Current Research

Although crows will always be my first corvid love, I am delighted to switch from the fascinating but macabre world of thanatology (death sciences) to the world of Canada jays (formally called gray jays).

Canada jays, known colloquially as Camp Robbers or Whiskey jacks*, are some of the smallest corvids, weighing in at only 2.5 ounces. Despite their admittedly adorable faces and fragile frames, these are among the toughest animals on the arctic tundra, comprising only a small number of birds that call this area home all year long. To survive the harsh winters, jays depend on food they cache (store) during the fall. Jays start breeding in late February, making them one of the earliest nesting songbirds in this area. Given the blankets of snow still suppressing the fresh fruit and insects they will gorge on come summer, their caches are crucial sources of food during the early breeding period for both adults and nestlings alike.

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Sadly, in some parts of their range, jay populations are showing worrying signs of decline. Given that jays cache perishable food, it’s possible that these declines are linked to temperature fluctuations that promote faster degradation of their caches. In other words, the freezer is broken, the food is rotting, and there’s no grocery store with which to restock. With less food during the breeding season, fewer babies will make it to adulthood. If you want to learn more about this issue, check out this video featuring two of Denali’s permanent biologists and my new colleagues, Laura Philips and Emily Williams.

Before we can start getting to the heart of that hypothesis, however, there are fundamental knowledge gaps in the ecology of Denali’s Canada jays that need to be addressed, and that’s where my research comes in. By following and videotaping the foraging behaviors of jays, I hope to establish a better sense of what and where they cache food. With this knowledge in our arsenal, future projects can begin to score the decay of different foods under different temperature regimes or cache locations, relate different caching strategies to reproductive success, and explore many other important questions.

*Whiskey jack is an anglicized version of the indigenous Cree name for these animals, Wisakedjak. Other indigenous nations in the Algonquian language family have similar names.

31 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 🙂

  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.
    Angela

  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.

  12. Nastya

    Hello, how can I adjust the number of corvids in the city or the zoo

    • Can you be more specific? What do you mean by “adjust”? And when you ask about the zoo…are you referring to wild birds who reside on the zoo grounds, or captive birds that are part of the zoo? Are you a private citizen or asking on behalf of a government agency? What species of corvid are you referring to and where in the world do you live?

  13. Marianne

    Good morning, local crazy crow lady from northwest BC here. I started feeding a pair of crows a few years back in an effort to address my profound bird phobia (which for some strange reason does not include crows and ducks). I feed them in specific spots on my morning walk, and by my driveway in the afternoon.
    It didn’t take long before I had two pairs of crows. I named the first couple Harold and Maude, and when pair number two arrived, Harold and Mrs Harold, and Maud and Mrs Maude.
    After some time, further along on on my walk, two other friendly crows would arrive, clearly asking for peanuts, too. I named them Frankie and His Wigged Out Brother.
    Fast forward to now, and upon return from vacation (which I always get scolded for), a sizable flock is either already waiting for me, or one is on sentry duty, cawing for the others. They will even land near by where I strew peanuts but light if I strew them, they fly off a few feet. There must be a dozen or more. I don’t get as many in the afternoon by the driveway, though.
    It’s getting a little out of hand, especially with with the quantity of cocktail peanuts required. (I had to switch from peanuts in the shell when the neighbours complained about the mess.) And it is not as pleasant for me to stay relaxed around a crowd of them flapping around and overhead. But I do think that two separate flocks/ territories have cooperated to share my offerings. They hate having their picture taken, probably because I am standing and tend to move
    Why there suddenly are so many makes me wonder, are these all this year’s babies? Some of them are really scruffy looking, and a few of the new ones have some grey/ white patches and what appears to be missing feathers, mostly visible when they are flying. Could it be our very dry drought-like summer has caused them some dietary or hydration issue?
    .

    • Hi Marianne, sounds like you need to cool it a bit with the feeding. Like with any conditioned training you can shape the behavior you want by rewarding the stuff you like and not rewarding the stuff you don’t. If there are too many birds (which it sounds like there are and that can be a problem for wildlife and neighbors alike) just stop feeding. They’ll be cranky and squawky for a while but eventually fewer will come and you can stick to feeding a smaller group. As far as the scruffiness goes that’s most likely due to it being molting season. The crows look like crap right now! But by winter they’ll be in gorgeous shape again, don’t worry.

      • Marianne

        I think you are right.Also pretty soon my morning walk will take place in the dark, so they are sleeping. My current issue is they follow me relentlessly, if I don’t give them any.

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