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 mannequin, 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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255 Comments

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

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

  1. Kenny G.

    Is there a “methodology” for locating raven’s and crow’s nests? It appears from the above that many people are really lucky to have a nest built right outside their homes. We haven’t been so lucky (yet) but I still think it would be very cool to locate some nests and observe the birds raising their young. We live in southern New Hampshire.
    thanks!

    • Earlier in the breeding season the easiest thing is to follow them as they carry sticks. Right now is a bit tricky because the female is mostly glued to the nest and they are not toing and froing as much. Once the kids hatch though they will be making regular deliveries. So just watch crows as they gather food and see where they go!

  2. Linda Gravlin

    Here in Burnaby BC we have a pair of crows build a nest in one of our trees. Eventually it became evident that incubating had begun. I could watch from our window. But for two days in a row now all activity has ceased.
    No one has harassed these crows.
    Is it possible they have abandoned the nest. It has been particularly cold and wet .

  3. Sandi

    I started feeding the neighborhood crows during Covid shut down. They’re fascinating to watch.

    They’ve gotten to know who I am and have followed me when I take a walk around the neighborhood. They will also come to the backyard almost immediately after I put out food.

    Today, I put out chicken eggs for them. As I watched them poke holes in the eggs and eat them, one did something I’ve never seen. She/he picked moss from the ground and used it to cover the egg. I took a picture of it because I’ve given them eggs many times and have never seen this behavior.

    I googled it, but nothing came up. There were more eggs out there but this crow only covered 1 with moss. It was like a cute little hat for the egg.

    They also use my big birdbath to wash food on occasion. I don’t mind, it’s not every day. I’ve never seen a crow nest but we have so many trees in this neighborhood and private woodland areas with little creeks of water that I assume that’s where the nest are built. Even birds want privacy!

    The oddest thing has occurred from feeding the crows chicken. The squirrels started stealing the chicken before the crows could arrive to eat it. I have never seen squirrels eat meat. They will pick up a large piece and disappear with it and they seem aware that if they don’t act fast, they’ll have crow competition.

    • Hi Sandi, the egg covering behavior you observed is called caching. Caching is when animals hid food for later. When crows do it they usually tuck small bits of food in the ground or other crevices and then pick some litter or vegetation to cover it with. My guess is that this is a young crow getting the ropes on this behavior. Pretty cute 🙂

    • Robert

      I think I am a neighbor.
      For Generations they have come to eat chicken and nest.
      Seattle

  4. Susan Muhrer

    I’ve been watching a couple of crows make their nest in a palm tree across from my second story window in an apartment. I watched them build it and finally she must of laid her eggs, because they took turns watching the nest from another tree. It gave me such joy every morning to have coffee and watch this crow family begin. then the tree trimmers came this morning, using a buzz saw, climbed up this 20 ft tree, cutitng back all frounds from this 30 yr old palm tree and left just 3 at the very top, with the two crows watching from a nearby rooftop. I actually tried to stop the trimmers when they arrived with their equipment. Short of strapping myself to the tree,
    I printed off the Ventura county ordinance about disturbing the nests. It fell on deaf ears. They looked at this 73 yr old woman as if I had dimentcia. I went back to my apartment and cried. It was so sad, both crows got as close as they could as the tree trimmers as they took down their equipment and cleared away the cuttings. If they had done this in February or even March, the crows wouldn’t have nested there. Now the palm tree, not trimmed of it’s over growth, but quickly shaved. And we wonder why climate change is happening. Humans don’t know how to adapt, and the animals are trying. I’m so sad today, not crazy, just very sad…..

    • I’m so sorry Susan. It’s awful that your (very valid and legally protected) concerns were ignored. It’s a shame that so many people have found themselves so removed from nature that they’ve lost their willingness to even consider it. Fortunately you have many friends who see things as you do. If you don’t follow her already, please check out June Hunter’s blog. I think you will find a shared soul there. https://urbannature.blog/2020/06/10/the-final-blow/

  5. I’ve been feeding a pair of crows for 3 or 4 years and enjoying their fledglings each spring. This year, it seemed the female was busy on the nest because only the male came by for his daily dog kibble. Today, I saw them both stripping small branches from a tree, like they were building a new nest. If crow eggs fail or are lost, will a pair start over again the same season or wait until the following year to try again? Thanks!

  6. Jonathan

    Hi – we have a crow’s nest in a chimney of a house we are developing. I don’t want to disturb it while the crows are nursing their young. What date will it be ok to clear the nest away?

    • Hi Jonathan, it take about 4 weeks from the time the young hatch to when they will leave. Once you see the young sitting around the nest cup they will be only a few days out from making their final departure. Without knowing when the eggs were laid though, I can’t give you a specific date. Are you able to actually see inside the nest? If you can send a picture I can try to give a better estimate. email it to kaelis@uw.edu

  7. Max Taffey

    This may sound like a weird question, but I figured I’d give it a shot! 🙂
    There is a crow that has been regularly flying up to a particular spot on my roof – it seems to be in the eavestrough so whatever it is doing is obscured from my vantage at ground-level, but it makes quite a racket that can be heard inside the bedroom directly beneath that spot. It will wake you out of a sound sleep – the first time I heard it, i thought it was heavy footsteps on my roof! It thumps and scratches as if it’s trying to get in the roof or something. I can’t imagine it would be building a nest there, but any ideas what else it might be doing? It’s there every day now. It’s a two-storey home, and I don’t have a ladder tall enough to get up there, and I’m not super excited about getting up on the roof in any case.

    • Hi Max! Well for better or worse you are not the first person to ask roughly this exact question (crows keep going on my roof and doing something noisy and weird). If they are not nesting then the next best explanation is that is has something to do with food (though this wasn’t a very satisfying answer to the person who had crows dropping rocks onto their roof every day). Maybe there’s some kind of insect colony living in a crack or crevice up there? I really can’t say for sure. But it might be worth checking out as if there is so something going on up there, crows are well resourced to cause some damage in pursuit of it. So for peace of mind you may want to rule that out. Maybe a friendly neighbor would be willing to help?

  8. Dee

    We have a crows nest in a tree by our drive way. We have been watching for weeks and leaving food and water. They seem not bothered by are coming and goings. We came home today and discovered a baby was dead on the drive way. It had started to grow feathers, it was about 4 inches. An older crow was hopping around in our yard. My heart sank and I felt so bad for this crow family. What should I do with the dead baby bird? We moved it to the base of the tree to get out of the hot sun. I don’t want the birds to think I harmed the baby.

    • Hi Dee, although accidents can happen and birds can get kicked out of the nest, when that happens at that age it can also be because the parents rejected them. Which is also sad, but as I told someone else recently, we need to trust that they know more about their own crow lives than we do and do things for a reason. After a day or so feel free to remove the baby and bury it in the ground or under a shrub at night. This will protect you from the crows seeing you. I hope some of the other babies make it!

  9. Donna

    For a long while, I observed a pair of Crows. Suddenly, for weeks now, there is only one (1). I worry about that lone Crow. Now, that lone Crow appears to be building a nest. I see if carrying twigs. I don’t know if it’s a male or a female. Will a lone Crow, one without a mate, still build a nest?

  10. Susan Laws

    A few days ago a raccoon killed and ate a crow in my pine tree. Crow feathers and wings on the ground. I assume it was nesting. Try as I might I cannot see a nest. Last year I was unfortunate enough to be out at night and heard the crow screaming as it was being atttacked. I love crows and wonder if there is a way to protect the nesters?

    • Hi Susan,
      Your compassion for these birds is really obvious and I appreciate you! As painful as it is, you must resist the urge to protect them their normal predators, just like it’s important that people resist the urge to protect other kinds of birds from crows. Predation is normal and necessary to both feed individuals animals and keep whole ecological systems flowing. I don’t envy that you heard that death throes; that truly sucks and it makes perfect sense you’d want to avoid that happening again. But life was transferred from one animal to another and in that way it’s maybe kind of comforting?

  11. Carol

    Crows have nested above our large family gathering/dining area. Not a problem yet; if they become aggressive, how should we move them out? Or ensure they don’t return again? Thank you

    • Hi Carol, once the crows lay, you’re prohibited by law from interfering with the nest. So for this nesting season, you’ll need to manage any aggression by altering your own behavior rather than theirs. Luckily that phase is usually pretty short (a matter of weeks). Moving forward you can try to thwart future nesting attempting in that spot by blocking up the area where they put the nest. Bird spikes don’t generally work for this; you’ll need to install a large object that will keep them out completely (like staple gunning a cardboard box to the spot they put the nest last year. Putting up there in March will do the trick.

  12. Nelutzu

    I use to feed the crows around my building, and I like to watch them when they are well fed and healthy. They socialize, fly in style, bug each other, sometimes even keep conferences together. But periodically some of them vanish. I think that the people from the nearby mall poison them, and the seagulls, to keep their numbers low. There are places around the city where they literally cover half of the sky. Probably farmers are not that happy with them around their fields. Wondering, maybe there are places where they are needed, so a catch and release can save them.

    • Hi Nelutzu, without knowing where you live I can’t say for sure, but in all likelihood that’s probably not realistic. Most species of crows that co-occur with people are quite abundant and there aren’t agencies available that would relocate them. I like where you’re head is at though!

  13. Traci

    Hello! I apologize if this has been asked already. I feel so lucky that a crow family built a nest right outside of my office window. It was the most amazing thing to watch transpire. Only one fledgling was seen, who has now been gone for almost a week. At what point is it safe for me to remove the nest? I want to save it before property management destroys it! Thank you!

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  15. Naomi

    Hello. I observed a crow doing something I’ve never seen before. It was on a lawn and flattening itself right into the grass, spreading it’s wings out so it could get right into the ground, to the point all you saw was it’s head and wings. After it flew away, I went to look at where it was doing that and it didn’t look like anything special about that ground or grass. Do you have any idea what it was doing?

  16. Prateek

    A crow is frightening me.
    He comes near my head from behind to frighten me.
    2-3 meters from my roof is his nest in which
    Eggs are visible.
    After how many days will his children be able to fly.
    Then I will Break Nest.
    He didn’t let me do yoga and other stuffs.

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