Current Research

A synopsis of my research for those that have seen me in their neighborhood, curious friends and family, or other crow watchers.

For humans, the discovery of a dead member of our own species (i.e conspecific) is an obvious and alarming indication of danger.  It seems intuitive therefore, that other animals would, for this or other reasons, take the discovery of a dead conspecific as meaningful.  Yet, very few animals respond to their dead in any observable or quantifiable way.  Those that do, such as elephants, dolphins, apes or crows, therefore provide a rich source of both curiosity and possible insight into our own evolution as humans.

Crows have long been reported to respond to their dead.  Reports often come in that people have filmed or observed large, loud or quiet gatherings of crows around the body of a deceased individual.  I’m interested in why this behavior exists.  Although there’s a number of ways we can explain it, and each explanation is not necessarily mutually exclusive, I’m primarily interested in if “funerals” are used as a tool of danger learning both in regards to the place they observed it in and also any people they saw associated.

To do this I locate a nesting pair via behavioral cues I’ve learned through observations, and establish a feeding site a certain distance away.  If you’ve ever come across a large mess of peanuts and Cheetos it’s likely part of one of my studies.

An example of one of our masks holding our dead crow.

An example of one of our masks holding our dead crow.

Then I introduce our scary scenario to the birds; a masked person with a taxidermy hawk or crow.    This is usually the event that gets the most attention.  I can understand why, in an effort to make the masks as realistic as possible they have a distinct Hannibal Lecture quality about them.  Not to mention the birds are often going nuts, which only adds to the chaos of the whole scene.

Following this stimulus day, the bulk of the experiment wraps up within the next week but you may continue to see me for up to 6 weekly visits.

Photo: Michael Werner, Michael Werner Inc

Photo: Michael Werner,  Werner Media,  Inc



25 responses to “Current Research

  1. I saw a dead magpie on the street behind my house two days ago while walking. This morning I heard a lot of commotion in a huge tree in the field behind my house (100 or so feet from the dead magpie) where crows, magpies and pigeons usually gather. Crows were swooping in and out of the tree and the noise was really loud. I couldn’t discern any magpie noises though. Have you ever known crows to exhibit this behaviour towards magpies or other members of the corvid family?

    • Hi Vincent, looking at interspecific funeral behaviors between corvids is not something we’ve formally tested yet. I wouldn’t be surprised though if the crows heard the magpies scolding and joined (perhaps oblivious to the cause) as that is something I have seen before with crows and jays. Whether crows would spontaneous scold, however, if they found a magpie body that was not already being responded to by magpies is another question, and one that deserves a look!

  2. Gabriella

    I found this documentary on YouTube about crows and some research on them.

  3. Peter Heisler

    This morning my wife went out front to get the paper at around 6:15 am. There was a dead young crow in the driveway behind the car, and there were about 20 crows upset flying around and in the trees and buzzing her. Very uproarious. I have been giving food to a pair of crows for around 4 months. But when I went out this morning with a hand full of kibble I was buzzed and they seemed angry with me. It’s now 9:am and they’re just now quiet. I was hoping to gain their trust enough for them to be around me without food, but now I’m worried that the relationship I’ve been cultivating is irreparably damaged. What do you think?

    • I don’t think you need to worry about your relationship being harmed. Think about it this way: most crow babies die. If crows gave up feeding partnerships with people every time one of their offspring was killed they’d be giving up a lot of food over the course of their lifetime. They were upset this morning because they were responding to something that had likely just happened and were prioritizing that response over foraging opportunities. Don’t worry! That said, it’s possible they will renest else where and won’t come around as much for that reason. Let me know what happens!

  4. Lora York

    I live on Catalina Island and have enjoyed watching the ravens here in town and in the interior for years. I can now spot the babies by their pink mouths and know when they are growing because of their loud squawking in mornings or when eating. We’ve had many generations nest around the house. Lately I’ve noticed an unusually large one–with fluffy pin feathers on the top of the head (Rod Stuart head my husband calls him), but no pink mouth. The two others with some pink on around the mouth seemed to be protecting this one while it ate the fig I had thrown out for them. I have pictures & video. This one will come on our deck railing about 1 foot away and do the clicking sound (which I think means “all is well”). So who/what is this big, fluffy-headed dude? Is he older or younger than the others? Some have speculated that we have developed a subspecies here that no one has researched. I’ve seen some like this before but not with others as if they were family. Any clues?

  5. Michelle Ewens

    How did you get into this field? I am obsessed with crows and animal behavior. Can you give me some advice on the steps to take to be a part of this fascinating and ground breaking area of research? Thank you!

    • Hi Michelle, why don’t you tell me more about yourself first. Are you in high school, college, a careered adult, or something else?

      • Hello, I live in Vancouver Washington and am 42 years old and in great health. I have a B.A. in English instead of anthropology which was my original education pursuit. It was my dream to be a primatologist and I read every book Jane Goodall wrote. I also took a class with Brian Hare on Dog Cognition from Duke University and received an A and also completed an online primatology course with Takayoshi Kano who specializes in bonobo behavior. I have two children so basically I’m a mom now but I hope to someday work with animals even if it’s just as a volunteer. People are animals so technically I didn’t give up my dream it just took me around the block so to speak and got me obsessed with psychology. My experience is as an observer, one who hasn’t been institutionalized into dogmatic thinking, which may be the best reason why I would have a clear non-biased perception that makes me qualified to be a research assistant. I’m also highly creative and can see patterns of the big picture. I’m a big picture thinker, but I can also work in repetitive jobs doing the same thing better each time. Oh, and I’ve been feeding a pair of crows for a year and put up a feeder. They come to me more in the winter. It seems like now they travel more or maybe they found a new home. A baby hawk was just born next to the pine tree where they lived and I’m wondering if they were driven away. My son and I watched crow documentaries for homeschool and did our own experiments. They are pretty friendly birds but don’t trust us yet.

      • There are so many wonderful citizen scientists observing crows in Vancouver. Are you familiar with June Hunter or The Crowtographer? I wish someday there is a regular meeting of all of you-I think it would be a wonderful opportunity and source of keen observations.

        It’s possible the hawks “encouraged” the crows to start utilizing a different part of their territory for the time being. Keep an eye out and let me know!

      • Youtube videos are a great source of information too. I’ll look up those people in my area who are also interested in observing crows in nature. Thanks!

  6. I’ve been feeding crows outside my kitchen window for several months now and enjoying building trust with them. They are very shy, but I talk to them and have noticed patterns of behavior. For example, they seem to watch for my husband’s car to leave before they come around.

    Lately I’ve noticed crows in various places around town that seem to be calling to me in friendly tones. Places within a 10 mile radius. Am I nuts or is it possible these crows follow me or have learned from friends in a common roost maybe that I am the crazy crow lady? Maybe I am just more aware of crows? Or is it possible they are aware of me too?

    • Hi Rachel, that they watch the car is certainly true. As for unfamiliar crows hearing by word of mouth that your friendly, this is less likely. I suspect it’s confirmation bias more than anything else. But with these birds…I hesitate to say anything is impossible 🙂

      • Milsha

        Hello! I am also a crazy crow lady who is feeding one family of hooded crows nesting outside my building. And I as well noticed certain “friendliness” from other crows in the neighborhood. So I did some research and found that crows tend to share information about food sources (in this case me) with their con-specifics. Given they can recognize and remember faces, is it possible that they spread the word?
        p.s. I love this blog and research you do!

      • Hi Milsha, we know ravens share information about food but know less about how often this occurs in crows. The reason ravens do it it because food is generally found on the territories of other ravens, so an ‘intruder’ needs several helpers to overpower the pair and take the food. Crows don’t have this dynamic so food information sharing either occurs less or is less understood. That said, I think it’s certainly possible that when new crows see you feeding your familiar birds, they learn that you must be friendly and jump on the bandwagon. Does that help?

  7. Milsha

    Hello again and thanks for the reply! Yes, this makes more sense. These crows are omnivores with plenty of food in the city, so there is no obvious reason to share this kind of info.
    Anyway, I will keep feeding and observing them, even got a new pair of binoculars to do so 🙂

  8. Tom Smith

    Hello, I had never thought about the death of crows being a subject of interest, but after reading your blog, I’ve decided to watch a little closer. I lived in Ireland for about 8 months on the grounds of a castle that the forest around it was a rookery. I would sit outside in the evening and watch the thousands of rooks come home for the night. It was there that I learned the difference between rooks, crows and ravens. I also got to know a little more about magpies and their thievery. There was an old man that lived and worked on the castle grounds, a sort of maintenance/handyman he was in his late 80’s, we’d sit and talk about the rooks and he was the one that told me that the rooks could remember people and showed me. Every morning as he walked up from his house to let the animals loose for the day, several rooks would meet him along the drive and squawk at him as if saying “good morning”, he had names for them and would greet them graciously with a bow and a tip of his hat. The rooks would bob their heads in response, he introduced me to them and I too bowed and greeted them with honor and respect and they squawked and bobbed their heads. I had a small blacksmith shop that kept me busy and a few days later I noticed a pair of rooks sitting on the fence along my drive, I stopped and bowed good morning to them and tipped my hat. I was greeted with the bobbing of heads and squawks. After a few weeks, I noticed they’d come up near the smithy and would cock their heads at my work. One day my wife brought up a tray of tea and snacks and I could a hear a few squawks outside, I looked and there were two rooks bobbing their heads, so I tossed a few scraps of crust from a sandwich out to them which they quickly snatched and flew off with. It wasn’t long before I noticed they’d be squawking a bit louder than normal and a few minutes my wife would appear with a tray. I always smiled and thanked the rooks for their letting me know that lunch was coming and toss them some bread or crisps. I miss the rooks and the rookery and hope to one day return even if for a short visit.
    Sorry for the ramblings of one that misses Ireland, hope your research and studies are enjoyable and confirming.

  9. Angela

    I think crows are wonderful and widely misunderstood. I was a biology teacher and I tried very hard to educate my students about the corvids and especially the crows.
    The crows in our garden here in the UK, have chicks now.

  10. kim

    Hi there
    I too have been feeding a crow pair (she had a leg deformity and I never thought she’d breed–what do I know?). That began 4 years ago. They’ve had 9 babies since then. I thought the original pair would fight to keep the others away and that the adolescents would have to fly away at night with the other bachelors but they don’t. They want to stay close to mom and dad. I live in East Vancouver, BC….I’m in a fishbowl with neighbours watching the backyard from all sides. They don’t want me to feed the crows saying they poo on their autos and their decks. They probably do from time to time but I find that easy to clean up. They don’t feel that way and have threatened me. I’ve discovered there is no by-law against feeding. I want to stay in relationship with my neighbours but I love the crows without reservation……helps to stave off hefty solastagia. The problem is people are saying that I am causing undue dependence and if we go away or ever move, the birds will have forgotten how to fend for themselves or they will be too trusting with the wrong humans. What do you think about that? They eat on the deck or in the backyard. I can talk to them and make short amounts of eye contact before they either press me for food or fly away…so I haven’t been overly intimate with them. Thanks.

    • It’s baloney. Issues of dependence/being too trusting are real when it comes to hand rearing crows but not simply feeding wild ones. That’s a big difference between crows and other birds. Once a chickadee gets comfortable hand feeding they’ll do it to anyone. Crows won’t. That said, conflicts with neighbors can escalate to lawsuits (happened here in Seattle) so be careful. If you limit your feeding to a small handful a day though, which is really all you need, you will probably be ok. Even tossing a single nut or two when the birds drop by is enough.

      • kim

        Thanks for your reply CR. I also read that Marzluff recommends making our backyards corvid (and migratory bird) friendly as a way to balance out the impacts of development and climate change. The other complaint I’ve gotten is that their bird poo damages shingles. Is their something in the chemical composition of their droppings that would actually do that?…..if so how do we reconcile that with bird friendly backyards?

  11. James

    This is fascinating research. I shared on Twitter your article with J Marzluff on crows copulating with the dead. I have been monitoring crows in my area for ten years now and have come to know som of them very well. There are a few that regularly sit on the fence outside my garden and call for me. For the first time though I have recently spotted a hooded crow. They aren’t very common here in Scotland, but it has joined my other crows and appears to live socialise with them. I am wondering if it is common for them to be alone and not have a partner that is also a hooded crow?

    • Thank you! (I hope you know you can also find me on twitter @corvidresearch). To answer your question, dispersing, young, unmated birds will sometimes be caught alone. They are definitely very social animals, but they’re not /always/ in the company of others.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s