A Murder of Crows

What is the smartest animal—after humans and primates? Some think it is the animal strutting around my backyard as I write this. I often see him from my upstairs office window, walking in a wide, apparently aimless circle occasionally stopping to pick at something on the ground. He crosses the patio, walks through the gravel, and back onto the lawn before hopping onto the edge of the birdbath. After a quick drink and another look around, he flies off. He is one of the American crows that comes back to my yard and frequents the birdbath every year in the spring. He is probably nesting somewhere in the area.

When it comes to smarts, that crow is not just another birdbrain. When we think of animals using tools, for example, we often think of primates. But one species of crow that is native to the South Pacific island of New Caledonia has been called a “flying primate” because of its tool making ability. New Caledonian crows have been observed bending twigs into the shape of a hook to fish bugs out of rotting logs. Researchers suggest that these crows might be the only other animal besides early humans that habitually make hooks in the wild. Other tool-using crows have been seen carrying cups of water to bowls of dry food and breaking off pieces of pinecone to drop on tree climbers near a nest.

And how many animals do you know that hold funerals for their dead? Researchers have observed groups of crows surrounding a recently deceased bird. But the funeral isn’t to mourn the dead. The crows are thought to gather together to find out what killed their member.

According to the Cornell University Ornithology Lab, American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are common all-over North America ranging from open woods and empty beaches to town centers. They are significantly larger than other black birds and much smaller than ravens, which are found from the Northern United States to the Canadian arctic. Their flight style is described as a patient, methodical flapping that is rarely broken up with glides, and their loud caw is unmistakable. Though crows tend to be solitary, they often forage in groups and some crows, especially the yearlings and non-mating adults, live in roosting communities. A group of crows is called a murder. A murder of crows will sometimes band together and chase predators in a behavior called mobbing.

Crows usually feed on the ground and eat almost anything, including earthworms, insects, small animals, seeds, and fruit. They will also pick through garbage and stop on roadways to feed on roadkill. But Crows are not just scavengers. They are crafty foragers that sometimes follow other birds to find where their nests are hidden so they can eat the chicks. They also been observed stealing food from other animals and eating from outdoor dog dishes.

When I see the crows in my neighborhood, I can’t tell one from another. They are jet-black and have no distinguishing characteristics. But crows, according to a story on National Public Radio, can recognize and remember me. Wildlife biologists figured this out by conducting experiments using rubber masks. They dressed humans in two masks, one designated a “dangerous” face and another mask as the “neutral” face. Researchers in the dangerous mask trapped and banded individual American crows and then released them. While they were careful not to harm the birds during trapping, it was still a frightening experience for the bird.

To see whether the crows remembered the dangerous face, researchers returned to the area and walked around wearing the different masks. When the birds saw the dangerous face, they gave an alarm-call and dive-bombed that person. They mostly ignored the neutral face. Researchers even wore the mask upside down to see if the crows could still recognize it. For a brief moment, the crows seemed confused, but when they turned their heads upside down, they sounded an alarm-call.

Even crows that had not been tagged or banded scolded and dive-bombed the wearer of the dangerous mask, suggesting the crows were learning from their peers that this particular person is dangerous. And, if you need another reason to be nice to crows, researchers suggest that they can remember faces for years.

That crow splashing around while he takes a bath in my back yard is so large, he fills the birdbath and splashes most of the water out of the bowl. When he takes off in the late afternoon sun, the water glistens on his black feathers and it sprays off of his flapping wings until he lands in a nearby tree. As I walk out with the garden hose and refill the birdbath with fresh water, I wonder if he is sizing me up and memorizing my appearance. I gaze up at the crow and give him a good look at my face. It can’t hurt to be on the good side of an animal whose group is called a murder and who is known to mob his enemies. Besides, since there are no primates around, he is probably the second smartest animal in the neighborhood—which probably isn’t saying much.

2 Comments

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  1. Hi Doug –

    Really enjoyed your crow article. Here in our small community in British Columbia we have lots! My husband and I walk along the sea wall every morning, our pockets filled with peanuts in the shell,which we toss to the crows who follow us. It is fascinating to watch their behaviour – some are quite brave and will even take from our hands, though that is rare. We watch how some of them know how to collect two or more peanuts at the same time by stacking them carefully so that they can fit 2 or 3 in their beaks. Once we saw a crow manage to take FIVE all at once!. And we are certain that they recognize us because they appear at our CAR as soon as we park, and even follow us through town when we are on other errands and have NO peanuts! It is nice to know that others enjoy these fascinating birds as much as we do!

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    • Glad you enjoyed it. I had a crow outside my office window this morning fussing at something on the ground. When I went out to investigate, I had to shoo away a cat away from under my bird feeder. I now have a “watch-crow” guarding my back yard. Fascinating birds, indeed.

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