petting, feeding, singing) to guarantee that they remained comfortable with humans.
What did you hope to discover through your research?
Crows have notable behavioral and cognitive patterns, and we would ultimately like to conduct experiments testing these in the future. The crows can also be used for outreach and teaching the local children about wildlife.
What did you find that was interesting?
Crows tend to inbreed in nature, and those who are inbred tend to get sick easily. A couple of the birds came to us with pre-existing conditions, and we worked with several local vets to treat them. These specific birds would probably not have survived in the wild.
Each of the birds has a very distinct personality: Asher is an inquisitive explorer; Po is shy; Pippin is a lover-boy; Sunny is a sweet underdog.
What surprised you when you came back to campus and saw the crows again?
The crows really kept consistent personalities into young adulthood and still like to be hand-fed, though they will now eat on their own.
Emma Walsh: I was a bit surprised to come back at the beginning of the school year and find that they seemed to remember me and that they, Po especially, have started trying to imitate talking. It comes out very garbled, but it's really neat to hear!