Corvids, or crows and their close relatives, are considered to be the most intelligent of the bird families, and among the most intelligent of all animals, having demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests, and a surprising capacity to make simple tools that help them forage more efficiently. Hispaniola’s white-necked crow, measuring half a meter in length, is the largest of the four species of Caribbean corvids, its closest relatives being the crows of Cuba and Jamaica. This crow once inhabited Puerto Rico and Saint Croix, in the Virgin Islands. By the early 1900s, however, hunting and habitat loss drove it to extinction there, although there have been recent proposals to reintroduce it to those islands. The White-necked crow’s plumage is entirely black with a deep violet sheen. It has a large bill and distinctive red-orange eye. The neck feathers, whose white bases lend this bird both its scientific and English names, typically show only during courtship or under stress.
It lives in both dry and humid forests, and has been found at all elevations, but resides primarily below 1,500 meters. Like other forest crows, it feeds primarily on fruits and seeds, but opportunistically consumes vertebrates and insects. It forms large foraging flocks that sometimes leave the forest to feed on crops. Like other corvids, it is an extremely social bird. Adults form lifelong pairs, and offspring stay with their parents to help raise the following year’s chicks. This extended stay with parents may be crucial for learning the behaviors and social skills that young birds need to survive.
Possibly deriving from corvids’ dark plumage and cunning minds, many cultures have regarded these birds as objects of superstition, or omens of ill fortune and death. On the other hand, they have been protagonists in several Old Testament stories: Noah sent one of these birds from the Ark to look for dry land after the great flood. At one time the Jews forbade people to eat them, and on another occasion, God used Ravens, a crow relative, to feed the prophet Elijah. Some people in Dominican Republic keep them as pets, in part because they appreciate how the crows learn to imitate human speech, as well as animal sounds.
“If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” Henry Ward Beecher
“…if you stop to watch a group [of crows] for a few minutes you will find that they invariably are up to something interesting.” Bob Salinger
We once heard a pet crow near Montecristi that clearly demanded “dame mi comida!” (give me my food). The owners told us that it repeated these words at lunch time each day. Although large flocks of several hundred individuals were common as recently as the early 1900s, they have disappeared from many of their former strongholds due to the destruction of their habitat and excessive hunting. The global IUCN Red List of Threatened Species ranks the white-necked crow as vulnerable while the Dominican Republic’s National Red List ranks it as endangered.