The official city bird of Eau Claire: Making the case for the crow


By Ron Davis | July 3, 2024

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  • American Crow (Photo by Steve Betchkal)

American Crow (Photo by Steve Betchkal)

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No matter where we live in Wisconsin, we share our community with birds. Writer Ron Davis of Eau Claire has been thinking a lot about his feathered neighbors, particularly the crows.

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“Sawdust City.”
“City of Bridges.”
“Portland of the Midwest.”
“Horseradish Capital of the World.”

There are all kinds of nicknames for Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but I’ve come to increasingly think of it as “The Crow City.”

Is it just me? It seems that anywhere I go there are crows, sometimes lots of crows. I hear them throughout the day, particularly at dawn when they begin rallying up for the day’s quest for food: some spilled French fries in the McDonald’s parking lot, that squirrel pancaked on Water Street, or maybe a few squashed blueberries from the Farmer’s Market.

American crow (Courtesy of Ron Davis)

American crow (Courtesy of Ron Davis)

But don’t get me wrong, apart from the raucous reveille in the mornings, I’ve got nothing against crows. True, the American Crow is not especially attractive and certainly not as glamorous as Eau Claire’s famous Eagle, Old Abe.

Their “caw” can’t be described as a “song,” and thanks to those haunting scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s loose adaption of Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds,” crows even have a sinister repute. But drawn to a little light research, I found that your basic crow actually has some pretty amazing qualities.

While we bird watched in Carson Park, I had the opportunity to talk with Steve Betchkal, Eau Claire’s own ornithologist, ecologist, Emmy-winning video journalist and author of eight books on birds.

“If you are a fan of bird behavior, then you’re a fan of crows,” said Betchkal.

I learned from Betchkal that crows are one of only four species (including humans) that can fashion and use tools. For example, crows can use splinters to spear prey in holes. Crows have the largest brain to body ratio of any bird — even bigger than ours — and the lowly scavenger has sometimes been called “the chimpanzee of the bird world.” Research indicates they can count as high as 16!

“One of the reasons that crows are so successful is because they are so adaptive. They are omnivorous, so just about anything that has caloric value is fit for consumption,” Betchkal said. “They are also not picky about habitat. They do require trees for nesting or roosting, but they’re just fine if those trees are next to human habitation. Additionally, crows aren’t migratory, so they don’t face the kind of stressors that long-distance migrants do.”

Experts agree, crows are also very social and “family-oriented.” They mostly mate for life (average life span 20 years), and they often help raise fledglings from other crows’ broods. Crows have been said to attend funerals for fallen comrades, but it’s more likely the birds gather to investigate the threat. If a predator, such as an owl, is found, crows will call to others and join up to “mob” the enemy, seeking to drive it away.

Though crows can mimic human speech, they have their own language of more than a hundred different calls, even different regional dialects.

According to Betchkal, crows can even tell us something about ourselves.

American crow (Courtesy of Ron Davis)

American crow (Courtesy of Ron Davis)

“Every bird is a success story — an example of a species that has been shaped over millions of years” Betchkal said. “And birds are indicators of environmental health. If the birds aren’t doing well, that’s a good indication that we’re doing something to hurt their populations – and the data bear this out. (Bird) Species — unlike crows — that are more sensitive to habitat disruption, free-roaming cats, migratory stressors, and environmental toxins are not doing well. Perhaps we should take a closer look at human behaviors?”

After living in the sticks for 40 years, I moved to Eau Claire five years ago. Besides the crows, I delight in seeing any incursions of wildlife into my new neighborhood, whether it’s the deer that sneak into our backyard at night or the squirrels that terrorize our bird feeders.

“Eau Claire is a Bird City, and that designation is beneficial for the community,” Betchkal said. “However, it’s not a one-way deal: we owe birds something in return — a commitment to more conscientious and sustainable lifestyles which are bird-friendly. There’s data out there that says that half the humans on Earth are born with a genetic propensity to ‘love animals.’ What does that mean for the other 50 percent? And how does that translate into everyday practice of compassion and empathy?”

We could do worse than naming crows as our official city bird in Eau Claire, but shouldn’t we embrace every touch of wildness in any city?

Ron Davis

Ron Davis

Ron Davis is a retired English teacher, freelance writer, columnist and author of “Shiny Side Up” and “Rubber Side Down,” two books about the improbable inclination to travel on two wheels.
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