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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255 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?

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