Very similar to the American Crow, the Fish Crow is expanding its range northward and thus presents some new identification challenges in many places. Fish Crows sometimes nest relatively close together if nests sites are hard to find. While incubating eggs, the female Fish Crow is fed by the male.
Fish Crows commonly eat the eggs of nesting herons, and an increase in heron populations has been suggested as one reason for the Fish Crow’s population expansion. Federal protection from casual shooting has also likely played a role.
Description of the Fish Crow
The Fish Crow is all black, with a fairly short tail and broad wings. Length: 15 in. Wingspan: 36 in.
The sexes are similar.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles are similar to adults.
Fish Crows inhabit rivers, woodlands, swamps, and coastal areas.
Fish Crows eat a wide variety of items including shrimp, crabs, insects, eggs, fruits, and garbage.
Fish Crows forage on the ground or in trees.
Fish Crows are resident across most of the southeastern U.S. The population appears to be increasing.
Fish Crows are very social, and in winter can occur in large groups.
Fish Crows will forage and roost together with American Crows
Calls include an American Crow-like “caaaw”, but much more nasal sounding.
American Crows are slightly larger but are best distinguished by voice.
Common Ravens are larger and have wedge-shaped tails.
The Fish Crow’s nest is a bulky clump of sticks and bark, is lined with softer materials, and is usually placed in a tree.
Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Color: Bluish-green with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 16-18 days, and leave the nest in about another 3-4 weeks, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Fish Crow
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Fish Crow – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
CORVUS OSSIFRAGUS Wilson
This small and well-marked species of crow is widely distributed along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, as well as in the lower valleys of some of the larger rivers. It reaches its northeastern limit in southern Massachusetts, where it is a rare and local straggler, mainly in spring. I am quite sure that I have seen it on two occasions in Bristol, R. I. It is a fairly common summer resident on the coast of Connecticut, chiefly in the western part, and on certain parts of Long Island, N. Y. From New Jersey southward it is an abundant bird and practically resident.
Its favorite haunts are the coastal marshes and beaches, the banks of streams, and to some extent the shores of inland bodies of water. In Florida, the numerous streams, lakes, and marshes furnish suitable haunts for them over a large part of the inland country, especially where they can prey upon the breeding colonies of herons and other water birds. Dr. Samuel S. Dickey tells me that he has seen them along the banks of inland rivers in central Pennsylvania, as far west as Harrisburg and Columbia.
Courtship: Dr. Dickey (MS.) writes: “During the first two weeks of April fish crows become especially animated and proceed with mating impulses. Generally two males are seen to bicker over a single female. The three of them then hurry through the high canopies of crack willows, elms, oaks, and even some evergreens. They will half unfold the wings, lean back against boughs, and open their red beaks in a seeming defensive attitude. Then away they glide, from the trees of the stream banks, across wide plantations of truck gardeners. They will, on breezy days, daIly with one another, and even touch wings and heads. In all, they have a playful, captivating manner in midair at this time of year.~~ Nesting: Aretas A. Saunders writes to me that in the vicinity of Fairfield, Conn., where the fish crow is a “regular, but rare summer resident,” nesting takes place late in April or in May.” The nests are generally in small colonies, two or three pairs with their nests not far apart in a certain locality. I have found such colonies in two types of localities: swampy woodlands where the trees are tall and the nests high up and rocky places on the edge of a salt marsh, where the rocks stand up like islands in a salt marsh sea and are clothed with red cedars and pitch pines. Nests in such places are in the pitch pines and not very far up. Such localities are used year after year if conditions are not disturbed. At present I know of but one nesting locality of the swampy woods type”
I find in Owen Durfee’s notes for May 10 and 11, 1903, the records of two Connecticut nests, also near Fairfield. The first was 64 feet from the ground in an 11-inch black oak. “The nest was composed of small, dry sticks, well mixed in with old cornstalk strings. It was placed in the topmost crotch of the tree, where the diameter was only 2 inches, the tree being only about 4 feet higher. It was 14 inches in diameter and built up 14 inches high. Inside it was 73/2 inches in diameter and hollowed 53/2 inches. It was lined, but not felted, with strips of grapevine bark.” The second nest was similar, 61 feet up in a 13-inch chestnut and about 9 feet from the top of the tree. It was 18 inches in diameter and built up 12 inches in a three-pronged crotch. “The lining was principally of strips of inner bark of the chestnut, with two large clumps of white horsehair and a little grapevine bark”
The only fish crow’s nest I have ever examined was found near Little Egg Harbor, N. J., on May 27, 1927. In a large patch of baccharis bushes on a low sand dune on the edge of Little .Sheepshead, I found a colony of seven or eight nests of the green heron. The crows had robbed three or four of the heron’s nests. The crow’s nest wa.~ located 7 feet up in one of the largest of the baccharis bushes. It was made of dead sticks and twigs and lined with strips of inner bark and a few feathers. It measured 14 by 15 inches in outside and 7 inches in inside diameter; it was hollowed to a depth of 6 inches.
T. E. McMullen has sent me his data for 138 nests of the fish crow, found in New Jersey and vicinity. Most of these, 80, were in holly trees, 12 to 30 feet from the ground; 34 were in cedars, 5Ya to 25 feet up; 9 were located in oaks, at heights varying from 18 to 50 feet; 9 were placed in pines, 17 to 90 feet from the ground; and there was one each in a beech, a gum, a sassafras, and a wild cherry, and two in maples, all at intermediate heights.
Two nests have been reported at heights far above those already mentioned. The Rev. H. E. Wheeler (1922) mentions a nest, found on the bank of the Arkansas River, that was “well toward the top of a huge sycamore 110 feet from the ground.” This nest “now contained no rootlets, but was lined with a mass of sycamore balls and horse hair !” (This was after the eggs hatched. Before that the nest was “lined with leaves and rootlets.”) But Arthur T. Wayne (1910) reports the loftiest nest of which I can find any record: “About twenty-five years ago this species used to breed regularly in St. Paul’s churchyard, in the city of Charleston, where it placed its nest in the topmost branches of a gigantic sycamore tree fully one hundred and fifty feet from the ground, and it also bred in later years in private yards along East Battery”
Major Bendire (1895) writes: “A nest taken by Dr. Ralph near San Mateo, Florida, was composed of sticks with a little Spanish moss attached to them, and was lined with pine needles, strips of cypress bark, and old Spanish moss. It was placed in the top of a slender pine tree, in low, flat pine woods, 81 feet from the ground. Some nests are lined with dry cow and horse dung, cattle or horse hair, dry leaves, eelgrass, and shreds of cedar bark, while pine needles seem to be present to some extent in most of them. They are mostly placed in evergreens, such as pines and cedars, and generally in the tops, either in natural forks or on horizontal limbs, close to the trunk, usually 20 to 50 feet from the ground. They prefer to nest near water, but occasionally a pair will be found making an exception to this rule, and nests have been found fully 2 miles away from the nearest stream or swamp.~~ In the nesting site photographed by Mr. Grimes (pl. 46), two or three pairs nest every spring in the tall slash pines; the highest fork that will support the nest is usually selected.
Eggs: The fish crow lays ordinarily four or five eggs to a set, rarely more. These are exactly like the eggs of the other crows, except in size. They show all the ordinary variations in color, pattern, and markings that are to be found in the eggs of the eastern crow. The measurements of 46 eggs, in the United States National Museum, average 37.17 by 26.97 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 42.9 by 27.4, 37.8 by 28.7, 34.5 by 27.5, and 37.7 by 25.2 millimeters.
Young: Bendire (1895) says that “both sexes assist in incubation, which lasts from sixteen to eighteen days, while the young remain in the nest about three weeks. Only one brood is raised in a season, but if the first set of eggs is taken they will lay another, and not infrequently in the same nest”
Plumages: The young fish crow is hatched naked and blind, but it soon acquires a scanty growth of grayish-brown natal down. This, in turn, is replaced by the juvenal plumage, which is practically completed before the young bird leaves the nest. The juvenal body plumage is dull brownish black, blacker above and browner below; the wings, except the lesser coverts, are much like those of the adult and so is the tail, hut they are somewhat less lustrous black with greenish reflections; the bill and feet are grayish black.
The postjuvenal molt, which involves the contour plumage and the lesser wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings and tail, begins in July and is completed by September or earlier. This produces a first winter plumage, which is much like that of the adult, but somewhat duller. At the first postnuptial molt, which is complete, during the following summer, the young bird becomes fully adult. Adults have one complete, annual molt during summer and early fall. The sexes are alike in all plumages.
Food: Like other crows the fish crow is largely omnivorous, with a long list of acceptable material available. As it spends most of its time along the seashore, the banks of streams, and the shores of inland bodies of water, its food consists largely of various kinds of marine or aquatic life, or other material washed up on such shores. It may often be seen hovering over the water, like a gull, looking for floating objects that it can pick up. On the beaches and salt marshes these crows feed on small crabs, especially fiddlers, shrimps, crawfish, dead fish and perhaps some live fish, and any kind of carrion or offal that they can find. They steal the eggs from the nests of terns, willets, Wilson’s plovers, and clapper rails. William G. Fargo (1927) says that they have regular feeding stations where they bring their food to eat it; under a small yellow pine at Wakulla Beach, Fla., in a space about 4 by 6 feet, he found the remains of 79 or more clapper rails’ eggs, one willet’s egg, two Wilson’s plovers’ eggs, seven hens’ -eggs, several turtles’ eggs, one fish head, and one rock crab.
Fish crows do immense damage in the heron colonies in Florida; wherever I have been in the many breeding colonies, fish crows have always been flying about, looking for a chance to steal the eggs from an unguarded nest. As the herons all leave their nests as soon as a man approaches, the crows have plenty of chances to enjoy a good feast, and they make the most of it. They rob the nests of all the herons, large and small, as well as the ibises, spoonbills, anhingas, and even cormorants. While we were photographing for parts of two days in the great Cuthbert rookery, nearly all the nests within sight of our blinds were completely emptied; and our experience was similar elsewhere in Florida. Howell (1932) says that they “perch on the bushes, watching for a sitting bird to leave its nest, whereupon they immediately swoop down and carry off an egg. In the large rookery at Orange Lake, it is estimated that two-thirds of the nests are robbed by the crows, which are there very abundant”
Fish crows are sometimes seen in the plowed fields, picking up grubs; they are also said to eat ants, and several observers have mentioned grasshoppers in their food. N. B. Moore says in his notes, made many years ago, that these crows alight on the backs of cattle, to pick up the ticks that are burrowing into the skin and sucking the life blood from, as well as annoying, these animals; this may be an ancient habit, as it does not seem to have been recently observed.
Bendire (1895) states that on the Smithsonian grounds in Washington they “have been noticed repeatedly carrying off and eating the young of the English Sparrows.” Wilson (1832) writes: “There is in many of the ponds there fGeorgiaj, a singular kind of lizard, that swims about with its head above the surface, making a loud sound, not unlike the harsh jarring of a door. These the Crow now before us would frequently seize with his claws, as he flew along the surface, and retire to the summit of a dead tree to enjoy his repast.~~ The vegetable food includes a variety of berries, fruits, and seeds, such as pokeberries, mulberries, hackberries, huckleberries, the fruits of red cedar, sour gum, palmetto, magnolia, holly, dogwood, papaw, red bay, catbrier, and mistletoe, and the seeds of locust, wildrice, etc. Some grain is eaten, such as corn and oats, but most of this is probably waste grain picked up in the fields after harvesting. Probably some cultivated fruits are taken, but not enough to be of great economic importance.
Audubon (1842) mentions the berries of the dahoon (flex cassiiie); “they are seen feeding on them in flocks often amounting to more than a hundred individuals.” They are also fond of the berries of the Chinese tallowtree (Sapium sebiferum). “The seeds of this tree, whic)i is originally from China, are of a white colour when ripe, and contain a considerable quantity of an oily substance. In the months of January and February these trees are covered by the Crows, which greedily devour the berries.” He adds that they eat pears, and are very fond of ripe figs; they do considerable damage to the latter and have to be driven away from the fig trees with a gun.
According to Mr. Howell (1932), “Scott says that in October the birds congregate in enormous flocks and feed extensively on palmetto berries. Nehrling states that they eat the fruits of the cocos palms. Oranges and tomatoes are sometimes eaten, but apparently the habit is not sufficiently prevalent to result in much damage”
Harold H. Bailey (1913) says that in Virginia considerable damage is done to the peanut crop. “As the farmers turn their hogs into the peanut fields to fatten on the nuts left in the ground after taking off the vines, the Fish Crows thus rob the hogs of a great amount of food, while many pounds of nuts are taken from the stacks while the peanuts are still on the vines drying”
Behavior: The fish crow does not differ materially in its habits from its better-known and larger relative. Its flight is similar, but it is quicker and more given to sailing, giving a few flaps of its wings and then sailing along for a short distance. It often poises in the air, hovering on rapidly beating wings, as it scans the ground or water beneath it for possible food. When a number of these crows are together, they often indulge in circling maneuvers, flying around in a confusing formation and then straightening out and proceeding on their way. Audubon (1842) writes:
While on the St. John’s river in Florida, during the month of February, I saw flocks of Fish-Crows, consisting of several hundred individuals, sailing high in the air, somewhat in the mamer of the Raven, when the whole appeared paired, for I could see that, although in such numbers, each pair moved distinctly apart. These aerial excursions would last for hours, during the calm of a fine morning, after which the whole would descend toward the water, to pursue their more usual avocations in all the sociability of their nature. When their fishing, which hsted about half an hour, was over, they would alight in flocks on the live oaks and other trees near the shores, and there keep up their gabbling, pluming themselves for hours. Once more they returned to their fishing-grounds, where they remained until about an hour from sunset, when they made for the interior, often proceeding thirty or forty miles, to roost together in the trees of the lobtolly pine.
Fish crows are more sociable and more nearly gregarious in their habits at all seasons than are their northern relatives. They are seldom seen singly; they often nest in small colonies or groups; and wherever there is food to be obtained, especially in the vicinity of heron rookeries, they are always to he found in large numbers. But the biggest aggregations are to be found in the winter crow roasts. M. N. Gist, the warden at the Orange Lake rookery, estimated the winter crow population at that locality as 50,000, some of which may have been Florida crows, according to Mr. Howell (1932), who adds: “At Goose Creek, Wakulla County, in January, 1920, we observed long lines of Fish Crows every morning shortly after sunrise, flying westward along the beach from the direction of St. Marks Light. Several residents of the neighborhood told us that the birds roosted on beaten down tracts of rushes and drift in the marshes along the lower course of the St. Marks River. At Panasoffkee Lake, Crows are said to roost in large numbers in willow bushes in the marsh at the edge of the lake. At Lake Monroe, February 18, 1897, Worthington saw a flock of about 2,000 Fish Crows going to roost in rushes”
At North Island, S. C., early in December 1876, Maynard (1896) saw a great flight of fish crows that he thought were migrating. “They were evidently migrating for they came down the coast in an almost unbroken stream and continued to fly all day. I think I saw more pass the island than I ever saw before. It did not seem possible that there could have been so many of these Crows in existence for they could be counted by tens of thousands.” This may have been merely a local movement, for the birds might have been seeking shelter from the hard, cold northeast wind that was blowing at the time; and fish crows are known to spend the winter much farther north.
Voice: The note of the fish crow is quite different from that of our common crow, shorter, less prolonged, more nasal, staccato, and not so loud; it is hoarser, as if the bird had a sore throat or a cold. I wrote it in my notes as cor, or as an exact pronouncing of the word “car.” Mr. Wheeler (1922) writes it caa-ah, and refers to a two-syllabled note, ah-uk. Bendire (1895) says: “Their call notes appear to be less harsh and are uttered in a more drawling manner than those of the Common Crow; they are also more variable. They consist of a clear ‘cah’ or ‘cahk,’ repeated at intervals of about thirty seconds, and are usually uttered while the bird is perc)ied on the extreme top of a tree. They also utter a querulous ‘maah, mash’ or ‘whaw, whaw,’ varied occasionally to ‘aack, aack,’ or ‘waak, waak.’ It is almost impossible to reproduce such sounds accurately on paper, and no two persons would render them alike”
Field marks: The most reliable field mark for the fish crow is its voice; and this can usually be counted upon to identify it; there is, however. a chance for confusion when young common crows are first on the wing and giving their weak calls. The appearance on the wing is slightly different; the wing of the fish crow seems to be more pointed at the tip of the primaries, and broader at the base, where the secondaries are relatively longer than in the common crow, but the difference is not easily detected. Fish crows are inclined to soar or to hover and are often more gregarious than the common species. The difference in size is an unsafe character, unless the two species can be closely compared..
Enemies: All small birds hate crows and will drive them away from the vicinity of their nests, for the protection of their eggs and young. I have twice seen red-winged blackbirds attacking fish crows, just as kingbirds attack the larger crows. The herons are the chief sufferers from the depredations of fish crows. Perhaps some of the larger herons may destroy the young of the crows. The following incident is suggestive. Mrs. C. W. Melcher, of Homosassa Springs, Fla., tells me the following story: “One day in spring I heard the raucous cry of the Ward’s heron, but with it was mingled an unusual note of distress. I ran to the porch just in time to see the heron fly into the river, where he sank to his body. Close behind him came a fish crow, and, as the heron sank into the water, the crow flew about his head and delivered several telling strokes, the heron meantime emitting loud cries of fright and distress. At last the crow ceased his chastisement and flew away. Then the heron laboriously lifted himself out of the water and flew away squawking. A day or two later I again heard the distress note and ran to look. This time they were in the air, the heron squawking as he flew, with the crow in full pursuit. At intervals for about ten days I saw the same performance”
Harold S. Peters (1936) lists two species of lice, Myrsidea americana and Philopterus corrA, that have been found on fish crows as external parasites.
Range: Atlantic and Gulf coast regions of the United States; not regularly migratory.
The range of the fish crow extends north to northwestern Louisiana (Caddo Lake); central Arkansas (Little Rock); central Alabama (Coosada); northwestern South Carolina (Greenwood); central Virginia (Charlottesville) ; southeastern New York (Rhinebeck) ; and Rhode Island (Warren). East to the Atlantic coast from Rhode Island (Warren) south to southern Florida (Royal Palm Park). South along the Gulf coast from southern Florida (Royal Palm Park, Fort Myers, and Apalachicola) to southeastern Texas (Orange). West to southeastern Texas (Orange) and northwestern Louisiana (Caddo Lake).
During some winter seasons the species may withdraw from the northern parts of its range, but it is usually found at this season north to Long Island.
Casual records: There are several records for Massachusetts. both in coastal areas and in the Connecticut Valley. Most of these are in March and April. Reported occurrences north of this State lack confirmation.
Egg dates: Connecticut: 23 records, May 5 to June 6; 11 records May 10 to 15, indicating the height of the season.
Florida: 7 records, April 6 to May 13.
New Jersey: 106 records, April 29 to June 21; 54 records, May 12 to 22.
Virginia: 50 records, May 4 to June 10; 25 records, May 14 to June 10.