Back in October I was staring out of the window of the office that I share with my colleagues, something I often do when I’m pondering a question or trying to add a tick to our “Birds Seen Out of the Window” list*, when I spotted something odd. A pair of crows had focused their attention on a brown patch of lawn and appeared to be eating the grass. I’m not much of a birder but I do know enough about crows to realise that grass is not a regular feature of their diet. The same behaviour was observed a few other times after that, and on other occasions magpies were seen doing the same thing. What could be going on?
Once I’d taken a closer look at the patch of dead grass the explanation was clear. During our first year undergraduate induction week about a month earlier there had been a barbeque set up on that spot which had leaked hot fat onto the grass. What the birds were eating was dead grass coated in lard, a useful source of fat to store for the cold conditions of the oncoming winter.
That’s one of things I love about urban birds such as corvids and gulls: they are adaptable and will exploit any resource that becomes available. But how had they located the patch of fatty grass? Were they simply exploring the lawn and stumbled across it by accident? Seems plausible especially as they often feed on earthworms on the adjacent parkland. Could they smell it? The acuity of birds’ sense of smell has been the topic of considerable debate, but that’s certainly a possibility.
I was reminded to post this (originally half-written before Christmas) by a story on the BBC news website this morning about a young girl in the USA who receives gifts from the crows in her garden. If you’ve not read it, please do: it’s a wonderful example of positive interactions between humans and the rest of biodiversity.
Crows (and other corvids) get a bad press, being often described as “evil” (surely a term that only applies to humans) and blamed for the demise of “nicer” birds – a reputation that is not completely justified, as a recent post on Kaeli Swift’s crow research site demonstrates.
So, learn to appreciate (even love) the crows in your local neighborhood; they will reward you with some entertainment as you watch their behaviour, if not necessarily with gifts.
*currently standing at 19 species and rising every month.