learning about crows, online with cornell

THEY ARE ‘FUN-LOVING PARTY ANIMALS,’ says Kevin McGowan, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology researcher who has studied crows for more than 25 years. McGowan, acknowledging that people either love or hate these familiar birds, led a webinar I just attended (part 2 is Wednesday night; details below), sharing insights into their complex family structure and more. (Apparently crows are also very trendy, as the BBC TWO video from a recent show demonstrates in somewhat-glitzy fashion.)

online learning with the lab of o

HUNDREDS of people joined the initial 90-minute Cornell Lab of Ornithology crow webinar, which continues in part 2, “The Secret Life of the American Crow,” on Wednesday evening, February 12, 2014; tickets are $10 at this link.  Other Cornell Lab distance-learning opportunities are listed here.

When I posted news ahead of time of the class on Facebook, thinking some readers would like to attend, a few people reacted in strong negatives. I was surprised, but when crows evoke loathing, McGowan explained in the class, it is often because they are seen as predators of songbird eggs and nestlings.

Is that an accurate characterization, though? A 2007 study of nest predation of forest birds of North America found that snakes are the top predator there, with squirrels (and chipmunks!) next, then medium-sized mammals like raccoons.

In that type of habitat, crows actually rank near the bottom, just slightly nastier culprits than white-tailed deer, surprisingly. The study, undertaken by Frank R. Thompson III and colleagues and published in the journal “Ibis,” can be read here.

Love or hate them, crows  are certainly fascinating. Are they “feathered apes,” behavioral scientists may ask, based on crows’ intelligence and cognition?  Some species (like the New Calendonian crows in the less-flashy earlier research video above) can famously make and use hooked and barbed tools, for instance. (The research site about that work.)

Crows are family oriented—and stay with their families a number of years (unusual for birds). But they also come and go, to forage or roost, meaning that not unlike us, they have their own family unit—and also a larger community of their species that they associate with.

They guard and even groom each other (not unlike primates!), and may care for their sick. They are capable of facial recognition of the researchers who study them, and even recognize their cars and their patterns of behavior—all in the hopes of getting fed another handful of peanuts, based on earlier such rewards from the scientists.

And though both are in the genus Corvus (which includes about 50 species), crows are not ravens, any more than a tiger is a panther (though both are in the genus Panthera). Remember our BirdNote story on crow or raven?

GET ON CORNELL LAB OF O’s email list to learn when such webinars and other classes are held; you can sign up on their homepage. Again, all the online class listings are here, and registration for Wednesday night’s part 2 on crows is at this link.

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. William Brown says:

    Crows are indeed, very interesting. We have a small family of three to four birds that we’ve observed for several years. We feed them various scraps; mostly stale bread and crackers. They are definitely highly intelligent as the various studies have proved. I’ve seen them attack nestlings and other actions that aren’t very popular with us but it will happen regardless. All in all, they are very interesting because of their various abilities.

  2. I only know about crows at my house! I have a “certified backyard habitat”! (I brag constantly about it!!) from the National Wildlife Federation. I did it with my granddaughter when she was in first grade……and it was one of the “peak experiences” in both of our lives!

    The crows here in Montecito where we live were an enormous problem. I love all animals….and I recognize how smart and interesting crows are.

    We have pet chickens (bantams) who free-range during the day..and hatch baby chicks!

    We also have a pond with wild mallards who lay their eggs in our floating nest-boxes.

    (criticize me all you want! Those baby mallards survive! all of them…..20 a year! thanks to the nest boxes!!)

    The crows murdered (and did not eat!) baby birds; baby chicks, and one baby duckling.

    I was beside myself! There were hundreds!

    My friend from Montana visited! He said……you don’t know what to do to get rid of the crows?

    “Just shoot one and nail it to the gate!”

    Oh sure. Granny gets arrested by the SWAT TEAM! (no shooting anything in Montecito)!

    But I am clever; I am onto something@ I buy (online) 4 “fake crows) (they are on sale after Halloween!!)

    I hang them upside down in the trees! (kinda spread apart)

    First there was a convocation! hundreds! flying around! Noisy! I think they were having a memorial!

    Then……all gone. Nada. Gone.

    Months later; my garden (stretching it) was on a garden tour. I put the fake crows away for the day! 100 crows were back by nightfall! Out they went and the same thing happened!

    Hang a fake halloween crow upside down….crows will know……”bad things happen there”!

    I had to replace two of them! The bobcat attacked them! black feathers and styrofoam! Don’t worry….we have beautiful bobcats…and 90 acres for them to hunt……squirrels, etc.

    I just request (when I see them) “please don’t eat my chickens”!!!

    1. Ted says:

      I too raise bantam chickens. We hatch out babies every spring in rabbit hutches and eventually graduate both mothers and babies to on ground pens.

      I live in ten wooded acres and have gone through the rounds of every predator in a country setting. The most devastating to the free range situation being bobcat and the next hawks. It is illegal to shoot any bird of prey here.

      What I’ve observed over the years is that crows live and nest in our woods, fairly close to the house. They also are the best hawk patrol you can imagine, keeping any in the area that nest or migrate well away from my chickens and their nests. Love our crows!

      I’ve learned to only “free range” my hens for an hour or two each day, or longer in the growing season when I’m with them. They’re not only lawn art, but comforting companions with me to the garden.

  3. willis cross says:

    I use to have a bread route while unloading bread to deliver to a store i would throw loose bread for the birds,one crow would follow me all over town so i would feed it. I think it knew my route as well i did. If i through a hard stale piece of bread the crow would take it to a water puddle and soak it before eating.

    1. margaret says:

      Love your story, Willis! At my sister’s house, they keep a strict eye on her compost-heap comings and goings, and the moment she puts out something like bread, etc. — in they fly to grab it. They are hilarious flying around with big pizza crusts in their beaks!

  4. bibby moore says:

    Crows have always been my totem animal. I have lived in many different places and always find them wherever I live. They are loud, strong and a source of joy for me when I go out running and hear and see them .

  5. Teresa says:

    If you enjoy crows, you might want to check out a video through PBS call ‘A Murder of Crows’. It is a fascinating film. I have come to appreciate crows. I live in a forested area on a lake where there are eagle nests. Often when the crows are making noise I look up to find the eagle nearby. If it were not for the crows I might often miss the eagles. I read once that crows are the sentinels of the forest. People may not like the noise but if you pay attention you might be rewarded!

    I enjoy following your blog and podcasts!


  6. Bernard Pranger says:

    I am a big raven fan which I have in my area, plus many crow’s who are also corvids. A interesting thing to me is how the crow’s run the ravens off, very territorial.

    1. margaret says:

      Hello. Bernard, and welcome! I agree that how birds stake their territorial claims is fascinating. See you soon again, I hope.


    This article was so interesting. Amazing birds.

    Please take a minute to watch the crow in a video made in Russia showing the bird sledding down a snow covered roof on a jar lid. Just google “crow sledding, or crow sledding on roof” it’s not hard to find. I’ve watched it many times and I love it. Such smart birds.

  8. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I find crows fascinating and enjoyed the video clip – amazing. I always put out peanuts for blue jays but three crows (I call them the Three Amigos) have figured it out and have butted in on the action. I enjoy watching them and reading about them. There are quite a few books about crows but two that stand out in my mind are Bern Heinrich’s “Mind of the Raven” and “Crow Planet” by urban naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt. She describes a scene of a murder of crows standing vigil with an injured and dying crow that just made me shiver. And I have watched the PBS documentary mentioned by Teresa and found it so interesting that crows recognize peoples’ faces! They probably caw me the peanut lady – ha.

  9. Nancy Dawson says:

    I love all the wild birds. But it is hard to watch the crows and ravens washing little dead bird bodies in my birdbath. So very sad.

  10. Jeff Adams says:

    Margaret…you have outdone yourself…the BBC crow feature was fabulous. I do subscribe to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology…thanks for the fascinating post ! I guess “bird brain” can no longer be truly used as a derogatory term ! :)

  11. One of my favorite crow stories is something I read in Birds and Blooms magazine years ago. A woman would go out every day at 6 a.m. to spread seeds on her bird table. One morning she was not feeling well and didn’t go out. The table was empty. She heard a tapping at her door, looked out the window, didn’t see anyone, and went back to bed. But the tapping was persistent. Finally she got up and opened her door – to find a crow on her doorstep. The bird knew the seed came through that door, and was trying to get her attention. You have to respect that cognitive power – and initiative! Thanks for the post. The blog pictures are all such a treat, too.

    1. Jeff Sluka says:

      From “The Raven” by E.A. Poe:

      While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
      As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
      `’Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door –
      Only this, and nothing more.’

  12. Patrick Smith says:

    Hi Margaret!
    I love hearing crows in the fall and winter. something so evocative about the call and response, the chill in the air and clear crisp sky. We have not had crows around much for several years until this year, so I go out in the morning and do my best “CAW-CAW” imitation and toss out some peanuts or something. I am enjoying that my neighbors are witnessing my bizarre behavior. – I do not think they are too happy about seeing the Crow family lingering around. I will stop feeding them by spring. but fun for the winter – and they do keep the hawks away from the juncos and sparrows.

  13. Sallyc says:

    Crows are great watch animals – they raise a ruckus when the many hawks are nearby, and when other predators are on ‘their’ territory – our three acres. I’ve learned to go look whenever they’re especially noisy – harassing a coyote or literally chasing a fisher away from the yard.

  14. naomi d. says:

    Walking ’round the Medicine Wheel in Wyoming years ago, I watched ravens (I know, not crows, but closely related) playing in the wind. They were diving, doing flips, and showing off to each other. The one that impressed me most was flying next to another – upside down. The corvus family is quite interesting. (I’ve also noticed the image is popular on pottery currently.)

      1. Jeff Sluka says:

        May I add, I didn’t see any corvids at Medicine Wheel the day I was there, but did see my first ravens a few days later at Yellowstone National Park. Raven is now my totem animal!
        All the best to you!

  15. I live in the country on 25 acres of land,mostly trees,some fields and a large pond.I have a lot of crows that live close by and they visit me all the time.I have a question and if you would kindly email me the answer I would be most grateful.My question is why do the crows chase hawks ? I watch them do this all the time.
    Many thanks,

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