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



7 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?

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