Everything you want to know about crow nests

Spring marks one of my favorite times of year.  Cherry blossoms abound, the rain smell sweet and the birds get busy putting their carpentry skills to good use. Starting early March, the silhouettes of crows with bill loads of timber or wads of soft material dot the skies as they shuttle back and forth to their nest tree. Like a townhouse development, these construction projects are over in the blink of an eye and soon, their bill loads of twigs will be replaced by food for their mate and, eventually, their insatiable young. Spotting these nests is both a great way to observe and engage with your local crow family and avoid unpleasant conflicts with protective crow parents.  With a little knowledge and a bit of practice, tracking down your resident crow nest will become one of your favorite spring traditions in no time.

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Nest construction and site selection

Nest construction begins in early March and will continue (as nests fail) through about June. It takes 1-2 weeks to finish a nest after which the female will lay a clutch of 2-6 eggs. Unlike similarly sized squirrel nests (aka: dreys) which are made of leaves, crow nests are made mostly of pencil-width twigs. A new nest is usually about 1.5 ft across and 8-10 in deep.  After the bulk of construction is complete, they’ll line the cup of the nest with soft materials like grass, tree bark, moss, flowers, paper or fur. Once we saw a crow ripping out the hair of an outdoor manakin, no doubt to use as lining material.

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A crow gathers moss off the branches of a big leaf maple to use as lining material.  


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This bird toyed with this branch for a few minutes before rejecting it and letting it fall to the ground.  


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A sidewalk littered with twigs is good evidence that the nearby deciduous tree is a favorite among the local crows to pull branches from.  I’ve only once seen a crow try and retrieve a branch it dropped, so these are all rejects.  

 

Crows will nest in an astounding array of places, from the eaves of skyscrapers to the crooks of well concealed tree limbs. They can tower in the sky or be almost within reach. Most commonly, I see them built close to the trunk in the top third of Doug fir trees, but this is, of course, specific to the PNW.  Both partners participate in nest construction. Helpers will aid to some degree but most of the work is left to the parents.

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Differences among corvids

Crow, jay and raven nests are similar in shape and material but differ in overall size in accordance with the size of the bird. The main standout are magpies,  which build incredible domed-shaped nests the size of a large beach ball.  The nests require so much material, they can take as much as 40 days to build.  Japanese jungle crows are another species of note, as they have a (relatively) new and problematic habit of building nests out of wire hangers and causing massive blackouts.

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A Jungle crow nest in urban Japan. Photo: Götz


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The magpie’s nest is the big clump in the middle of the tree.

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The life of a typical nest is only about 9 weeks (1-2 weeks of building, 6 days of laying, 20 days of incubating and 4 weeks of nestlings) though they are hardy structures and can remain intact in a tree for years.  After the young fledge, the crows will not return to the nest.  Crows will only use a nest once, and generally only fledge one brood a year. They will, however, build on top of an old nest particularly in areas where nest trees are especially sparse like downtown Seattle. This also appears to be more common in the Midwest.

Avoiding conflicts

Most breeding related dive bombs occur as the result of a person being too close to a fledgling, but some crows get feisty around their nest too. Crows in areas where they are less persecuted (like cities) tend to be more aggressive than their rural counterparts. If you know where a nest is and can avoid it, do so and save everyone the aggravation. Otherwise carry an umbrella or paint eyes on the back of a hat. Crows rarely attack from the front so having eyes on the back of your head can be an effective deterrent!

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Putting all this together to actually find nests, is one of the most rewarding moments an urban naturalist or crow enthusiast can have.  Be warned though: crows are wary of potential predators (including people) spying on them and they have a few tricks for throwing you off, so don’t be surprised if a nest location you were certain of turns out to have been a ruse!

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Can you spot the nest? 

Have more questions? Let me know in the comments!

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135 Comments

Filed under Birding, Breeding, Crow behavior, Crow life history, Crows and humans

135 responses to “Everything you want to know about crow nests

  1. I live in Uk by sea, I feed crows every morning walking our doggies, one crow wait for me sits on my head every morning waiting for his bread takes it out my hand, only one who do this, I’m so pleased he trusts me to do this, people think its wonderful seeing wild crow doing this, I call him Colin my crow 😂😂

  2. In Saecula Saeculorum

    Gale force winds in UK recently, makes me wonder how birds cope at night – especially Crows, my favourites. I noticed a bare tree with 3 nests & many Crows yesterday; hope they’re all hanging in there! That it’s not as fragile as it looks from down here..

    • Hi Gale, so as a general reminder to everyone: crows only sleep in nests when incubating young. Otherwise they don’t which means they have lots of sleeping options depending on the weather. For winds like that my guess is they seek out the densest trees possible and nestle close to the trunk.

  3. Jane Faraday

    Last week I watched two crows building a nest over some days. Today there is no sign of them. Could they have thought better of it?

    • It does happen that they either decide that a spot just wasn’t quite right and start over somewhere else, or that they weren’t really building and were instead just caching nesting material.

  4. We have many rooks nesting where I live. Nearly 40 nests this year, but one pair nested about 60 yards away, by them and after a few days the other rooks started to attack them, and especially their nest, stealing the twigs. In a couple of days the nest, which was quite large, had been totally destroyed. By lunchtime today it was completely gone. Do you know why this would have happened?

    • You know, I feel like someone on twitter was asking me the other day about whether it’s true that rooks will steal from and destroy their neighbors’ nests. I guess it is! I’m not sure why they do it, but my suspicion is that it’s just competition rearing its ugly head.

  5. Jessica

    do crows instinctively build empty nests the first few years as i know of some at only 2 years old building nests but I read they usually don’t bear eggs until after 3 years old or even later

  6. Pam

    We have a crow’s nest in a blue spruce tree in our yard. The bird in the nest crows constantly. Another bird comes and goes and sometimes a third comes and there is a huge crow fight. Is this normal?

    • Yup! Sounds like the female is begging from the nest which is attracting another bird (probably a male) to the area and then the principal mate is chasing them off. Normal crow behavior!

  7. Cath

    I love feeding “my” corvids. My street has only palm trees so most of the birds hang out in more forestry parts of the neighborhood, which is great, since I can’t be feeding a whole murder haha. My regulars are three crow and one scrub jay. The crows summon me when hungry and I jump up to feed them, which really annoys the cat. But I’ve barely seen them lately. The jay usually comes by a few times a day and the crows once or twice. But I haven’t seen the jay in over a week. His peanuts go on the windowsill and I can tell he hasn’t been here because the peanuts are undisturbed. The crows I’m only seeing once or twice a week. I miss them!

    Is it normal for them to disappear while nesting? Or ishould I take it as a personal insult?

  8. We were overjoyed to see crows building a nest in our backyard, high atop a spruce tree we can see from our office window. They started in early April (we’re in northwest Indiana right by the Dunes). For two weeks, they were super busy going back and forth to the nest. Now, though, it’s empty, and I believe it’s much too early for them to have fledged and gone. I fear something got them. My son flew a drone up and indeed, the nest is empty. I’m guessing they’ll never return to it, either.

  9. Jess smith

    We have crows which nest yearly in our garden but one of the pair appears to have disappeared. The mate spent a day “shouting” and then also disappeared but a few days later it returned and is sitting on the nest. Is there any chance it can hatch and rear young alone?

  10. Pauline Grant

    Hi I live in Scotland and had a carrion crow which I fed since moving in 15 years ago. He loved cheese, sausage, peanuts, chips and bread. I called him Duncan because he dunked his bread in the water dish waited a minute or two, depending who was around, then ate it. He was a wonderful father and always allowed the female, who was more timid than he, to eat first before he ate anything. He walked like John Wayne and exceptionally intelegent. He used to walk around the garden if I was working there to see if I was going to feed him and of course I did , haha. Very sadly I haven’t seen him or her for 6 weeks and fear they have passed away. I think he was about 20 would that be a normal life for a well fed wild crow?

    • Above average, 14-17 is more common. He was a lucky crow indeed, and I’m sorry you’ll be missing your friend. It seems silly to others but it’s quite hard to lose them.

  11. DEBRA A YOST

    Do you think the babies will fall directly below their nest (or kinda fly) ? My neighbor has 4 labs that I worry will kill them if they find them.

  12. Ian

    Its end of may im north of Boston Ma. In a town on the coast. Ive seem to attracted a new friend which everday ive seen this same bird everyday’defenite large crow’ just within the last day im seeing small black birds of a few in same area. Any advice or helpful info? Thank u

  13. Suzanne Ludwig

    Some type of bird just attacked the crow’s nest in my backyard…chaos ensued! A lot of distress calls and crow’s flying off after the predator..What type of bird typically does this?? In all the confusion, I couldn’t see who the culprit was!!!

  14. Shawn

    Thank you for this article!
    I’ve been watching a particular tree for years now. At first I thought the “crows” were after Maple twigs, but in a photo I took this morning the leaves are more beech shaped, from a tree I’ll have to type at some point. The birds steal away branches two to three times their body length, but half the diameter of a pencil, as you’ve described. (I live in south central Pennsylvania. ) What interested me about this was the number of birds, but also squirrels, both of which regularly harvest material from this one particular tree. At times it has been so furious that I have wondered whether the tree would suffer irreversible damage…

    Thanks again!

  15. Margaret OLoughlin

    Thank you for that…I love Crows…

    • deeber_98372@yahoo.com

      Thank you for having me on your mailing list. Love my crows as they keep the Hawks & Eagles away from my 6 hens. What I DON’T LOVE is when they took the baby robin who just fledged from it’s nest …..:( Gosh I cried as I watched them grow right outside my computer window, just 7 feet away 😦

  16. Elizabeth

    Hello!

    I am in Queensferry, just north of Edinburgh, Scotland and moved into a new flat in March. I have had an exciting few months hearing, and occasionally seeing, some jackdaws building nests I think in my roof (I heard noises and sent a friend up to the attic who saw “a bird”). The squeaks and chirps have over the months progressed to more adult sounding crow squalks and I’m hoping that means a successful breeding season for all! I’m a total newbie to any of this and am now hooked.

    This might be a silly question, but I’m concerned not too bother them too much – I have some DIY I’d like to get done including drilling holes in the walls, right under where I think the nest is. Judging by what you’ve written above, the birds might be out and about during the day and a bit of noise won’t freak them out too much?

    Also I haven’t been up there since I’ve known they might be there, when do you think would be safe? I’m keen to see the nest they have built!

    I feel a bit daft asking these questions haha, but I’d just like to do the right thing!!

    Thanks

    Elizabeth

  17. Notorious

    In my house outer open space there was a crow may be injured, we try to catch it and put at the top of shade so they (other crows) can help him but instead now they are hitting us on head. I need solution to stop them

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