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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276 responses to “About me

  1. Jackie Gause

    I’ve been feeding the crows in my neighborhood for months now & have formed some relationships, which I love. The most attentive big, gorgeous male showed off his youngster to me last week & I felt so honored. He greets me every day when my dog & I go for walks. Others in the hood do interesting things like flying over me & touching my head on the way- just to let me know he’s there. My dream is to have them trust me enough to let me touch them, which you’ve accomplished! I used to dislike these wonderful creatures, but decided to change my mind. Wishing you the best.

    • Thanks for your comment Jackie! I always like to know more about what brought people around to crows (helps give me new ideas and improves my outreach efforts). Would you mind sharing more about why you decided to change your attitude towards them? Thanks!

      • Karl Styrsky

        Jackie, that is amazing that the crows will actually touch you! I’ve been feeding the local population at my office and along my daily bike commute for many years and they are still quite wary although there are a couple of intrepid individuals who sometimes pursue me in flight as I ride by — very life affirming. I try to be careful with them by keeping some distance, sitting very still, not looking them on the eyes, etc.

        Kaeli, my personal interest in crows began when I first viewed Joshua Klein’s “Crow Box” TED talk. Until then I had ignored the animals and hadn’t considered them to have much”awareness”. Once I learned that they are so very intelligent and probably pay attention to me then I ever did to them I really started watching and learning.

  2. Crows In a Moment Passing By

    I caught them
    almost quiet:
    pine tree dreams
    of slick black rainbow feathers
    within branches
    armed long, spiky needles
    clasped by sweet sap,
    roiling caws started
    and black shapes
    with shaggy tail feathers
    bobbed out along limbs
    took flight
    long, sweeping flaps
    leaving the trees still.

    Constance Lee Menefee @ConnieMenefee

  3. Pınar

    Hi,

    Last week me and my dad “rescued” a crow fledgling after observing it for two days. It was able to fly a little but it couldn’t gain height. It was mainly on the ground with a parent almost always around. I wasn’t sure about taking it, but there are too many cats in our neighborhood and it was almost caught by one. Even though I know it’s the natural order, I couldn’t help myslef when my dad insisted. We’ve been feeding it for a week now, and it looks a bit better than when we first took it. It reacts to movement now, last week a car would pass by and it wouldn’t even move. I’m still worried and weighing on releasing it as soon as I see one of its parents. Meanwhile, there is something like an acne where its beak ends, and it can’t fully close its beak. This is very new, only been there for two days. You seem to be very experienced about crows, so I thought maybe you can help me with both the acne thing and thoughts about releasing. We live in Turkey so keeping a crow is not against the law as far as I know, but the vets here are mostly based on cats and dogs so I can’t ask them. I don’t know any nature organizations either. However, crows are not very much liked among people and the law says they’re the only kind of bird that can be hunted throughout the year. Long story short, I would be grateful if you can offer some professional advice. I took some pictures if its beak as well, and I can send them to you if you like. Thank you in advance!

    • Hi Pinar, as a I am not a veterinarian or licensed rehab professional I do not give rehab advice here. There are several facebook groups dedicated to such activities though that you can seek out instead. Good luck!

  4. April B.

    I’ve got a story about crow humor that continues to blow my mind more than a decade after I witnessed it, and I’ve got to share.

    One day, I saw a crow perched near the end of a long branch, high up in a Douglas Fir tree. It was facing away from the tree, like it was keeping a look-out. I could see it pretty clearly from below from a distance, but the branches probably would have hidden it from anything flying above. As I watched, another crow hopped down from elsewhere in the tree, near the trunk. It came down to the branch that the sentinel crow was on, and carefully sidled up behind as the first crow continued to look outward. When the 2nd crow got up right behind the first, it let out a loud shriek, in perfect imitation of a large raptor (you know, that “pewww” sound you hear every time they show an image of an eagle on TV). The sentinel crow whipped around, flapping and squawking, while the prankster crow hopped away with haste.

    The scene looked just like somebody sneaking up on a person and saying “Boo!” Hard for me to interpret it in any other way. I’d love to hear your thoughts, with the perspective of your research.

    • Steller’s jays are well known for their red tailed hawk impressions (the call that you described that’s regularly attributed to eagles in movies.) I’m not familiar with crows imitating this call though. Young crows certainly seem to like to mess with each other and they have an incredible diversity of weird sounds. If I had to guess I might wager you saw two young crows, one of which approximated the hawk call mostly by accident. Then again you never know! Crows are certainly capable of mimicry and I wouldn’t put this kind of stunt past them!

  5. April B.

    Second, I’m wondering if you have an interest in, or know someone who researches corvid dialects. I have noticed a very unique call among the ravens at Breitenbush hot springs in Oregon, that I dearly wish someone would explore. Their shriek is a perfect imitation of a woman screaming, and it’s not quite clear whether she’s playing in the cold river by the hot springs, or in serious trouble. I found it very disturbing for several days the first time I went there, until I figured out that it was the birds. Then it was only slightly less disturbing. I do really wonder if they picked up the sound of women jumping into the cold river. I have ravens where I live now at Tiger Mountain, WA. They don’t shriek like that at all. They just caw throatily, like a crow with a cold.

    • Hi April, the begging calls of young ravens sound like someone yelling. Google the sound and let me know if that’s what you’re hearing. It’s definitely more of s yell than a shriek though.

  6. Colin

    Thanks for the work you’re doing it is very interesting. If it suits maybe you could join Quora and perhaps answer some questions related to animal behavior? Lastly, those rompers are dope.

  7. Hi Kaeli – Responding to the recent article in the July 21, 2017 issue of The Week – “What a Crow knows” I can totally support the amazing spectacle of a crow “funeral”. About a year ago, in the parking lot across from my office, I began to hear and see an amazing site of crows flying in from all directions to this eucalyptus tree. We have a large crow population here in Santa Cruz, CA, so I didn’t think too much of this fly-in. However, more and more crows kept showing up and the crying and cawing was treamendous – more than anything I’ve ever heard here in town. My conservative estimate was 75 – 85 crows. I was so curious as to what was going on, I left my office and walked over to the parking lot to see what might be causing the ruckus. To my disappointment, I discovered between two cars in the parking lot, a dead crow. I knew nothing of crow “funerals”, (at this time) but I was in the midst of witnessing this event firsthand. I’ve always loves crows so I picked up the dead crow from the parking lot, and laid it gently on the grass below the eucalyptus tree. And that was the end of it. The cawing stopped and the crows flew off. How amazing!

  8. Jann Perez

    Just read about your research in “The Week”. July 21, 2017. We have a group of crows (a murder?) that live in two hemlocks just off the corner of our deck. We are on PS tide flats – a great food source for the crows. Our flock has discovered is our metal roof makes an excellent clam and crab cracking tool. A crow will bounce a clam off the roof so that it flips onto the driveway then cracks open. If it doesn’t work the first time, the crow tries again. The crows also know they difference between me and my husband. Very entertaining.

  9. George

    Given your research in crow thanatology you may find this interesting. A number of years ago my wife and I were staying at an inn in a small village. We went for a walk one evening and noticed what looked like a freshly deceased crow on the side of the road near a power pole. On the way back about an hour later we saw three of them on the ground almost side by side. In retrospect, the only explanation I could think of was that the power line above them must have had a bare spot or short of some kind. If so, the first one was electrocuted just before we passed by. The two additional deceased crows must have met the same fate by the time we returned and must have either been the first one’s family or simply among those who came to investigate and ended up landing on the same live wire.

    • Jeez, I hoped they fixed it! I think you’re exactly right. In my experience crows like to perch right above where the body is. I bet they came in one after another and get getting zapped. Poor birdies! A good lesson that this behavior can have costs!

  10. damion

    interesting article summarized in the week. i have had an affinity for crows for a long time, admiring their use of tools and games and i share their love of shiny things on the ground. my pockets are filled with washers and bits of glittering wire and the castoffs of machines and humans. for a long time i thought that grackles were in the corvid family, but i just looked it up and they are another genus altogether. i live is austin, texas and grackles are ubiquitous, noisy and social they gather everywhere. for a while i had a cat that was killing grackles in my backyard and every time i took the shovel to bury it, grackles would start to appear and make a chorus of anger, much as you described for the “crow funeral”. then they left when the body was buried. i wonder if this behavior in similar ways is seen across other bird families (or genuseses or whatnot). they certainly seem smart, washing nuts clean in the birdbath and occasionally pushing my truck out of the driveway and taking it for a late night joyride. damn birds.

  11. Tracey MacRae

    Wow. Are you still at UW?

  12. George

    Last year I was walking through a nearby park and noticed a lone crow that seemed to have a red, open wound just above its left eye. It looked so mournful that I stopped to give it piece of a biscuit I had with me. I started returning to the same spot frequently and bringing it some food. Soon, it was joined by another adult and a juvenile which I assume are its family. The odd thing was that when the wound healed and the feathers grew back at first they were snow white – which is how I knew it was still the same crow. Now, a year later, I think I am dealing with the same three crows because they definitely recognize me from a distance and come to see what i have. However, the white feathers have disappeared so the original crow isn’t as recognizable. I currently know the territory of this group fairly well but would like to know that I am always feeding the same “adopted” family and would like to be able to call them for food. I was wondering if it would be useful to carry something like a small bell that I could get them used to. Is there something that you recommend as a signalling device?

    • Karl

      I started bringing food to the crows in the industrial area where I work and there is a little built in emergency whistle on my bicycle pack. Since it is regularly at hand, I always blew it when putting out the peanuts and crow chow. It didn’t take long for the crows to come to the whistle even though sometimes there may not be a single one in sight when I arrive.

      I look forward to Kaeli’s suggestions as well …

  13. Joe Almburg, Sr.

    Hi Kaeli
    Read your article in My July 21st issue of The Week news magazine. Thank you, it was very very interesting!!
    Back in February my “odometer” very quietly rolled over to 80!! I was raised on a medium sized family farm in DeKalb, Illinois. Sometime when I was about 12 to 14 years old (1950). I was visiting a local cemetery with a couple of friends and we came upon a baby crow that had apparently fallen out of a nest. Too little to fly and just too vulnerable to all those creepy creatures who roam around at night. Much to the alarm of a chorus of adult crows overhead we cornered the little creature and I took it home to the farm. Feeding him/her?? Bread and milk with a spoon until it could fly. Day by day growing more fond of my little pet, I named him/her?? “CAW”. Rather original I thought! Probably not surprising to you, but Caw and I began quite a friendship. Once out of the box and beginning to fly, always following me around the farmyard, but never really to the fields. Usually hanging around on the branches of a large pine tree just outside my bedroom window. Often creating quite a ruckus with the wild crows that populated the big pine tree windbreak to the North and the West of the buildings. As I am sure, no surprise to you, CAW and I had a very close friendship. Always following me around and perching close-by, allowing me to stroke his beautiful head and back (but only me). And so to make a long story just a little bit shorter. “CAW” stuck around faithfully all summer and into the fall. (Even though I went to school). Welcoming me when I got off the school bus each day. Then came the harsh winds of a Northern Illinois winter, I always opened the bottom sash of my bedroom window, just a little, so “CAW” could sit on the outside window sill and enjoy a little man made heat and “talk” to me in the evening.
    As your article so accurately suggests, we really had a remarkable and a wonderful friendship. Then came Spring and I believe “The call of Nature” somehow loured “CAW” back to the wild (where he really belonged) and I truly hope that life went as wonderfully for Him/Her?? as it has for me. Again thank you for your wonderful article. I have copied it and given it to each of my grandchildren (just so they won’t think I am CRAZY) when I tell them of my friendship and real love for “CAW”
    Regards,
    Joe Almburg, Sr.
    1405 North Gazebo Drive
    Delavan, Wisconsin
    (262)215-6037
    jpalmburg@charter.net

    • Hi Joe, thank you for sharing this lovely story with me. I’m glad I can aid in helping one more person seem less crazy in the eyes of their not-yet-crow-love-struck family members. 🙂
      Best wishes,

  14. Anya

    Hi Kaeli,
    My dad and I came across your blog while trying to figure out what was wrong with one of our local territorial pair (we think it’s probably scaly leg). I was excited to see that you’re at UW, because we live really close by. I’ve even taken a few summer classes there.
    Dad and I have been “crow-friends” for about three years now, giving them dry cereal and the occasional meat scraps and admiring them as they hang out on the telephone wires. My dad called them “Crow-bar” and “Crow-manon,” and the puns stuck. Crow-manon is the one with scaly leg; we usually recognize her by the way she sits on her claws instead of perching, all the better to show off her fluffy belly. Crow-bar is a little bigger than she is, and absolutely magnificent; he has the most beautiful, glossy black feathers, and loves to preen them to perfection.
    One thing we’ve kind of worried about lately is the way we hardly ever see their kids. We know they must be raising eggs, since they make a big show of mating on the telephone wires in full view of the whole neighborhood, but if we ever see fledglings, they’re gone within a couple months. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
    Thanks,
    Anya

    • Hi Anya, check out this post and let me know if you have any follow up questions. I suspect this will provide most of the answers you are looking for though.
      Cheers
      https://corvidresearch.blog/2014/10/06/what-happens-to-baby-crows-at-the-end-of-summer/

      • Anya

        Thanks for the link! I suppose none of our pair’s fledglings have felt like babysitting. I’m still a little worried for this year’s babies, though. We saw two early on, but that quickly became one, and the other stopped showing up a bit before the “late summer” mark. I did see a few flocks around that time, though, so I suppose I can hope that they just left early.
        Speaking of the flocks, I’ve seen them harassing everything from seagulls to bald eagles, and winning! Those crow gangs are pretty dang tough.

  15. Marc Dahlman

    Kaeli – I live in New Orleans and have had a few encounters with crows and jays over the years, and never associated this with a response to death, but now that I recall there were dead birds involved. The article “What a Crow Knows” in “The Week” reprinted from the “Seattle Met” was fascinating, and I am fascinated by your work and passion, and as an aside: I just subscribed to the “Seattle Met”. If you ever have a desire to visit our corvid population in south Louisiana, come on down – we’ll find you a place….Marc

  16. Stella

    Hi Kaeli, and THANK YOU!! For all your time and effort, and for this forum for us fellow crow admirers. I’m thrilled to have found a flock to join. 😉 I can relate to many of the posts, yours and others’. While I have many stories of my own, with plenty of pictures and videos, one in particular may be of interest to you and your thanatology studies. I think… 🤓
    I have some video of a peculiar behavior that appears to be concern(?). Not scolding or alarm, not quite distress or fear. I have a tiny Yorkie that often wears a shirt. When Ruckus (a crow I rescued who is back with his family but still checks in every day) sees Belle’s(Yorkie) shirt on the ground, he stands on it and “wails” (?) Not loud, but not softly either, while slightly flapping his wings. Similar to the “feed me” behavior, but definitely not “feed me”. It’s more reserved. Not as loud, wing movement is softer, not as insistent. Difficult to describe, but very distinct. He has done it a few times, inside and outside, I have a couple videos. Have you seen this behavior? Does it sound like mourning? Concern is the closest “emotion” I can compare it to.
    I am crow-like in my curiosity and enjoy observing and documenting everything crow. °>

    • April B.

      Hi Stella,
      I’m not a crow expert, but since the behavior is similar to the “I want food” behavior, I wonder if Ruckus is trying to say “I want Belle!”

      • Stella

        Hi April,
        Expert or not, I appreciate your input. Just like a cat or dog, I’ve learned to recognize most of Ruckus’ sounds and behaviors. When he wants something, he let’s me know. He has also done this with my sweater when it was on the ground. He did it again on Tuesday, with Belle’s shirt, and looked “inside” the shirt. Moved it around, opened it with his beak, and looked puzzled. It is amusing, but he seems genuinely concerned. And Belle was sleeping just a few inches away. It is always a delight to spend time with him.

  17. Sue Bowman

    Interesting stuff we have a crow called Magic had her over 11 years now. She cannot fly so cannot be released – We Also rear and release all other corvids that come our way usually from vets or members of the general public. Not many it seems want to help these very intelligent birds? Most are classed as pests and killed – shameful.
    Always interesting how they relate to each other as well as us. How they learn and copy.
    The difference between a crow a rook and a magpie is tremendous. We have just had the three at once so we’re able to see this clearly, they may all be corvids but that’s we’re it ends it seems?

    • Hi Sue, you’re absolutely right that each species is incredibly different from the next. Big part of why I’m compelled to help people understand and value the diversity in this group. Particularly because so many are endangered. Do you outreach with your birds?

      • Sue Bowman

        We belong to some large crow groups so share a lot of information and help each other wherever we can.
        A lot of people have very little idea about these fascinating birds and believe all the bad hype that surrounds them so we try hard to change these old fashioned views.

  18. Johann G. Preiss

    Hi Kaeli, thank you for this fantastic site, lots of great stuff to read for the next weeks and many useful links.
    I see myself as an amateur crow scientist, interested mainly in wild city crows here in Vienna/Austria.
    Vienna lies right in the middle of the so called hybrid zone in central Europa where the western fully black Corone meets and mates intensively with they grey & black Cornix.
    In many papers and books concerning hybridization I find the statement that the two “races” may breed successfully but not the offspring, like it’s the case with horse and donkey. It’s argued if they would, the hybrids had long since spread all over Europa.
    Well, I’m observing and documenting the Viennese crows and their behaviour photographically for quite a couple of years now and have enough evidence to suggest that hybridization is very common, almost a standard rule here in Vienna. I estimate that nearly all of the >50k crows here in Vienna are hybrids to a certain degree although many of them still appear purely Corone or Cornix.
    Often I can observe a completely Corone looking breeding couple having e.g. one entirely Cornix looking and one typical black hybrid sibling with white and grey checkered breast.
    Long time I wondered in such cases if the female Corone had been cheating with a Cornix, but now I’m quite sure that’s simply due to Mendel’s rules. There ain’t no such thing as racism among the crows in the hybrid zone, it’s only one of my conclusions. 😉
    What do you think?
    I further think that the hybrids here in Vienna developped some behaviour patterns which are quite different from the behaviour of their purely(?) Corone relatives in Western Austria. Isn’t it time to consider these hybrids as a third “race”, since the term subspecies is no longer appropriate in the case of Corone Corone vs. Corone Cornix.
    I would strongly appreciate the opinion of a professional scientist on this issue.
    Thank you for your attention.

    • Hi Johann, I’ll be honest genetic/hybridization is not one of my strengths. There is, however, a lab at the UW that does look at this with respect tor crows. They are interested in looking at the hybridization of our American and Northwestern crows but you might be able to ask them about your observations too. You can read more about the PI, John Klicka, and his grad students here. https://klickalab.com/people/ Hopefully they can provide a level of thoughtfulness and expertise that I cannot. Either way, I encourage you to keep documenting your observations. You never know when someone might finally come a long that can do something with it.
      Cheers,
      Kaeli

  19. Karo

    What issue of The Week was your article on crows published?

    I ❤️ Crows

    Thanks
    Carole

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