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Caring for corvids – Providing enrichment for the world’s smartest birds

caring for corvids

Keagan Goetsch is a wildlife biologist, working in wildlife rehabilitation, based in the USA. In this article she focuses on the means by which to provide appropriate enrichment for corvids during the rehabilitation process…

The Corvid’s intelligence has been well documented over the years through many means [1]. Corvidae, or the crow family, consists of over 120 species and includes crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers [2]. However, astonishing as their intelligence may be, it makes the task of providing enrichment for these birds all the more difficult. As an animal care professional, how do you properly provide for all their needs? (For the sake of brevity, I won’t be going over training, social situations, or complete nutritional needs).

Why is enrichment important?
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Behavioural Advisory Group defines ‘enrichment’ as “A process for improving or enhancing animal environments and care within the context of their inhabitants’ behavioural biology and natural history. It is a dynamic process in which changes to structures and husbandry practices are made with the goal of increasing behavioural choices available to animals and drawing out their species-appropriate behaviours and abilities, thus enhancing animal welfare.” [3]. Enrichment gives animals the chance to be themselves, even while in captivity. It has also been shown to significantly reduce stress hormones present in corvids [4]. If you are rehabilitating one of these birds, enrichment is vital as corvids have been known to display destructive behaviours such as pica and feather-plucking when not properly stimulated.

Neophobia / the scaredy-bird
Corvids pose a unique problem when attempting to provide enrichment as they are known to be exceptionally neophobic, or fearful of new objects. This evolved as a defence mechanism to protect them from potentially dangerous objects or food sources [5]. This behavioural trait can vary in extremity depending on each individual bird, but as a rule, this is quite important to keep in mind when introducing new foods or objects to your bird(s). Initially, try to stick with new foods or objects that closely mimic things they would find in their natural environment. Even something as simple as providing extra foliage can make a difference. When introducing objects or toys that may pose a riddle to a cautious corvid, give them time to adjust. Make sure they are comfortable with your previous introductions before adding a new object. Once they have grown accustomed to your selections, make sure to rotate objects every few days so they stay ‘new’. Just like a human child, they will grow bored over time with their toys! This rotation schedule ensures not only that items stay ‘new’, but ensures many different types of stimulation are reliably encountered by your bird. Just don’t go overboard all at once or the bird could become overwhelmed!

Options, options, options galore!
When it comes to enrichment, you have a world of options available to provide your avian resident with. The obvious choices come in the form of food. Corvids are, as a rule, omnivores, with their diets generally consisting of invertebrates, fruits, meats (sometimes including carrion) and seeds. However, many species of corvid have adapted to eat a variety of human food sources and products [6].

You can initially try simply offering foods in unique ways. Depending on your situation, your bird may have unique dietary requirements in which case please consult a veterinarian or animal nutrition specialist before making any changes to an existing diet. I recently worked with an American Crow at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota who seems to prefer crickets over most other snacks. He often takes to caching them in areas around his ward and has an amusing way of thoroughly bathing each one before ingesting. It was not surprising he was the biggest fan when it came to crickets hidden inside ice cubes floating around in his water (many thanks to The Wildlife Center of Virginia for that idea!). Just like the crickets, you can try hiding other common favourites such as berries, minnows, or bits of meat inside ice cubes.

Puzzles also go over well as a rule. Engage the corvid’s brain by hiding favourite snacks in places such as shredded newspaper, inside toilet paper tubes, or just hidden around the enclosure. Nuts still in their shells provide an extra challenge. The aforementioned American Crow was a huge fan of a log which was riddled with holes – often containing tasty treats, which he would have to try to get out! That mimics a behaviour often displayed in the wild by corvids, which is exactly what we try to achieve with enrichment.

Other items that can go over well include mirrors, children’s colourful block toys (make sure they are crow-proof – check with your veterinarian if necessary before introducing human toys!), egg cartons, or bottles with holes containing surprises. Packing paper (acid free and ink free) partially crinkled up provides lots of shredding and tearing opportunities with extra hiding spaces, which brings out caching behaviour. Just make sure you clean out those treasure troves occasionally! Try using a white noise machine that plays familiar nature sounds. Even seemingly simple things such as moving around furniture in the enclosure can give your crow the chance to explore and have fun. Depending on your situation, your corvid may have other opportunities for enrichment such as social situations, training, or education programs. All these things can make sure the bird is happy, healthy, and stimulated.

Final thoughts
Giving Corvids a proper diet, enclosure, and enrichment not only reduces their immediate stress levels, but makes sure they have a well-rounded experience with proper mental stimulation. Proper enrichment also reduces the chance of destructive behaviours, ensuring continuing health. If you’re a Wildlife Rehabilitator, preventing feather plucking can make the difference between captivity and release. Enrichment not only benefits the bird, but provides you with meaningful behavioural knowledge and the personal experience of enhancing that animal’s life.

References: 

  • [1] “Wildlife Center of Virginia Blog.”Wildlife Center of Virginia Blog | The Wildlife Center of Virginia, 14 Mar. 2018, www.wildlifecenter.org/blog/corvids-prove-be-something-‘rave’-about.
  • [2] Robertson, Don. “Bird Families of the World: Corvidae.” Corvid Family Corvidae, 20 June 2014, creagrus.home.montereybay.com/corvids.html.
  • [3] “Animal Enrichment Program.”Animal Enrichment Program, Fort Worth Zoo, www.fortworthzoo.org/animal-enrichment-program.
  • [4] Fairhurst, Graham D., et al. “Does Environmental Enrichment Reduce Stress? An Integrated Measure of Corticosterone from Feathers Provides a Novel Perspective.”PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 2011, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0017663.
  • [5] Swift, Kaeli. “Hate New Things? So Do Corvids.” Corvid Research, 1 Aug. 2016, corvidresearch.blog/2016/08/01/hate-new-things-so-do-corvids/.
  • [6] Marzluff, John M, and Eric Neatherlin. “Corvid Response to Human Settlements and Campgrounds: Causes, Consequences, and Challenges for Conservation.” Biological Conservation, Elsevier, 9 Feb. 2006, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320706000024?via=ihub&key=ffaa34471f84e5f79994a9c9786364008f3ec7d3.

About the Author: Keagan Goetsch is a wildlife biologist with a keen interest in conservation, minimising anthropogenic impacts on wildlife, animal behaviour, husbandry and enrichment.  She is an avid outdoors-woman and has the privilege of working with over 185 unique species each year through wildlife rehabilitation efforts.

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