FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT CROWS

Note: Most of these answers pertain to the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos. Much of the information here is from my own research on crows in central New York; where I used other sources I have tried to reference the material. - Dr. Kevin J. McGowan, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

This page is still very much under construction!

Last updated 9 November 2010

 

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Basic biology

Identification

Bad crow behavior

People and crows

Other things I haven't answered completely yet

 


Why do crows congregate in large numbers to sleep?

One of the great animal phenomena of the world is the congregation of large numbers of birds into a single group to sleep together. Such communal sleeping groups are known as "roosts." Many species roost in groups; such things as crows, robins, starlings, blackbirds, swallows, and herons. Most do this only outside of the breeding season. Some species, like starlings, also forage together in great numbers. Others, such as herons, disperse out from these gathering areas to forage singly. For crows, roosts are primarily a fall and winter thing. Numbers peak in winter and then decrease near the beginning of the breeding season (usually in March). It appears that all crows will join winter roosts, even territorial breeding crows. Most breeding crows sleep on their territories during the breeding season, but join the roosts afterward.

For an interesting account of a large urban roost in central New York (pictured above), check out the website dedicated to the roost in Auburn, NY <http://com-site.com/savethecrows/>.

Just why birds congregate in such large groups is still largely a matter of conjecture. A number of hypotheses have been constructed to explain it:

Crows have been congregating in large roosts in the fall and winter for as long as there have been crows. Crow roosts can range from small scattered roosts of under one hundred individuals to the spectacularly large roosts of hundreds of thousands, or even more than a million crows! A roost in Fort Cobb, Oklahoma was estimated to hold over two million crows (Gerald Iams, 1972, State of Oklahoma Upland Game Inventory W-82-R-10). Most roosts are much smaller, but roosts of tens of thousands are common.

Before heading to roost, crows will congregate in some area away from the final roosting site, usually an hour or two before complete darkness. Here the crows spend a lot of time calling, chasing, and fighting. Right at dark the main body of the group will move toward the final roosting spot. Sometimes this final movement is relatively quiet, but usually it is still quite noisy. I have seen crows coming together from several separate congregation areas, heading to one final staging area where they all coalesce, then everyone heads to the final roost. The final roost can be a cohesive group in a single woodlot, or it can be rather diffusely spread out over quite a wide area of suitable trees.

Many, perhaps most, people who witness large roosts or the flight lines to them are reminded of Alfred Hitchcock's movie "The Birds." I think this association is unfortunate. It makes the allusion that somehow what we are watching is sinister, unnatural, and threatening. In fact, it is none of the above, but one of the most natural things in the world. I would prefer to replace this association with the idea that such roosts are something to be marveled at. To me they always bring up the idea of Passenger Pigeons. When Europeans first came to North America, the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was the most abundant bird on earth. Migrating flocks were said to darken the sky for hours as they passed. Despite their incredible abundance, they are completely gone now, driven extinct by the early years of the 20th century. A combination of habitat destruction (the complete devastation of the eastern hardwood forests) and hunting for sale as meat in commercial markets destroyed one of the greatest natural spectacles on earth. Not a single Passenger Pigeon remains on earth today, nor do any people that remember seeing their massive flocks. I would like for people to look at the large congregations of the similarly-sized American Crows going to roost and think that, despite how impressive they might be, they are but the slightest hint of what the Passenger Pigeon flocks must have been like.

 


 

Why have these roosts recently moved into cities?

A number of possible explanations exist for the relatively recent influx of roosting crows into urban areas. The birds are not making drastic shifts in behavior; crows have been gathering into winter roosts for as long as there have been crows. We know, for example, from work done in the 1930's by John Emlen at Cornell University that approximately 25,000 crows were gathering in a roost near Auburn, NY in the winter of 1932-33, and that a large roost was present in 1911-12 (Emlen, J. T., Jr., 1938, Midwinter distribution of the American Crow in New York State, Ecology 19: 264-275). The big difference is that they were roosting 3 miles south of town then and are roosting smack in downtown Auburn today. Any increase in size of the roost would be imperceptible, compared to the change of locale.

A couple of things may have worked together to get crows into town (both for nesting and roosting):

1) The 1972 extension of the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 to cover crows. At this point the hunting of crows became regulated. No longer could anyone anywhere take shots at crows, but had to do so (theoretically) within proscribed guidelines and hunting seasons. It is possible that this change may have resulted in the decrease of shooting pressure on crows, allowing them to become more tolerant of the presence of people.

2) A prohibition on the discharge of firearms within city/village limits. It is conceivable that crows somehow stumbled across the fact that they could not be shot in cities because of local ordinances against shooting in town. So, in fact crows might have somehow figured out that the best thing to do to live with their enemy was to get as close as possible, not stay away. Many crow hunters do most of their hunting along flight lines of crows moving to roost. These flight lines through urban areas are protected, those in rural areas are not.

Once crows overcame the urban barrier, a number of possible advantages could extend to them:

a) Cities are warmer than rural areas. In most places a difference of 5-10 degrees F exists, sometimes referred to as a "heat bubble" over cities. Because roosting is a winter phenomenon, warmer spots could be important.

b) Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) populations should be lower in urban areas. Next to people with guns, Great Horned Owls pose the largest danger to an adult crow. Great Horned Owls take adults as well as nestling crows with great regularity. (That is why crows hate them so much!) Owls probably are regular attendants at crow roosts, as owls wake up as the crows are heading into the roosts, and sleeping crows should be pretty easy picking.

c) Artificial light assist crows in watching for owls. I have noticed that many urban crow roosts are not located in nice dense trees where the crows would have microclimate advantages, such as protection from wind or cold. Rather, the crows perch out on the tips of bare branches of leafless deciduous trees. I was quite surprised by this at first, but then I noticed that many (most?) roosts are located near sources of bright illumination, such as streetlights and parking lot lights, like the lights at the Auburn prison and Syracuse University. It makes sense for crows to like "nightlights" to protect them from their biggest bogeyman, the Great Horned Owl. Crows don't see well at night; owls do. Crows near street light could see approaching owls. Also, if a crow gets scared out of its roost in the middle of the night (presumably by an owl taking crows), in lighted urban areas the crows can see where the predator is, and perhaps more importantly, can see to find another perch. You can imagine that flying blindly into the dark is not something any bird would choose to do. I was surprised at the amount of activity at the Auburn roost well after dark. The crows were still making a lot of noise and even flying from tree to tree. In other roosts I have watched that were in darker locations the crows quieted down rather quickly and no movements between trees were seen shortly after complete darkness.

d) Urban areas provide large trees for roosts. In many places some of the largest trees to be found are in urban areas. Many trees in parks and cemeteries were protected from the severe logging of the end of the last century, and are some of the oldest trees around. These large trees may be especially attractive to crows.

 


 

Do crows migrate?

American Crows can be considered partially migratory. That is, some populations migrate, others are resident, and in others only some of the crows migrate. Crows in the southern parts of their range appear to be resident and not migrate. They may make some changes in their use of space at this time, spending more time off the territory to forage and roost. Crows migrate out of the northern most parts of their range. It has been stated that crows migrate out of those areas where the minimum January temperature averages 0 F. Certainly crows leave the northern Great Plains in the fall, leaving Saskatchewan and Alberta to winter in the lower Plains states of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma (Kalmbach, E. R., and S. E. Aldous. 1940. Winter banding of Oklahoma crows. Wilson Bull. 52: 198-206). Crows can be seen crossing the Great Lakes in spring and fall, and these birds undoubtedly are migrating to and from parts of Canada.

Crows breeding in upstate New York are partially migratory. Breeding birds, and most of the tagged individuals in my study, appear to remain all winter. The breeding pair appears to visit their breeding territory every day of the year, although they will roost and forage in other places. Non-breeders may spend significant periods on the home territory, or may spend time away. Many individuals wander around the local area joining different foraging flocks on subsequent days. They may or may not visit the home territory during this time. Other non-breeders leave the area entirely for several months. Several of the birds I have tagged in Ithaca, NY have been recovered (shot) or seen in Pennsylvania during the winter. One individual (less than one year old) was seen at a compost pile in northern Pennsylvania with a flock of crows, and three weeks later it was back in Ithaca with its parents who were starting nesting. It helped the parents raise young that year, and remained in the area over subsequent winters.


How many broods of young can a crow family produce in one year?

In general, American Crows have only one successful brood a year. Figure it like this: it takes from one to two weeks to build a nest (always a new one with each nesting attempt), 6 days to lays eggs (2-6 eggs, average of 4.7 in my study), 19 days of incubation (begun with the penultimate, or antepenultimate egg, i.e., next-to-last or next-to-next-to-last egg, depending on clutch size), 35 days in the nest before fledging (30-45), and then 6 weeks to 2 months to feed the young to independence. That adds up to nearly 4 months from start to finish. Even though American Crows are one of the earliest nesting species in New York (laying eggs the last week of March), they cannot hope to pull off two broods a year. In my study population if a nest fails after the first week or two of May, the pair does not attempt to renest in most years. On occasion in some years some pairs will renest rather late after a latest failure. The latest young I have banded hatched 7 June.

Nest success is 50% (average in my study) or less (other studies), and rarely do successful crows raise all the young from all the eggs they lay. On average in my study, rural nests produce 4 young per successful nest and urban nests produce 3. Average clutch size in both areas is 4.7.

 


How long do crows live?

Most crows don't even live a year, having died in the egg or as nestlings. In my study population of American Crows in Ithaca, New York, just about half of the nests succeed in producing young. Of the young I band in the nest a week before fledging, about half are alive and with their parents the next year. Of course some have disappeared and not died, but that's a pretty good survival rate for birds anyway. Once they survive that first year they have a good chance of making it for several years more. None of my birds try to breed when they are one year old, and some are six years old and still helping their parents. Average age of first reproduction for females is 3.3 years, and males average 4.9 years. Breeders have about 93% yearly survival. My survival data (biased towards the short side by those that disappear) indicate that some crows should live to be 17 - 21 years old [note this is a change in the prediction from what I have had posted before Dec 1998, based on reanalysis of survival data]. The oldest known wild American Crow was 29 1/2 years old (see Dilling, 1988, Ontario Bird Banding Association Newsletter 33: 2-3.). The second oldest known, however, was only 14 years, 7 months (Clapp et al., 1983, Journal of Field Ornithology, 54(2): 123-137).

As of November 2010 we have 2, probably 3 crows that were banded as nestlings in 1993 that are still alive, making them currently 17 years and 7 months old. Here is a photo of one of them, AP HART93 when he was just 17. You can see that his colored and metal bands have fallen off, and the has only the remnants of his wing tags.

 

 


 

What is the difference between a crow and a raven?

Crows and ravens, although in the same genus (Corvus) are different birds. (Think of leopards and tigers; both are in the genus Panthera, and are obviously related, but they are quite distinct animals.) The words "crow" and "raven" themselves have little or no real taxonomic meaning. That is, the Australian "ravens" are more closely related to the Australian "crows" than they are to the Common Raven (Corvus corax). In general, the biggest black species, usually with shaggy throat feathers, are called ravens and the smaller species are considered crows.

Common Ravens can be told from American Crows by a couple of things. The size difference, which is huge, is only useful with something else around to compare them with. Ravens are as big as Red-tailed Hawks, and crows are, well, crow sized. The wedge-shaped tail of the raven is a good character, if you can see it well. Crows sometimes show an apparent wedge shape to the tail, but almost never when it is fanned as the bird soars or banks (except for a brief time during molt in the summer).

More subtle characters include: ravens soar more than crows. If you see a "crow" soaring for more than a few seconds, check it a second time. Crows never do the somersault in flight that Common Ravens often do. Ravens are longer necked in flight than crows. The larger bill of the raven can be seen in flight, but it is actually less apparent than the long neck. Raven wings are shaped differently than are crow wings, with longer primaries ("fingers") with more slotting between them. As my neighbor said, "Ravens are the ones whose wings you can see through." The longer primaries make the wings look more bent at the wrist than a crow as the bird flies, and the "hand" portion can look nearly pointed.

If seen perched in a good look, the huge bill and shaggy throat of a raven are diagnostic. The upper and lower edges of the bill are parallel for most of their length (3/4?) in ravens, while in crows the downward curve starts somewhere around 2/3 of the way out for males, and about halfway for females.

But remember, ravens are pretty uncommon around here [Ithaca, NY]. If you see a "really big crow!", chances are good that it really is a crow. Yes, there are large crows and small ones, but you couldn't ever tell which was which. Any difference in size (380g - 660g is the weight range around here; 800 - 950 mm wingspan) among individuals is not detectable, in that the range of appearance of a single crow (by fluffing or sleeking its feathers) is greater.

American Crows make the familiar "caw-caw," but also have a large repertoire of rattles, clicks, and even clear bell-like notes. However, they never give anything resembling the most common calls of Common Ravens. The most familiar call of a raven is a deep, reverberating croaking or "gronk-gronk." Only occasionally will a raven make a call similar to a crow's "caw" but even then it is so deep as to be fairly easily distinguished from a real crow. Ravens also make a huge variety of different notes. It has been said (attributed to native Americans) that if you hear something in the forest that you cannot identify (assuming you know all the common forest sounds), it is a raven.

 


 

How do you tell a Fish Crow from an American Crow?

Fish Crows (Corvus ossifragus) are a rather small species of crow endemic to the Southeastern United States. Typically they have been restricted to the coastline from southern New England to Texas, but in the last few decades have been expanding their range, especially inland up large rivers.

Visually, Fish Crows are difficult to tell from American Crows. Unless one has a great deal of experience in close observation of the species, identification is only safely done by voice.

The calls of Fish Crows and American Crows are readily told apart. American Crows most frequently give the familiar "caw caw." Fish Crows have a much more nasal call that may be better enumerated "awh" or "uhn." The most diagnostic call of the Fish Crow is the double noted "uh-uh." I always say that if you want to tell the species of crow, ask it if it is an American Crow. Fish Crows will deny this by their emphatic "uh-uh!"

Fish Crow calls can be confused with the begging calls of American Crows. It should be pointed out that these begging calls are given not just by dependent young crows, but also by adult crows in certain situations. Most prominently, early in the breeding cycle of American Crows the females will give begging calls frequently.

For a much more detailed discussion of this identification problem, go to my special Fish Crow ID page.


 

Can crows be shot legally?

The Migratory Bird Treaty (Weeks-McLean Migratory Bird Law), passed in 1913-14, ratified between the United States and Great Britain (for Canada) in 1916, went into full effect as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. This law gave federal protection to most birds in North America, but did not extend protection to crows, and crows continued to be shot as "varmints" over most of their range. In 1936 Mexico was included in the treaty, but still crows were unprotected. In 1972 amendments to the treaty extended protection to 63 families of birds common to both the United States and Mexico, including birds of prey and crows. As a result, at least theoretically, all native birds in the United States are protected by law, but special permits can be obtained to deal with cases of nuisance birds causing damage or annoyances. This act makes it illegal "to possess, transport, or export any migratory bird, or any part, nest, or egg of any such bird." (That means you cannot legally have feathers from any local non-game bird!)

Crows, although not technically "migratory game birds" (like ducks) can be hunted in similar fashion in some states. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations, 50 CFR Chapter 1 20.1 extends regulations to the hunting of "migratory game birds, and crows." The Act allows states the rights to establish hunting seasons on crows, with the exception of Hawaii where the only species present is the severely endangered Hawaiian Crow (Corvus hawaiiensis). 50 CFR 20.133 allows states to set their own seasons, bag limits, and methods of taking crows subject to certain limitations, namely that "1) Crows shall not be hunted from aircraft; 2) The hunting season or seasons on crows shall not exceed a total of 124 days during a calendar year; 3) Hunting shall not be permitted during the peak crow nesting period within a State; and 4) Crows may only be taken by firearms, bow and arrow, and falconry" (so no dynamite, poison, or traps).

Many states that have crow hunting seasons, like New York, allow hunting only 4 days per week. This action stretches the 124 days out so that the season may extend nearly eight months. No state that I have yet seen has a bag limit on crows.

Interestingly, the New York season violated the Federal guidelines for several years. The season for 1997-98 ran 15 September through 14 April. In my study of American Crows in central New York, from 1989-1995 I observed or calculated (based on hatching date or size of nestlings) the start of incubation for 289 nests. The range of incubation-starts in this data set runs from 24 March through 1 June. That means that eggs can be present from 20 March through 20 June (based on an average of four days of laying and 19 days of incubation). Bull (1974, Birds of New York State) gives New York eggs dates for American Crows as 30 March to 14 June, in general agreement with these dates and indicative of the overall generalizability of the data for the state. 80.5% of all nests were being incubated before the end of the New York hunting season on crows, in clear violation of 50 CFR 20.133. Nesting had begun at least a week or two before this time for those nests. Nest building can begin in the first week of March, but usually is concentrated in the last two weeks. I personally don't consider the first few attempts at getting a twig in a tree real nesting, but certainly the laying of eggs and onset of incubation must be. I provided these data to the NYSDEC in April 1997, and they were going to change the season for 1998-99 to end on 31 March (15 September - 31 March; Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays only). The 1998-99 NYSDEC hunting regulations, in fact were printed with a 31 March termination date. (Score one for the age of reason, or so I figured.) Apparently, however, some complaint from a crow hunter resulted in a tabling of the change and DEC personnel were informed not to enforce the printed season closure. The 1999-2000 hunt still extended into the middle of the breeding season! I recently received word that the 2000-2001 dates will be (barring unforeseen changes) 1 September - 31 March. So they finally got the hunt out of the main part of the breeding season, and added the two lost weeks into the fall.

In addition to hunting, crows may be taken (i.e., shot) without a permit in certain circumstances. USFWS 50 CFR 21.43 (Depredation order for blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, crows and magpies) states that a Federal permit is not required to control these birds "when found committing or about to commit depredations upon ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock, or wildlife, or when concentrated in such numbers and manner as to constitute a health hazard or other nuisance " Provided: a) that none of the birds killed or their parts are sold or offered for sale. b) That anyone exercising the privileges granted by this section shall permit any Federal or State game agent free and unrestricted access over the premises where the operations have been or are conducted and will provide them with whatever information required by the officer. c) That nothing in the section authorizes the killing of such birds contrary to any State laws and that the person needs to possess whatever permit as may be required by the State. In New York state landowners or those cultivating lands may take without a permit "common crows …when the wildlife is injuring property or becomes a nuisance."

 


 

Do crows taste bad? Is that where the saying "to eat crow" comes from?

I have always been interested in how crows taste for a couple of reasons. One is because of the old adage "to eat crow," meaning to do something distasteful (like admit being wrong), which suggests that crows taste bad.

The etymology of a saying like "To eat crow" is often hard to trace. Often you will find answers that sound good, but are simply constructed stories made far after the fact to explain something unusual. (My father was good at these stories; usually they involved "Sam" something-or-other)

I have been made aware of the following reports of the origin of "To eat crow" from a couple of web sites:

From the McDougal Littell web site http://www.mcdougallittell.com/, (1999 Houghton Mifflin Company All Rights Reserved)

Idiom - eat crow

Definition - Be forced to admit a humiliating mistake

Etymology - The term's origin has been lost, although a story relates that it involved a War of 1812 encounter in which a British officer made an American soldier eat part of a crow he had shot in British territory. Whether or not it is true, the fact remains that crow meat tastes terrible.

 

From "Food for Thought" by James R. Watson http://www.niva.com/original/writblok/fall97/a-origin.htm in the Fall 1997 issue of Writer's Block http://www.niva.com/original/writblok/

"If you’re feeling defeated, you simply must eat crow--a bird that is as tasty as it is melodious. It's one of our domestic dishes from a recipe allegedly discovered during the War of 1812. A Brit had caught an American shooting a crow on the wrong side of the border. He talked the Yank into handing over his gun, then used it to force the fellow to take a big bite out of the crow and swallow it. Needless to say, once the American had his gun back, he forced the Brit to eat the rest of the bird."

 

I actually do not believe this story is the real origin of the saying. It just sounds too pat and too contrived. Also, I find it difficult to believe that a single incident between unknown and relatively unnoteworthy individuals would make its way so pervasively into the general lexicon. (Besides, which of these guys would spread this tale around? Neither one would want to talk about it, I imagine!) Note that both accounts mention that crows taste bad, an unproven assumption.

I have seen two references to the edibility of crows in the technical ornithological literature (I'll have to look the references up; I don't have them on the top of my head), and they are widely divergent. One says that they are foul (not fowl) and not worth eating. Another says that they taste just fine, as good as any other dark-meated bird.

I have had several opportunities to sample the flesh of crows (I will not go into detail about how this came about, but remember this is a legally hunted species). In my opinion, crow tastes just fine. It is similar to wild duck or any other wild bird with very dark meat. Crows have no white meat on them, as is true for most birds. (Whenever someone says something "tastes like chicken" remember that they're talking about the DARK meat of chicken, not the white.) The meat of most wild birds is even darker than the dark meat of chicken, and will have a gamy smell and flavor to a varying extent.

New York (and most states with hunting seasons) set no daily bag limit on crows. Most literature on hunting them tells the hunters to be considerate to the property owner and collect the crows into one big pile instead of leaving them scattered over the field. A few mention that crows are edible and give some recipes for cooking them. I think if I knew people were eating the crows, crow hunting would feel more acceptable and less like vandalism.


 

Do crows cast pellets like hawks and owls?

Most birds that eat indigestible foods produce pellets. I know for a fact that crows and jays (at least Blue and Florida Scrub-) produce pellets, and I am certain that most other insectivorous birds do as well. I'm not sure why all we know about are owl pellets. Perhaps it's because they roost in recognizable spots and produce large, cohesive pellets with lots of hair to hold them together. If anyone would bother to look under a crow roost they would find hundreds of small lumps of grain and gravel that represent the crows' pellets. Not having much hair in them, they fall apart quickly and might be overlooked if you didn't know what to look for. In the winter of 1996-97 I was exploring under a medium to large crow roost in central Ohio (somewhere between 14,000-50,000) and was surprised at the amount of gravel that was moved. Take about 5 small stones (each about 2 mm in diameter), figure a pellet every other day over the course of 5 months, and multiply by 50,000, and you come up with a significant amount of material moved! (I figure, at a conservative 0.2 grams per load, 750 kilograms of gravel or 1,650 pounds.)

 


 

Do male crows ever incubate?

I have never seen a male American Crow incubate, and I have not heard of any truly convincing cases of males incubating. My colleague Dr. Carolee Caffrey has spent hundreds of hours watching nests of marked crows in California, and she also has never seen anyone but the breeding female incubate. Female-only incubation is typical of the family Corvidae. Only females get brood patches, the defeathered, highly vascularized patches on the belly and chest that are in contact with the eggs. Any report of males incubating needs detailed verification. (See for example, Hailman & Woolfenden, 1985, Nest-defense of the Florida Scrub Jay and the problem of "incubation" by male passerines, Wilson Bulletin 97(3): 370-372.)

The reports of shared incubation in popular reference sources (like Harrison's bird nest book) appear to be repeated quotes from the same source: Bent's life histories, quoting Bendire. I have read Bendire (1895, Life histories of North American birds) and he gives absolutely no details. But you know what they say, that if something is repeated often enough it becomes fact.

I have made a couple of observations that might explain some reports of male incubation. Helping females sometimes try to incubate. When the breeding female is off the nest these younger birds will slip in and sit on the eggs or nestlings. They usually look nervous, constantly looking around, and always leave very quickly when they see another crow approaching. Unlike the incubating female, they are never fed on the nest and are often chased away.

A second instance is when the breeding male comes and feeds the incubating female. Often the female will leave the nest for a while. The male usually remains nearby to guard the nest. Most frequently he will perch near the nest or even on the edge of it. Very infrequently he will actually step down into the nest and stand in it. I find that male Fish Crows do this rather regularly. These males do not, however, actually incubate. That is, they do not put their bodies in contact with the eggs and transfer heat.

 


 

I saw crows fighting and it looked like one was going to kill the other. Why would they do that?

Crows are very social species and live in large extended family groups. That does not mean, however, that they are friendly with all other crows. Just as we humans are social and love our families and friends, we also have been known to fight and kill each other on occasion. Birds may fight for a number of reasons, such as defending territory boundaries, protecting their mate (or sexual access to them), or defending some other resource. Crow fights within a family are usually short and involve only a few pecks. (Crows, in my experience, actually seem to have very few intra-family squabbles compared to some bird species.) Fights between members of different families, however, can be protracted and deadly. I frequently see crows locked together tumbling out of trees in the spring. Although I have never witnessed an actual killing, I would not be at all surprised to see crows kill another crow from outside the family group that was trespassing.

Another possible explanation of extreme violence is that the attacked crow was already injured. Injured, sick, or oddly acting birds are often attacked by their own species. Crows are no exception. One explanation for this behavior is that having an injured individual around is dangerous to others in that it might attract predators. Not only that, but a vulnerable crow could teach a predator to hunt for crows, which might endanger other crows. With this line of reasoning, crows would be best served by getting rid of an odd ball. I do not know if crows would eat another crow they killed. They might, but I rather expect they would not.

 


 

Do the male and female crow mate for life?

More or less. In general, it appears that they do. Unless a mate is killed or severely incapacitated, crows appear to stay with the same mate year after year. It is possible, however, for exceptions to occur. Generally this would happen in the case of a young pair of birds that mated but bred unsuccessfully. They might break the pair bond and try again with someone else. I had one young male return home after an unsuccessful first nesting attempt. Because the female was unmarked I do not know if she died or also went home to her folks.


 

Are crows ever white or have white in the wings?

Yes. Click here to find out more


We have a pair of crows in our backyard that use our bird bath as a depository for all of the carcasses they find. There are various snakes and rodents in the bath right now. It is disgusting. Why do they do that?

Crows and all members of the family Corvidae will store excess food. Sometimes you can see crows bury things in the grass of the yard (usually covering it up with a leaf or plucked grass; sometimes looking at it several times and using a number of different coverings before being satisfied that it really is hidden). They also hide food in trees or rain gutters, or whatever is a handy spot. At this time of the year (April) crows are nesting, and the female breeder sits all day on the eggs or young nestlings. She leaves the nest only infrequently and the male and the helpers bring her food. Food is easy to bring (all pecked into pieces and stashed in the throat under the tongue), but water is harder. So, crows often will dunk dry foods in water and take the moistened food to the nest. It is likely that that is what is going on in the birdbath. In my experience with several captive crows, some individual crows also seem more inclined to put food in water and leave it there than others. Perhaps they want it to rot a little to improve the flavor a bit before they eat it (just like we do when we "age" beef).


 

Since the crows came we don't have any little birds around anymore!

Crows are predators and scavengers, and will eat anything they can subdue. That said, the bulk of their diet (in this area, anyway) consists of waste grain in winter, and earthworms and other terrestrial invertebrates in the spring and summer. Crows will eat eggs and nestlings of songbirds, and in some areas might have a significant impact of a local population of birds. Far more likely, however, is that crows are but one of a host of species preying on the "desirable" wildlife, and removing crows will make no change in the end result (that of most of the young birds/eggs being eaten). A number of studies have been done, removing crows and looking at the resulting nest success of birds the crows depredated, that illustrate this point. Removal of crows does NOT increase nest success or survival of the bird to be protected. Nearly always some other predator steps up to eat the same number of eggs and young birds, or they die for other reasons.

This idea of compensatory mortality is a very difficult one for people to believe. It is not intuitive. "Common sense" says that if you get rid of one source of mortality that the overall mortality rate should go down. In fact, the world does not act this way. I like to use the analogy of handicapped parking spaces at the mall You drive up to the mall, looking for a parking space in a crowded lot. You can't find a parking space, but there are four near the entrance that are reserved for handicapped permits only. You complain and think that if only those handicapped restrictions weren't there, you could park in those spots (common sense). In truth, of course, if those spaces were not reserved they would have been taken long ago, just like all the other spaces in the lot. So if one more egg hatches, that will be one more nestling that gets eaten by a raccoon. Or if one more nestling makes it out of the nest, that's one more fledging for the local Cooper's Hawk to eat. Or, if one more young bird survives to fly to South America, that's one more bird that falls into the ocean during the bad storm (1001dying instead of 1000). And so on and so on. This concept of compensatory mortality is vital to the idea of game management. What it says to the managers is that it doesn't matter to the population if hunters take a bunch of young that were slated to die anyway. If you keep your take within the limits of the mortality that normally occurs, exactly NOTHING happens to the overall population, even if you kill a million individuals (like the million Mallards that are killed in the US every year). And it works! Of course, if you exceed the normal mortality things go awry. Or if the sources of mortality increase in an unusual way (huge losses in habitat, for instance, or total loss of food supply at a staging ground) then bad things happen. But the normal fluctuations of a stable community just absorb the small perturbations.

So, although you might see a crow eating a baby robin, that is not bad. MOST baby robins die before reaching adulthood. That's why the robins nest so many times during the summer. The presence of crows in an area will not mean all the robins and cardinals will disappear. In fact, despite a slight but significant increase in American Crow populations in North America since the mid-1960's, American Robin populations have increased (nearly identically to crows) and those of Northern Cardinals have stayed steady (North American Breeding Bird Survey data). The only species of bird that is decreasing in North America in which I MIGHT be convinced crows play a significant part is Common Nighthawk, and that only in urban areas (and as yet this is all speculation). Urban nighthawks have such a specialized nest site selection (flat gravel roofs) that crows might be able to figure them out and find most of the nests in an area.

In summary, crows are NOT a problem to most songbird populations, especially not those that are likely to be found around people's houses. When crows move in, the other birds don't leave. I try to encourage people to enjoy the crows as well as the other birds. Crows are fascinating animals in their own right. I happen to think they are aesthetically pleasing to look at too. Granted, they are not brightly colored, they get up too early in the morning, and they are loud. No other bird in our area, however, has such a human-like personality and social system as the American Crow. Please see the other information on my web pages about their family lives. Try to get people to understand that it is not a "gang" of crows in their backyard, but a family.


 

We've got crows hanging out in our yard. How can we get rid of these pests?

Good luck! Once crows have decided to come to your yard, it might be hard to convince them to leave. Plastic owl decoys will work, ... for about 15 minutes. A dog could be more effective, especially if it was encouraged to chase them. If, however, something really special was attracting the crows to the yard (like readily available food), the crows probably would figure a way how to get it and avoid the dog. The idea is to make the yard an unattractive place for the crows. Cut down your trees if you have to. Chase them when possible and make it obvious that you are after THEM, not just going out in the yard for other reasons (it will make a difference, trust me, but see below for the associated risks of this technique). Killing the crows is not a recommended option. It can be done legally only in a few areas (out of the city, and with permits or a hunting license). But, if one family of crows found your yard desirable, chances are others will too. Crow society is filled with excess crows that are waiting for an opportunity to breed (the helpers staying home and helping the parents raise young). If you kill some territory holders off, you just create a breeding opportunity for the crows waiting in the wings.

A far better solution is to work on your own attitudes, not the crows'. Pests are like weeds: their status relies entirely on your point of view and state of mind. What is a weed to one person is a beautiful flower to another. It is my experience that if you let something bother you, it will. The more upset you get about it, the more it bothers you, and the more it bothers you the more upset you get, and the more upset you get the more it bothers you, and so on and so on, until you explode. Although some measures do exist to change crow behavior, it might be easier and more effective to attempt to change people's attitudes about crows. (I actually have little hope of doing either!)

Crows are not evil, and they are not purposely trying to torment you. They are just being crows, trying to live their lives and feed their families. Actual property destruction is one thing that might require action, but just being annoying is something else again. Try to appreciate the crows for the fascinating creatures they are. If you get over that hurdle, the annoying habits become much less annoying. I have said that crows are much like my family or my dog: they do many things that annoy me, but I love them and am willing to overlook (most) of the annoying things because the relationship is primarily positive on the whole.

Crows do have one endearing characteristic that is apparently not shared by other birds. They will get to know people as individuals. While you can get chickadees to eat out of your hand, any old hand will do, and I suspect that the chickadees do not know you as an individual. Crows will! If you toss them peanuts (I recommend unsalted, in the shell) on a regular basis, they will wait and watch for you. Not just any person, but you. If you do this often enough, they will follow you down the street to get more. I have made a point of getting on the good side of a number of crow families around Ithaca. Some will follow my car down the street, and if I don't notice them and toss them peanuts they will dash across the windshield to let me know they are there. Some of these crows recognize me far from their home territories, way out of context. (It did, however, take some of them a long time to learn to recognize my new car.) So indulge yourself and makes some personal friends with the crows. That is the preferred relationship, because they also are happy to turn this talent of recognition to the darker side, and treat you as an enemy. (Again, not just all people, but YOU.) Because I climb to crow nests to band young birds, many crows in Ithaca know me and hate me. Whenever they notice me in their territory they will come over and yell at me. They will follow me around and keep yelling for as long as I am there. Believe me, it's better to be on their good side than their bad side!


My 10 year old son keeps having crows trying to attack him. He will be out in the yard and they come swooping down on his head. He has done nothing to them and he is terrified to go out side alone now. I have been out there and they have not bothered me. Please tell me what I can do.

Since you gave no indication of where you live, I have to guess on exactly what is happening. But, right now (late May) in most areas of the country crow babies are just fledging (leaving the nest). In the first couple of weeks that the young are out of the nest they cannot fly well and are very vulnerable to predation. They hide in the trees and the parents are very protective of them. At this time the parents will mob (attack) any potential predator in the area. Usually this means cats and dogs, but it appears that your son elicits the same response. You are too big to risk getting too near. Just wait a few days and the fledglings will leave your yard and the parents will calm down. Try to keep in mind that these birds are not vicious fiends bent on your son's destruction, but merely dedicated parents trying to defend their own young in the best fashion they know.


What mythologies are associated with crows?

Lots, but they're way more boring than the real stuff crows do! (I'm a biologist, not an anthropologist. These things tell you lots about people, but little about animals. IMHO) If you really must go after this material, try the links from The American Society of Crows and Ravens.


I found a baby crow that must have fallen from the nest/been abandoned/is injured!

What should I do?

Probably you should put it back where you found it. If you don't like that idea, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. For a lot more on this topic, click here.


We have a pair of crows tearing our windshield wiper blades off our vehicles. We have no explanation for this activity or how to stop it. Can you offer some advice or comments on the behavior?

This is a very odd one. I have now heard about this kind of crow vandalism from nearly a dozen people in a dozen different parts of the country, and I am stumped as to how to explain it. All I can say is that crows are very investigative and curious, and it is possible that these traits have led them to investigate the wipers. Wipers do not resemble food to me, so I cannot think of a good reason they would attract crows. The wiper blades themselves, though, are exactly the sort of thing that young crows might like to fiddle with: pliant yet resistant; soft enough to dismantle, but tough enough to give a bit of a challenge. Young crows in their first and second years often "play" with things that are not edible and do not interest older crows. Siblings watch each other too, and often vie for the object in question (be it a feather, a stick, or, perhaps a windshield wiper blade). So, it is possible that one young crow found out about how fun windshield wipers were and then "taught" other family members.

What to do about this? Harassment is probably the best policy. Chase those crows any time you see them around your cars. They will probably keep coming back, and they will probably learn to hate you on sight. Still, it might keep them off. You might also try adding some novelty to the vehicle or where you park them. Crows do not like new things in an area where humans hang out. Small, but obvious changes in the area or on the vehicles might be enough to get them worried. A tassel hanging from the radio antenna might be enough of something new to keep them away for a while. If none of this works, try getting a car cover like people with expensive antique cars use. It might be a pain, but it will probably be less expensive than weekly windshield wiper replacements.

 


What is a group of crows called (as in "a gaggle of geese")?

The poetic term for a bunch of crows is a "murder." No scientist calls them that, only poets. Scientists would call it a flock.

 


Who builds the nest, and what do they look like?

In the beginning stages of the nest both members of the pair, as well as some helpers many times, work equally hard on building the nest. In fact, the male can be even more active getting started. The breeding female, though, usually does the most building at the end when they are lining the nest. She is the one who gets everything comfortable in there, because she is the only one who sits in the nest to incubate and brood the young.

American Crow nests are bulky things that are constructed of three parts 1) an outer basket of sticks, 2) a filling of mud and grass (often the grass is visible sticking out the bottom of the nest; a good clue it's a crow nest), and 3) a thick bowl of something soft. Grapevine bark and cedar mulch, seem to be the most popular lining materials around here, with mammal fur and twine common. Paper is unusual but does get used, as does plastic occasionally. Perhaps the most unusual lining material I have found were some Emu feathers.

 


Do crows collect shiny objects?

No.  Wild crows do not like, nor collect shiny objects. They do not hide, store, or cache anything but food. I believe that all stories of crows and magpies taking shiny objects come from people's experiences with captive, hand-raised young birds.

Young corvids are very investigative, and love to handle objects. They like to pick them up, peck at them, and then hide them. Most corvid species hide food for later retrieval (some, like the nutcrackers in the genus Nucifraga, are extreme, hiding and remembering thousands and thousands of seeds). Juvenile birds "play" with inedible objects, picking them up, pecking them, and eventually hiding them. (Play is just doing appropriate actions with inappropriate objects, just like children playing house.) In the wild, they would play with sticks, stones, acorn caps, and things like that. In captivity, they will do the same thing to just about anything small and portable, and they may be attracted to shiny things, like keys, coins, or the like. Most corvids are "scatter hoarders" and hide only one or a few things in any one location (rather than being "larder hoarders" that store everything in one place, like a packrat).  So if your pet crow hid your keys, don't expect to find them in the same place that you find your diamond ring.

 


More on these later:

What do crows eat?

everything

Why do crows gather in flocks during the day?

to cruise the singles' flocks

How smart are crows?

smarter than many undergraduates, but probably not as smart as ravens

Are crows getting bigger?

no

Are crow populations increasing?

probably, but not as much as you think

How can you tell a male crow from a female?

not easily

How many different calls do crows make?

lots, but most of them still sound like "caw"

Why do crows hate owls?

many good reasons, most having to do with decapitated crows

Do crows play?

yes

Do crows make good pets?

yes, but they're VERY illegal


 

INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT CROWS THAT MOST PEOPLE DON'T KNOW ENOUGH TO ASK ABOUT (More on these later):

 

Cooperative breeding

Long-term pair bonds

Long-term family bonds

Sibling helping

Brood reduction

Territoriality and flock use

Urban/rural comparison

Dispersal

Age of first breeding

Caching of food

50 species of Corvus

Historical range of C. brachyrhynchos


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Last updated 09-Nov-2010