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Smell the Coffee: Rebel with caws

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A bird turned the tables on our family over Thanksgiving weekend. But it wasn't a turkey. It was a crow.

A thieving, smart-aleck crow. Clever enough to wait until we were distracted -- dining on its chubby, fine-tasting cousin -- to attack our cars, stealing the blades from the windshield wipers. The bird made off with both sets of blades from my parent's van and my brother's car, but either took pity on our sad, old station wagon or, more likely, found our blades too tough or dry rotted to suit whatever purpose it had in mind for its loot.

Considering that my parents live on a ridge in Red House, a good distance from the nearest neighbors, there was initially some confusion over who vandalized the vehicles. It might've been difficult to determine guilt had the culprit not added insult to injury by leaving a good bit of bird-produced graffiti all over the hood of the cars.

The next day, my brother went out and purchased new wiper blades so he wouldn't have to stop on his way back home to Ohio. But early the next morning, the thieving crow struck again.

That bird apparently waited patiently, watching over the car until new blades were installed and the people had gone back into the house before swooping down. In other words, caw-waiting.

Curious as to whether Red House had an oddly delinquent crow or if this was normal crow behavior, I went online to research. The first article the search turned up was by Henry Fountain in The New York Times. Fountain called crows "tough birds," mentioning their taste for road kill, dining on trash and vandalizing cars. ("Crows have been known to rip the blades off windshield wipers.")

Although the article didn't elaborate on the vandalism, it detailed a study done by researchers at the University of Washington that revealed crows that steal from relatives tend to do so in a gentler fashion than when stealing from nonrelatives. What the article failed to mention was the more curious detail -- how the researchers knew which crows were related.

Another site, operated by Kevin McGowan from Cornell's Laboratory of Ornithology, answered questions about crows submitted by the public. One of those questions was about a pair of crows removing wiper blades from vehicles.

Wrote McGowan: "I have now heard about this kind of crow vandalism from nearly a dozen people in a dozen different parts of the country, and am stumped as to how to explain it."

Am I the only one concerned by semi-organized avian vandalism? Have enough years passed for the Hitchcock classic to have been forgotten?

McGowan explains the wiper-swiping to be the "sort of thing young crows might like to fiddle with: pliant yet resistant; soft enough to dismantle, but tough enough to give a bit of a challenge."

He explained that juvenile crows enjoy playing with things regardless of whether they're edible, and are happy to share their skills -- in this case, wiper blade removal techniques -- to other young crows so they, too, can have such a toy.

To combat blade-swiping crows, McGowan suggests "harassment is probably the best policy. Chase those crows any time you see them around your cars. They will probably keep coming back, and they will probably learn to hate you on sight. Still, it might keep them off."

Having a fairly large bird hate you is not a great option because it would likely lead to daily car washings to remove large deposits of vindictive bird graffiti. Especially considering that the oldest known crow lived 29 years. A car cover would likely be a better solution. If not, the bad bird behavior is likely to continue, and that could be aggravating enough to drive a person to drink.

But maybe that's what crow bars are for.

Reach Karin Fuller via email at karinfuller@gmail.com.


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