They’re always watching you, learning and committing your daily routine to their steel-trap memories.
Chances are they know more about what’s happening in your neighborhood than you do.
Big, black and outspoken, American crows are “the ultimate survivalists,” as one researcher put it. But can they get a little respect?
History, literature and general ignorance have done little for their reputations: Crows are often hated or considered pests or nuisances — their sins, real or imagined, thought to be many. That’s despite a growing body of evidence that show crows as one of the most intelligent and adaptable birds in the world. A bird, researchers say, that has humanlike problem-solving skills and a complex social structure.
“Crows are one of the least understood birds we have,” said Stan Tekiela, of Carver, the longtime naturalist, photographer and author who has studied crows for decades. “People come to their opinions based on human emotions, not from a perspective of a naturalist or a researcher. I tell people, ‘You have to open your mind up to possibility and look at them objectively; leave stereotypes or what you’ve heard to be true out of it.’ ”
Crows are native to North America and their U.S. population is roughly 30 million and considered stable to growing. American crows are members of the Corvidae family, which in Minnesota also includes ravens, jays and black-billed magpies.
Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., has studied and written about crows for three decades. He said the public’s negative feelings about crows begin with their appearance: “Big, black and evil-looking.” But it doesn’t end there. Crows kill popular songbirds and depredate waterfowl nests. Crows despoil agricultural crops. Even in popular culture, crows can’t catch a break — they’re either murders (the term when grouped) in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” or soulless tormentors of the scarecrow in the “The Wizard of Oz.” In literature and history, crows are often cast as harbingers of death and vilified as scavengers of battlefields.
“Crows figure prominently in the folklore and mythology of people throughout the world,” he said. “They are occasionally portrayed as wise heroes, but most often they’re considered evil portents of misfortune. Some of the criticisms are justified, though they’re often overstated.”
American crows, he said, have strong, cohesive family units and often divide labor, including for nest-building. Breeding pairs remain intact for life, or until they’re incapacitated (crows are known to assemble silently around their dead, in what some have characterized as crow funerals). The young from previous years often remain with their parents and help raise siblings. They’ll guard the nest or help feed the young, among other tasks.
“There’s only a handful of other bird species in North America that exhibit similar behavior,” said McGowan, adding that crows have adapted well to human society, moving in vast numbers from rural to urban areas and scavenging human food sources, from bird seed at feeders to garbage. “They’ve learned how to survive by moving closer to us, perhaps also by taking advantage of laws prohibiting the discharge of firearms,” he said. “Crows are hunted in several states.” Minnesota included.
John Marzluff is a professor of wildlife sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. A corvid expert and author, he has studied crows and ravens since the 1980s.
All corvids, Marzluff said, have big brains for their body size. But crows (as well as ravens) have brains more akin to primates. They also have large forebrains, the region of “analytical thought, planning and flexible behavior,” he said.
“I often call them flying monkeys,” Marzluff added. “They’re highly intelligent birds and act much like primates in problem-solving and in their ability to reason through challenges.”
In 2006, Marzluff decided to prove what other researchers had long believed: that crows could identify human faces, similar to mammals like monkeys, dogs and sheep. On campus in Seattle, Marzluff and his student-researchers wore latex cave man masks while they trapped, banded and released seven crows.
In a few days, the researchers returned to the same banding area and did so repeatedly over the next few months.
“The crows ignored us with when we came back maskless or wearing the Dick Cheney mask,” he said. “But when we came back wearing the cave man masks we wore during trapping and banding, they verbally scolded us and even divebombed us. They were able to discern friend from foe. They saw the cave man face, and they knew what it was: a potential threat.”
At least once a year since 2006, Marzluff’s group goes back to “retest” the crows. The birds originally trapped and banded are likely dead, he said, but other crows remembered the identity of the caveman-masked villain and lashed out verbally and physically in a sort of mobbing ritual.
“They’ve passed on that knowledge by demonstrating an aggressive response,” he said. “The other crows followed along.”
In 2013, Marzluff started testing the brains of crows at the banding area. By sedating the birds and putting them through imaging scans, Marzluff’s group found that “different areas of the brain light up” when they see a person they perceive as friendly or threatening.
“They recognize individuals that are important to them and when somebody does something dangerous, they mark or remember that person, as far as I can tell, for their life,” Marzluff said.
What’s left to be learned about crows? A lot, some researchers believe. Advancements in technology and genetic testing as a way to aid research projects could open a new window into their fascinating, yet misunderstood, lives.
“We don’t know everything about anything in nature, let alone the many complexities with these birds,” said McGowan, adding global positioning system, or GPS, transmitters and other new technologies are exciting yet expensive. “Crows aren’t living in the same social environment with people in, say, the 1990s. The world changes … and the birds adapt and change along with it. That’s why studying them is so fascinating.”
Even social media could play a role in new discoveries. It could also decrease social distance between the public and the birds.
“I think there’s new ground to break, particularly in how crows communicate and how nuanced that is,” Marzluff said. “More eyes are looking at crows via social media because more people are posting video of them. You don’t get the whole story, but those anecdotes are great generators of research questions.”
Tori J. McCormick is freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at email@example.com.