Is that a Northwestern Crow?


I spent Thanksgiving week in the Pacific Northwest, visiting family (granddaughters!) and friends. Somehow, in the midst of tickles and snuggles, craft projects, and a delicious turkey dinner, I managed to squeeze in an hour of birding—and it wasn’t even raining.

Since we were in Federal Way for lunch that day, we headed for the tiny Dumas Bay Sanctuary. And I do mean tiny. If you walk north along the narrow beach, you quickly run into signs warning of private property. And if you head south instead, the park boundary markers stop you after only a few yards. At least the birds have permission to trespass, and we birders have binoculars.

DumasBaySanctuary-WA_LAH_9641Walking down to the beach from the parking lot, the trail winds through some lovely trees and bird-friendly brambles. The canopy was alive with Black-capped Chickadees, gleaning insects from the leafless branches. I also noticed a pair of Red-shafted Northern Flickers hammering for their breakfasts, and what might have been a wren, although it didn’t hang around long enough to get my binos focused.

Upon reaching the beach, a quick scan of the water revealed a flotilla of American Wigeons and a lone pair of Mallards, all dabbling in the shallow water.

An assortment of gulls rested on the bay or soared overhead. Every few minutes, one would plummet into the water, nab a crab, snail, or clam, then beat a hasty retreat, hoping to keep the tasty morsel away from the mooches who would rather steal than catch their own meal. (I was amused to note that the thieves spent much more energy than the hunters, and had far less to show for their efforts. Even among gulls, crime doesn’t pay!)

And then there were the crows. They were everywhere, flapping, roosting, calling, and poking their beaks into the algae washed up on the beach, looking for tidbits. I immediately wondered, were these familiar-looking black birds American Crows or Northwestern Crows? How could I tell?

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website describes the Northwestern Crow as, “Slightly smaller than but otherwise identical to the American Crow. Best separated by habitat, range (confined to Pacific Northwest), and possibly its more nasal call.”  As I stared at their comparison photos, the only difference I could see was that the Northwestern Crow’s beak was slightly longer and slimmer, but only in some of the pictures. Was that a distinguishing characteristic, or just a quirk of that particular individual? (Still, the crows I saw that day did have long-ish, slender beaks.)

As far as size goes, the crows we have here in Colorado seem larger than any of the crows I saw in Washington. It could just be my perspective; I didn’t measure them, and size is notoriously difficult to estimate in the field. But that was my impression. In any case, it probably doesn’t matter. My further research revealed that the sizes of these two species overlap.

Here, for comparison, is a photo of an American Crow that I took in Pueblo, Colorado, next to the Northwestern Crow (?) I shot in Washington (the Colorado bird is on the right):


I searched on, landing on National Audubon’s Birdlist blog: “Birdist Rule #65: How to Tell the Difference Between Crows.” Aha, just what I need—an expert to tell me what to look for! Or…  maybe not.

First of all, the page explains that these birds are typically separated by range—American Crows are found all over the lower 48 states, while Northwestern Crows only range along the coast from the Puget Sound area into Alaska.  That’s terrific, except that I was birding just south of Seattle: “There is some overlap between American and Northwestern Crows around Seattle and the British Columbia coast, so be very mindful if you’re birding there.”

Next, the site admonished the befuddled birder to note the bird’s voice. They’re supposed to be sufficiently different that you can separate the two species by their calls. Except, Northwestern Crows “have very similar voices to American Crows in places where their ranges overlap.”

And as already stated, their ranges overlap exactly where I was birding.

So what was I to do? I finally decided that at least some of these abundant birds had to be Northwestern Crows. After all, they were at the beach, dining on sushi. And if I got it wrong? It probably doesn’t matter. The Birdlist article concluded with this encouraging statement:

Some expert birders from the region don’t even think they’re a separate species. Chances are, the Northwestern Crow will eventually will be lumped with American Crow, so count it while you can.

Photos, from top: Northwestern Crow, Dumas Bay Sanctuary, American Wigeons, Mew Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull (hyb?) with snail, 2nd winter Glaucous-winged Gull with clam, Northwestern Crow with crab, American Crow.

And finally, the answer to last week’s quiz is Lazuli Bunting.

One thought on “Is that a Northwestern Crow?

  1. Pingback: AOU Updates, 2020 Edition – Mountain Plover

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