Something to Crow About

In nearly all urban and suburban areas across the US—even those with abundant wildlife, no creature seems more ubiquitous than fat black crows, wandering in front of our cars, cawing each other to “murderous” conventions, and brazenly opening our trash bins to scatter rejected contents along the street.

With the intelligence, scientists say, of a seven-year-old child, crows use tools and plan multiple actions to reach food. They mate for life, and even hold funerals for their deceased brethren. And they recognize our faces, pecking mean neighbors and leaving gifts for kind ones—a fact made famous in 2008 by University of Washington professor John Marzluff, whose lab used a Dick Cheney mask to portray an aggressor. He’s still studying those same birds— crows typically live for a dozen years, commonly up to 20.

Yes, these corvids have something to crow about, talents matched only by the parrot. On the other hand, when proven wrong, one might admit to “eating crow.”

The origins of such expressions are tough to trace. Eating crow, according to the Grammarist blog, shows up around 1850, possibly from a Saturday Evening Post story “about a farmer who is challenged by his boarders to eat a crow. The original phrase was to eat boiled crow,” certainly an unappetizing prospect. The Free Dictionary compares such cuisine to “humble pie,” and dates the corvid catchphrase to “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.” The entry adds that crow meat “tastes terrible,” as do “umbles, a deer’s undesirable innards,” source of the deferential pie.

How this comports with “something to crow about” is uncertain. But no matter where go, you’re likely to hear plenty of cawing, reflecting crows’ US population of  31 million. They adapt well to cities, enjoying a mix of various trees, plants and tasty trash. And they soon become friends—my husband made the acquaintance of one he called “Mr. C,” who would follow Michael as he patrolled our neighborhood with grabber and bag, cleaning litter. Mr. C would greet him with a familiar “caw,” and perch daringly close as my husband moved along.

As for corvid funerals, well, I still feel terrible about inadvertently causing one. Driving home slowly, about a block from my house, a crow sauntered before my car in the street, presumably looking for insects on the pavement. Normally, the birds jump out of the way, knowing not to dally in front of oncoming machines. This one didn’t. In my rear-view mirror I saw it lying there, motionless.

An article in Seattle Met details the experiment to discover more about crow funerals by biologist Kaeli Swift, who works in Dr. Marzluff’s Avian Conservation Lab. She placed a dead crow on the grounds of UW’s Center for Urban Horticulture, and watched the reaction.

The first crow to see it summoned others: “Suddenly crows flew in from all directions. Their plaintive entreaties soon combined into a chorus…” and then “a cacophonous dervish of black silhouettes swirling directly above…” Thirty crows, emitting “nerve-fraying shrieks blast from every direction.” Not that all the attendees were friends of the departed. Swift explained to Seattle Met that the ceremony helps crows process death, and importantly, warn of danger.

Dr. Marzluff best details the complex brains of corvis brachyrhynchos in Gifts of the Crow: How perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans (with Tony Angell, 2012). He anesthetized crows (carefully) and imaged their brains, finding they use the same structures that humans do when thinking. A recent Science article reports crows plan out their actions, and are capable of analytical thought. For example, a video posted on Facebook by Britain’s Daily Mail shows a crow protectively prodding a hedgehog out of the middle of a street.

My husband, a sports fan, points out that no teams are called Crows. Plenty of birds receive naming honors, including our own Seahawks (other football teams include Eagles, Falcons, Cardinals and of course the Baltimore Ravens).

Why ravens? Edgar Allen Poe, whose raven said “Nevermore,” resided in Baltimore. Ravens are a different species from crows. They’re larger, with a ruffled collar and wingspans up to 5 ½ feet. Crows have a smooth silhouette, and a breadth up to 3 ½ feet. Ravens sound hoarse or croak, while crows’ higher pitched “caw” typically repeats twice or more. You may know that three or more crows are called a “murder;” a group of ravens is called an “unkindness” (really!) or a “conspiracy.”

Professor Marzluff and his wife Colleen have made “Crow Scientist,” a free app to help kids (and adults) spot, identify and count crows. I was surprised to see how many different behaviors we crow spies can observe. For example, “allopreening” is when one crow starts “pecking the back of the other’s neck” to clean its feathers. “Bill-wiping” happens when a crow swipes its beak on branches or even a curb to clean it—but also to get out frustrations. When a solo crow makes a soft sound like “uh-oh” or “hello,” he’s communicating something, but we humans don’t know what, yet. And if you see a few crows harassing an eagle, they’re “mobbing” him so he won’t steal their eggs or young from nests.

Since we know crows recognize faces, you can become buddies by simply leaving out a peanut or two every day. The crows you’ll befriend will likely be a territorial pair. Crows roost at night in huge gatherings of thousands of birds—two throngs in the Seattle area, and the largest nationally in Danville, CA. Then they commute back to their territories for their day jobs.

But beware that too chummy an avian relationship can turn hostile—not with the crows, but with the neighbors. Six-year-old Gabi Mann in Portage Bay, WA began leaving peanuts and dog food for the appreciative corvids in 2013. In return, they left her “dozens of trinkets…shirt buttons, paper clips, an earring, a blue Lego piece…” writes Seattle Met magazine. News of her grateful flock went viral, a “heart-warming tale of wildlife and human life converging, featuring a cute, charismatic girl with a penchant for natural science.”

The Manns’ two next-door neighbors were among those whose hearts weren’t quite so warmed. The bird treats drew rats, “more abundant than I have ever seen in my 44 years living in this house,” groused a neighbor on a local online forum. The cawing was nerve-shattering, the droppings copious, claimed the 51 signers of a petition to the city. Finally the next-door neighbors filed suit asking for $200,000 to cover the crows’ damage, plus a court order limiting the Manns to providing no more than 4 ounces of wildlife food daily.

The Mann family objected, their attorneys saying (according to the Seattle PI) they’d “not engaged in any unreasonable activity, and there is no evidence to support (the neighbors’) claims.” The lawyers added that the claimants “believe bird feeding is an insufficiently sophisticated or classy hobby for their tony neighborhood. “The suit was settled in 2016, the Manns paying an undisclosed sum and agreeing to restrict their corvid-feeding for eight years.

We live with crows, but I can’t say I’m a fan. I find them creepy and somewhat frightening. Their powerful beaks pick apart squished squirrels on roadways. Their murders of thirty, forty or fifty cronies fill the tops of nearby firs with ear-splitting evening dissonance. They cleverly open heavy trash bin lids, dissecting wrappers. I’m not going to salute Mr. C, or lure them with tidbits. But I do respect them. And since they live about 20 years, we might as well make peace. I’m sorry, guys, for running over one of your cohort. Will you forgive me?