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

 

 

17 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

    Hello,
    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?
        Cheers!

  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 🙂

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s