About me

I’m Kaeli Swift, a PhD candidate at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington.  I have been passionate about animal behavior all my life, but what started as an early love affair with wolves has turned into a fierce ardor for corvids.  Specifically, my area of research is the thanatology of crows.

thanaCrows, like a number of other animals that includes non-human primates, elephants, dolphins and other corvids, appear to respond strongly once they discover a dead member of their own species.  Among these animals the responses can include: tactile investigation, communal gathering, vocalizing, sexual behaviors, or aggression.  For people who live or work closely with animals it’s tempting to anthropomorphize these behaviors based on our opinions of how smart or emotional the animals we care about are.  But as a scientist my job is to separate my personal feelings about animals, and use research techniques that allow me to objectively ask questions about animal behavior.  By conducting field experiments and employing brain scanning techniques developed by our team, I hope to gain insight into the purpose of crow funerals.  Perhaps they play a utilitarian purpose of learning about danger or social opportunities, or perhaps they are akin to the grieving process we experience as humans.  The brain scanning technique we use allows us to peer into the brain of a living, thinking crow, without ever having to euthanize the animal.

Studies that provide bridges from humans to other animals are critical to fostering a culture that respects and protects the natural world, and this is one of the reasons I most enjoy working with crows.   No matter their feelings for them, nearly everyone has a story about crows, even those people who otherwise feel quite separated from nature.  The fact that they are conspicuous and thrive in all kinds of human dominated environments, means that crows are a uniquely accessible animal, and offer a wealth of opportunities to connect people of all interests and backgrounds to science.  It’s my hope that our research will provide a more compassionate lens with which to understand crows, and contribute to a growing movement of corvid enthusiasts.  Feel free to ask questions or share your own stories in the comment section!

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379 responses to “About me

  1. Shaun Chandler

    Hi Kaeli,

    In regards to facial recognition, at what distance can a crow identify a known face ?

    Thanks!
    Shaun Chandler

  2. heekroot

    I just started feeding my crows within 3 weeks to a month. They come now when I give a certain whistle. But one cooed at me. So now I’m looking up that meaning.
    I’m just south of Seattle! Go cougs.

    • Hi Heidie, you’ll discover lots of cool new calls you can only hear if it’s quiet and the birds are close to you. We know VERY little about crow calls but I encourage you to explore anyway. Beware of phony “crow experts” trying to sell you books or courses aimed at teaching you to decode crows. Good luck!

  3. Julie Dickson

    What a wonderful research topic! I love corvids and have now signed up to your blog as well as following your twitter account. All the best with your work!

  4. Blair

    Great blog!
    I have been trying to observe and learn about crow behavior at the large outdoor facility I work at in South coastal B.C. ..crows seem to recognize me when I arrive, from often at least 75- 100m as they swoop over looking for a scrap of food I regularly offer. Sunglasses and a change of hats seems to offer a disguise they don’t always see thru.
    I have one charming favorite in particular that coos and clicks and bob’s his head.. as opposed to the full body/full throated CAW! , they often favor.
    Blair

  5. coastal birder

    Hi, Kaeli–Great website! Question about crow behavior: A mourning dove was foraging on the ground and a crow (either Fish or American–we have both) flew from a low branch and swooped down, feet extended in hawk-like fashion, and appeared to try and “take” the dove.  He was unsuccessful, but it was weird. He did not dive at or peck at the dove like he would have if he was chasing it off. Any insights on this behavior?

  6. Hi, I am wondering if you have any insight into placing orphaned babies with a surrogate raven parent? I work at Hope For Wildlife ( wildlife rehabilitation centre in Seaforth, Nova Scotia, Canada), and we just got four young ravens in, but we also have a permanent resident adult raven on site. If you are able to give me any information it would be greatly appreciated!

  7. Kate Reid

    Hello Kaeli
    I came across your blog via Twitter this morning and I am really interested to hear of your field of study. Some years ago I was in Calcutta staying in the heart of the city where the population of house crows is huge – a never ending source of fascinating observation. I saw for myself, only once, a remarkable piece of “thanatology”: dozens of crows in an evenly spaced crowd gathering round a piece of one of their kind – the wing of a crow – all that was left after a road accident perhaps – and they spent as long as I had time to watch touching, moving, the wing, gathering around it, silently engaged in a ritual process. I have always thought this a fascinating field of study and I am not sure if you ever would get to India in your work but I thought I would just put the idea out there, there is a treasure trove of material among the large numbers of house crows and the hazards of urban life.
    Warm regards, Kate

    • I think it would be wonderful to do some of this research in India particularly because crows have a crucial roll in the human death rituals common across India (as is my non-Indian understanding anyway). There would wonderful opportunities to make some some really interesting interdisciplinary connections there.

  8. Wendell Hocking

    Hi, Kaeli-I’ve been following your Twitter feed for a while and enjoy everything corvid. For the past 5 years a crow has been visiting my feeder. I first noticed it because of its wonky r. wing. The feathers look beaten up and the wing drags. It appears to flick the wing to keep it off the ground. Now it’s hanging with a second crow with the same issue. (I’d like to think they’re related!) What could cause their dragging wings?

  9. Greg

    Hi Keali,
    I just read the NPR article about crow funerals; fascinating stuff. Anyway it reminded me of this video I recently saw on FB of wild turkeys circling a dead cat, so I just searched and found it on YouTube. I don’t know where it was filmed. Perhaps you’ve seen it already. Just wondering what this behavior might mean.

    Greg

    • Turkeys are found of playing “follow the leader.” There’s lots of videos of them circling trees for instance. If I had to guess I’d say one waddled over to take an interested look, another followed and so on and so forth. Rather that jostling for a best position they just started moving and voila! A macabre circular inspection team has formed. Just my guess.

  10. Hi Kaeli – Interesting story for you. I went into my yard a couple of weeks back because my local crows were cawing and there were more of them than I normally see together at this time of the year. Sadly, I found a dead juvenile crow under my neighbor’s eucalyptus tree. My neighbor’s dog seemed to be curious about it and was approaching it repeatedly, but each time she would approach the dead crow, the adult crows dropped sticks on her to scare her away. This was the first time I had seen the crows that upset and the only time I saw them dropping sticks on another animal.

    • I’ve seen them pull sticks when they’re agitated and John Marzluff has a story about a raven swinging a stick around at a predatory barred owl. It would be huge to learn if your crows were doing this intentionally or just kind of by accident.

  11. K Schlesinger

    Hi
    Have a story you might find interesting. We rented a house for 3 weeks at the beach. The house next to ours was a private home. On their back screened porch they were rehabbing a injured crow. Each day for those three weeks several crows would come to visit and “talk”. We found it fascinating that the crow had such dedicated friends.

    • Sounds like it had imprinted on them. Imprinting stories are sort of a sore spot for me because while I think the interaction unquestionable life changing and may of the story that come from it do a lot of good in terms of broader cultural opinions about crows…more often than not these birds are killed more quickly or are deprived of their basic biological needs or behaviors in some way. So it’s tricky…

  12. Carol Dean

    Hi, I totally love crows and would love to get more into helping with research about them. Does anyone in your department ever need volunteers for projects?

    We have a crow that landed in our yard last year when he left the nest early and couldn’t fly. We provided water for him but left him alone, and I guess he feels safe with us. Now he comes back regularly to hang out. His mom and dad are nesting across the street, and I hope we’ll get to see him help raise the new siblings. We have imaginatively named him ‘baby crow’!

    • Hi Carol, I’m afraid at this time most of our crows study’s are either coming to a close or working on a much smaller scale. That’s a wonderful story about your crow friend though. I am always happy to hear when people leave babies to their parents and develop their relationship another way.
      Cheers,
      Kaeli

  13. Cheryl Marelich

    Hi Ms. Swift,
    The link to this blog talked about your research of crow funerals. I have experienced one once when a crow was apparently hit by a car in front of my house early one morning. What woke me was the cacophony of caws happening in the trees overlooking the dead crow. It was incredibly loud as there seemed to be at least one hundred crows. As the dead crow lay in the street, a pickup truck came by. The driver opened his door, flung the crow into the cab of his truck and drove off.
    All the crows in the trees immediately stopped cawing and then flew off all at once. It was mesmerizing!

  14. Michael E. Bierman

    Wonderful. Great work. Thank you!

  15. Sarah

    Hello! Found your site whilst trying to see if what I saw today was a known behaviour of crows. A crow flew past me with a small nest in its beak, which I assume it had just lifted from the bush it flew from. It then landed on the ground nearby and devoured the eggs. I was a little shocked.. I know they do eat eggs but it lifted the entire nest out! I think it was a chaffinch nest, only judging by pics online. Curious to know if that’s been seen before. It might explain another side to fallen nests.

    Thanks.

    • If it’s small enough and they’re in a hurry it might make sense that i’d be easier just to make off with the whole nest rather than take the time to pluck out each egg. This is pretty common across lots of nest predators.

  16. Josh Zelecki

    Just seen your piece on Bill Nye Saves The World. I have always been intrigued with nature and animal behavior. I couldn’t help but fond somewhere to contact you in regards to crows gathering to mourn. Was just curious if you’ve considered a instinct to congregate and try to identify the predator responsible after sighting a dead bird? Really wish I could perform the same test and introduce a predator decoy after they gather. Would be so exciting to watch.

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