Monday, 13 March 2017

Carrion crows dropping mussels

Today at Sewerby beach I was intrigued by a Carrion Crow, part of a large winter flock, appeared to drop something onto the rocks at the top of the beach, then come down to eat. Sometimes the crow would fail and repeat the action. The tide was low, exposing a flat platform of rocks with rich mussel beds, and the objects being dropped were actually mussels that the crows were collecting and carrying up the beach before dropping them on the solid rock to smash them (above).
Dropping potential food items to break them open has been previously documented, and best known in Golden Eagles (breaking open tortoises) and Lammergeiers (bones). Gulls and crows of various species have been recorded dropping intertidal hard-shelled molluscs hard substates, including roads. Intertidal foraging can be an important part of the diet of coastal crows in the winter, when insects are scarce. Crows will scavenge at the tide-line, or feed on small crabs, but some of these intertidal organisms, in particular periwinkles, cockles and mussels, are consumed after smashing them open by dropping onto hard substrates. Controlled observations of wild Carrion and Hooded crows show that crows chose larger mussels, more likely to smash and also providing more food. Shell dropping is not instinctive, young crows appear to perform rather poorly. They need to perfect their technique of dropping so that the height at which the mussels are dropped is the minimum height for them to break at impact, but not much lower. Young crows take more attempts at being successful.
There are three reasons why the minimum height should be used. One, dropping from higher up means wasting more energy flapping up. Also, higher drops means higher bounces and higher chances of the shell being lost. Finally, crows and gulls often steal from each other, a behaviour called kleptoparasitism.  Therefore researchers predicted that crows dropping mussels when other crows or gulls are nearby would be more wary of being robbed, indeed, crows with other crows or gulls nearby dropped their mussels from 2 m lower that lone crows.
Crow and gulls on mussel bed, the crow has already detached a mussel, while one of the gulls is still trying. Although many crows were actually busy either collecting mussels or breaking them up the beach today, I didn't see any gulls doing this.
Mussels are strongly attached to the rock and other mussels by threads, which can be hard to reach, as the mussels cover the rock very densely, not exposing the threads. It is quite a feat the crows manage to detach them
A view of the beach at low tide.

Despite the very bright light I managed a couple of clips here:


More information

Whiteley, J. D., Pritchard, J. S. & Slater, P. J. B. Strategies of mussel dropping by Carrion Crows Corvus c. corone. Bird Study 37, 12–17 (1990).

Davenport, J., O’Callaghan, M. J. A., Davenport, J. L. & Kelly, T. C. Mussel dropping by Carrion and Hooded crows: biomechanical and energetic considerations. J. Field Ornithol. 85, 196–205 (2014).

Berrow, S. D. , T. C. Kelly & A. A. Myers. The diet of coastal breeding Hooded Crows (Corvus corone cornix). Ecography 15, 337–346 (1992).

2 comments:

  1. Very interesting post thanks. I have seen this behaviour regularly at the Marine Lake in West Kirby, Wirral and last Sunday, I watched a carrion crow doing the same thing. Providing the tide isn't too high and the winds aren't too strong, you can walk around the marine lake and the gulls actually drop mussels and other hard-shelled molluscs within metres of your feet! It's amazing to watch. Sometimes, the objects have to be repeatedly dropped but the birds don't give up.

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  2. Thank you for your comment Coquetnaturelover. It's the first time I see crows doing this and it was a nature spectacle. The 'not giving up' aspect of this behaviour is also dealt with in the research, a crow took 17 attempts to crack a mussel!

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