The crow has never been a symbol of nature’s beauty, but even their most ardent admirers wouldn’t warm to a pair of naked juveniles recently found in central Alberta.
But the rare featherless baby crows are causing a sensation among wildlife lovers, and even one of North America’s most respected ornithologists.
It’s only the second known North American case of naked crows — which are born without body feathers and remain bare until at least 12 weeks old.
“Which is just weird,” said Kevin J. McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who has been studying crows for 27 years. “Baby birds are naked. They come out of the shell naked, so naked baby birds are not unusual. But naked baby birds at four weeks old is pretty unusual.”
The pair was found by a Red Deer homeowner last month after she noticed a pair of fledglings that had fallen from their nest high in a tree and onto her lawn.
“She went, ‘Holy cow,’ and she picked them up and brought them to us, and we went, ‘My goodness, what is wrong with this?’” said Carol Kelly, executive director of the Medicine River Wildlife Centre.
“They had some feathers at the ends of their wings. They were missing most of their body feathers. They are quite humorous to look at, but they do have their wing feathers so they will be learning to fly.”
Wildlife centre staff researched prior cases of naked crows and that led them to McGowan, who advised them to return the juvenile birds back to their nest.
“Because the parents were still there and because they were in really good condition other than the lack of feathers, it was advised to us to put them back with the parents,” said Kelly. “We’ve asked the landowners to keep their eyes open so if anybody does see these little bald creatures flying around Red Deer they will not panic, that it is normal and it is OK.”
What McGowan has learned from his experience with naked crows is that the birds will grow normal body feathers by the end of the summer when they are about 13 to 15 weeks old.
He also believes that the phenomenon is caused by a genetic mutation, and that the two cases (the other was in New York state in 2003), while remarkably similar, were not connected.
“It happened the same way it happened in New York, which is that it is a mutation of some particular controlled gene that regulates or enhances the growth of the juvenile body feathers. What happened once has happened again,” said McGowan.
In the meantime, Kelly and her staff at the wildlife centre will keep in contact with the Red Deer homeowners on the naked crows’ progress.
McGowan said he’s confident these interesting and unfairly maligned creatures are in good hands.
“Crows are very family orientated,” he said. “Their parents want to protect them and they probably don’t think they are ugly.”