Two common questions we are being asked every year are how and when to release carrion crows, rooks and jackdaws. The answers to these questions consists of two main parts. The first part is based on generally accepted non species specific rehabilitation guidelines, and the second part is referring to species specific considerations.
One of topics commonly discussed in corvid fora and question frequently asked is what to feed crows, usually referring to birds in the wild, but also to birds cared for in captivity or during rehabilitation. One of the most frequent answers given is that the name carrion crow is a giveaway, and that crows would eat, who would have guessed, almost exclusively any type of carrion.
However, when looking through findings of scientific studies about feeding habits of corvids, confirmed and enriched by individual experiences of corvid rescues and rehabbers, it becomes evident that this answer is not exactly true and would in fact suggest an unhealthy and unbalanced diet.
Yesterday, we closed our release aviary doors, bringing this years’ carrion crow and rook release saison to an end. At the end of September we opened the aviary doors for 17 crows and rooks to be soft released. Out of these 17 release candidates, 15 birds, consisting of 11 carrion crows and four rooks, have been successfully soft released. Two birds decided to stay and will get another release chance offered next year. These two birds will join a group of birds in our communal aviary already being earmarked for release in autumn 2018. Out of these 15 released birds, we released three birds, who stayed with us since 2015, three birds, who came to us in 2016, and nine birds, who have been admitted in 2017.
Soft release is a release technique, which involves continuing care for animals at the release site, particularly back-up feeding, and requires a greater commitment of time and effort than a hard release does. Soft release is particularly important for hand reared animals, especially of species which need to learn about their surroundings and need to learn survival skills such as foraging and hunting. It is also appropriate for older immature or adult birds, who have been maintained in captivity for prolonged periods, or are being released at a site distant from their original location, as the original location might not be suitable.
Some of the released birds have joined straightaway our local mixed rook and jackdaw as well as non-territory holding carrion crow flock, which they already got to know very well during their stay with us. Both flocks are frequent visitors to our premises, a fortunate situation, which allows direct interaction and communication between wild birds, patients and residents. Over the past weeks some of the released birds decided to come back into the safety of the release aviary to roost, whilst others came back only to get some extra snacks. Many of them stayed in the near vicinity for longer periods of time. After becoming more and more confident, which is a learning process lasting anything between several days and many weeks, we could observe these birds, when they followed the local flocks flying further and further away from the release site, to participate in daytime activities and to eventually join the night roost.
Although the aviary doors are closed now, backup feeding and shelter will still be provided throughout autumn and winter. Most of the released birds are now staying away completely, or at least for longer periods of time. Some of them are still coming back to visit their old comrades or to enjoy some food, which we will continue to provide.
When checking out the picture gallery, you will find a short summary underneath every picture telling you a little bit about the individual stories of these fascinating birds.
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The list of animal exploitation is long and includes the abuse of animals for food, clothing, entertainment and experimentation as well as as companions and workers. Right now, there is a new scientific project making its rounds through the media, which is suggesting a new method to keep our cities clean. The idea has been developed by Dutch scientists und is focussing on the utilisation of specific traits of an animals species, which could theoretically help to tackle one of the biggest human evolutionary shortcomings – to be willing to live in harmony with nature and the environment. The project design incorporates a machine and is recruiting and training city crows, who would take care of recklessly discarded cigarette butts.
It is known that cigarettes take between ten and twelve years to decompose. The scale of this waste problem is huge, as it is estimated that every year approximately 4.5 trillion cigarettes are discarded with no regard for the environment. The project is using a so called ‘Crowbar’, which is based on a design created by an American inventor. The device has a large funnel, where cigarette butts can be deposited, and a dispenser for releasing peanuts as a reward. The hope is that crows get busy cleaning up the streets in exchange for some easy food. This idea is trying to utilise the generally acknowledged fact that crows are very intelligent and adaptable being known for their ability to solve complex problems and also to create and use tools.
Before looking at ethical questions related to this idea, there are at least two ‘technical’ problems to address, which the inventors might not have fully thought through. First off all, it is very likely that crows will always have a food choice in our crowded cities, meaning that peanuts may not be that much attractive as a food reward. Secondly, our crows are usually territorial, which means that only one territory holding pair is going to use that machine, which doesn’t seem very efficient, when it comes to cleaning up our large cities. These two problems alone are likely to be sufficient enough, to put this questionable idea to rest.
However, without a doubt, this project raises also several ethical issues, the most important ones being the egocentric and anthropocentric way of human thinking and attitude. Obviously, common sense tells us that the far simpler and cheaper way of solving the cigarette butt problem is to educate people, in this particular case smokers. Instead of constructing, deploying and maintaining machines, which are leaving a noticeable carbon foot print behind, one should rather educate and encourage smokers to quit smoking, or at least to discard their waste products appropriately, which is the least one could expect from a grown up human being.
However, the problem is far more complex than that. Firstly, as mentioned already, the suggested solution is based on an anthropocentric view point. Humans have long tested animals to see how smart they are by seeing if they can do human-like tasks. We are too quick to judge animals by our own human standards, instead of testing within the limits of the animals’ natural behaviour and within their natural setting. By any standard used, we all know that corvids are clever enough to be able to fulfill this particular task, but so are other sentient beings, like toddlers too. And this leads to the second problem.
Humans do not treat sentient and intelligent beings like crows as equals, meaning we treat them differently, and by far not the way we would want to be treated, despite that there is a general agreement about the fact that humans and crows are both, sentient and intelligent. It is actually even worse, the anthropocentric view point is so deeply rooted, that many humans are often tend to focus on the level of animal intelligence (compared to humans) rather than sentience, when it comes to decide how to treat an animal, ignoring completely the fact that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.
The truth is that this machine, when it would actually work, would exploit crows, ignoring the fact that it is morally wrong to use or exploit sentient beings in any way. Even worse, this machine is putting these birds at an additional risk by encouraging and rewarding them to handle toxic and also possibly still burning cigarette butts, which might even end up in a place, where we might not want them to be. Furthermore, at least to a certain degree, these birds will be made dependent to rely on human handouts. Based on the natural behaviour of corvids, they will also cache their food, or potential valuables like cigarette butts, as they might want to trade them in later. The result will be that litter will not only be removed, but also be distributed in a different, not nessarily desired pattern. It is also to expect that crows will test the built in scanner to its limits, simply to find out, if other items like pebbles or pieces of paper also trigger food rewards, something which will put the whole machine to a test.
Sadly, even some bird and corvid lovers seem to find this idea fascinating, as they feel that this approach spreads the word and is helping to change and improve the traditionally bad reputation of corvids. It might even do that, but by disregarding the rights of an individual sentient being and by supporting exploitation. Luckily, regardless of all ethical issues, and purely due to technical problems alone, it remains doubtful that this machine is ever going to work.
Our routine aviary cleaning procedures also involve the cleaning of drinking and bathing facilities of our crows. This is usually seen with great anticipation by all our corvids. Birds in general, but in particulat corvids, are very clean birds, and can’t wait to make use of a refreshing bath. We frequently add apple cider vinegar to bath and drinking water, which keeps the water longer fresh and has positive health properties for the birds.
The video shows our female carrion crow Pepper taking advantage of a bath in natural apple cider vinegar, before we have been actually able to add drinking water to dilute the vinegar further. This behaviour can be seen as the equivalent to or a variation of anting, frequently observed in the wild.
Anting can take on different forms. Some birds will pick up ants in their beaks and rub them over their feathers, while others will open their wings, lie down and allow ants to penetrate their plumage. Birds seem to prefer using ants that produce formic acid. Formic acid is being used by ants as a defence mechanism.
One theory on anting is that the formic acid could act as a fungicide, bactericide and insect repellent, while others think that it is the vitamin D content in the acid that birds are interested in. However, birds sometimes use alternative anting tools, such as millipedes and fruit, and in our case apple cider vinegar. Some scientists believe that anting is used to preen feathers and helps to prevent the drying out of the plumage. Another suggestion is that anting has an intoxicating effect on birds, as some birds have been seen to shake themselves and seemingly lose control over their ability to walk.