FAQs about Crows

These are short answers to some of the more common questions I get asked.  Although many answer will apply broadly, these were written with a North American/US bias.  Please feel free to suggest additional questions in the comments section.

Crow Biology

  1. What is the difference between a crow and a raven?
  2. How long do crows live?
  3. Can crows really talk?  Do you have to fork their tongue?
  4. What hunts crows?
  5. Are crows monogamous?
  6. How do crows mate?
  7. How can you sex crows?
  8. Why are crows sometimes white?

Crow Behavior

  1. Why do I see large groups of crows flying over my house every evening?
  2. Do crows ever kill each other? why?
  3. Do crows collect shiny objects?
  4. Why do crows gather around their dead?

Crows and Humans

  1. I found a dead crow in my yard, how do I get rid of it without upsetting the crows?
  2. Can I get West Nile virus from touching a crow?
  3. Is it legal to keep pet crows?
  4. Are crows protected/Is it legal to kill or hunt crows?
  5. Why was I just attacked by a crow?
  6. How can I get rid of crows from my yard?
  7. I enjoy feeding crows, what kind of food should I offer them?
  8. I’ve found an orphaned crow, what should I do?
  9. Do crows ever bring people gifts? Can they be trained to bring money?

Crow Biology

1) What is the difference between a crow and a raven?   While crows and ravens are in the same family, corvidae, and look quite similar, they are as different from one another as lions and tigers. If you’re not used to seeing ravens, the best way to tell them apart is if you’re at higher elevation or in a more rural or coastal area and find yourself thinking “that’s the biggest #$%^&*# crow I’ve ever seen!”, you’re probably looking at a raven.  More scientifically, ravens have diamond shaped tails in flight, deeper almost croak-like voices and, by weight, are about twice as big as a crow.

2) How long do crows live?  Once they reach sexual maturity (around 3-4 years) they are tough to take out and can live to be 14-17 years old, though cresting 20 years is not unheard of. In captivity they can live twice as long.

4) Can crows really talk?  Do you have to fork their tongue?  Yes, captive birds can be trained to talk, and no you don’t have to mutilate them to do it!

5) What hunts crows?  Red-tailed hawks, owls, raccoons and cats will all gladly take down an adult crow if given the opportunity.

7) Are crows monogamous?  To answer this question I’ll take a page from The Savage Lovecaste’s Dan Savage and describe them as “monogamish.”  More scientifically, we describe them as being socially monogamous but genetically “promiscuous”.  This means they generally stay with one partner for life, but behavioral observations and a genetic analyses in New York populations indicated that attempted extra-pair copulations are not uncommon, occurring in 36% of pairs, and resulting in 19% of hatchlings. Other populations are not reported to show much promiscuity, however.  You can learn more by checking out this post on crow families.

9) How do crows mate?  Like most birds, crows do not have an external penis (ducks are a notable exception).  Not only do they not have a penis, but they only have one opening for all things related to reproduction and waste elimination called the cloaca.  Crow sex consists simply of a pair rubbing their cloacas together for about 3-10 seconds during which time the sperm are transferred from the male to the female.

10) How can you sex crows?  Assuming you’re not a trained veterinarian or have access to blood sampling/analysis tools, you can’t by just visuals alone.  Males tend to be bigger but that’s not reliable enough to go off.  If you’re patient, it will become very evident once the breeding season rolls around and one starts spending most of its time on the nest. Supposedly, the “knock” call is female-specific.

11) Why are crows sometimes white?  There are many reasons.  Check out this post for more information.

Crow Behavior

1)Why do I see large groups of crows flying over my house every evening?  Like many other species of birds, crows and ravens engage in what’s called communal roosting.  This is where groups of both kin and unrelated individuals flock to a particular location for, in part, the security of safety in numbers while they sleep.  Crows can gather in the tens, even hundreds of thousands when they do this.  Although roosting locations may change periodically, for the most part the crows you’re seeing are heading to the same roosting spot every night.

2) Do crows ever kill each other? Why? Yes, crows do kill other crows.  Crows fight with each other a lot, both within their family groups and outside of them, though when it’s with family it’s usually not as serious. With crows outside their family they may be fighting to defend mates, food, or territory boundaries. If a particular fight ends up deadly it might be because one of the participants was much weaker and just couldn’t take the assault, or misjudged something and got killed “accidentally”. Or, as Kevin McGowen suggested, maybe the bird was already injured or sick and the healthy crows saw what was basically a walking lure for a predator and tried to off it so it didn’t attract dangers to them.  John Marzluff also discusses this behavior in his book In the Company of Crows and Ravens if you want to read other accounts.

3) Do crows collect shiny objects?  There is no evidence that crows keep collections of inedible objects (shiny or otherwise).  This myth probably originated from pet crows, who are often attracted to objects of obvious value to their owners like coins and keys.   This is a different behavior, however, than “gift giving” which does sometimes include shiny objects.
UPDATE: New research shows that New Caledonian crows keep their favorite stick tools cached in “toolboxes” so it appears that at least some species of crows do cache certain kinds of inedible objects!

4) Why do crows gather around their dead?  Certainly one reason is that the death of a crow can offer a “teachable moment” that other crows use to learn that the place and responsible party is dangerous.  You can read more about this behavior here.

Crows and Humans

1) I found a dead crow in my yard, how do I get rid of it without upsetting the crows?  Wait till dark and remove the body while the crows are away roosting.

2) Can I get West Nile virus from touching a crow?  There is no evidence of WNV transmission directly between crows and people according to the CDC.  That being said, it’s always a good idea to handle any animal (alive or dead) with gloves.

3) Is it legal to keep pet crows?  Not without a permit-see below.

4) Are crows protected/Is it legal to kill or hunt crows?  As of 1972, crows are protected under the migratory bird act.  This means that it is illegal to “take (gov speak for kill), possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale…the parts, nests, or eggs…except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations.”  For a more detailed explanation on the legality of hunting or killing crows, check out a previous blog post on the Portland crow poisoning.

5) Why was I just attacked by a crow while walking down the street? If it’s summer, you were unknowingly too close to a nest or fledged kid.  If it happened once, it will probably continue to happen in that area for a couple of weeks so, if you can, steer clear.  Otherwise, maintain eye contact with the parents, crows are less likely to dive bomb the front of your body than the back.

6) How can I get rid of crows from my yard?  First off, I urge you to reconsider.  Yes they can be noisy, and get into things, and cause mischief.  But I assure you, you will not find another urban animal so charismatic, so intelligent and so accessible to explore avian behavior, cognition and biology.  However, if you’re dead-set on the idea…you’re still mostly out of luck.  You can hang a dead crow from a tree but that’s about it.  Remember: poisons and ammo will hurt not only the crows you’re targeting but also the other wildlife you may be trying to attract.  Also, killing them without a license in most places is very ILLEGAL.  My advice is to open yourself to the idea of actually liking crows and get to the know the family, because it is a distinct family, that will stay with you for years if you allow.

7) I enjoy feeding crows, what kind of food should I offer them? Dried pet food is among their favorite but a cheaper option is whole unshelled peanuts.  They also love eggs, tater tots, meat scraps and other nuts.

8) I’ve found an orphaned crow, what should I do?  The first step is to identify if the bird you’ve found is actually orphaned and/or has prematurely fallen out of the nest.  The young of lots of birds, including jays and crows, may look helpless and orphaned but are actually in the care of their parents and are much less likely to survive if you interfere and take them away.  This flow chart will help you navigate the situation and explains, if necessary, how to temporarily house a bird until it can be taken to a care center.  Remember, unless you are a licensed rehabber it’s illegal to try and keep orphaned animals.

9) Do crows ever bring people gifts?  Yes, corvids have been known to bring people various objects in a manner that appears to be intentional.  The most notorious example of this might be Gabi Mann, the little girl in Seattle who made headlines after receiving dozens of gifts from her neighborhood crows.  Feeding crows is not guaranteed to lead to gifts, however, as many a dedicated (and disappointed) crow feeder will tell you.   What causes the initial act of gift giving remains mysterious, but my best guess is that it’s a happy accident immediately reinforced with reward, thus leading to a mutually enjoyable habit.  If you’re looking to make a profit off this behavior, however, I recommend checking out this post.

652 responses to “FAQs about Crows

  1. Maggie Thompson

    Hi, love reading your blog. I live about 10 miles outside the city of Pittsburgh In PA. It has been home to a winter roost of over 10.000 crows. Some of these crows started hanging out at the community center where I work and I started to feed them. I had been feeding them for about 4 months, they recognized my car as I pulled in the lot and would call to me when I got out of the car. It was at this time when I think a really incredible thing happened. I had just fed the crows when the suddenly disappeared. I looked up and saw a large bird siting on top of a tree across the baseball field. They was the sun was shining I could not tell if it was a hawk or an eagle. I started to walk across the field to check it out and at about half way the crows that I thought were gone started making all kinds of noise so I turned around and went back to the parking lot to see what happened and when I got there everything was quiet. I headed across the field again and the same thing happened went back to the lot and quiet. On the fourth trip I think I realized that the crows were trying to warn my to stay away from the which by then I found out was a hawk. Is that possible what happened? Could not find another reason. Thanks

    • Hi Maggie. As a rule, I don’t like to say for certain that something’s impossible but I do think this is unlikely. Hawks aren’t threatening to people, nor do crows routinely warn heterospecifics (other species) about threats (though they may indirectly benefit as they warn each other). It’s more likely that the pattern of calling had more to do with the behavior of the hawk or the crows themselves that you just weren’t keyed in on. The fun thing about wildlife IMO are the many layers of their experience and behavior that remain invisible to us!

  2. Rakesh kumar singh

    One week before I saw a injured crow fallen near my house I tried to push it aside, at time some crows was there they began to make noise. After that when ever I come out from house or on my roof some crows setting infront of my house and began to make noise. After collecting some crows through noise it seems they tried to attacked on me, without stick it is not possible to move. In this situation what can I do?.pl. suggest.

    • Hi Rakesh, try offing them a little food if that’s possible. That can often placate them. Table scraps will work fine.

      • Nick

        They certainly love table scraps, they now stop by daily. I’m pretty sure the the same one comes the closest, but I can’t tell. But since I started, they never harass me. I don’t feed them every time they come, and after a while they move on. I’m part of their “tour” of the hood.

  3. Laura

    I found some docile crows with missing eyes, barely moving and just lying on the ground. I tried to call animal control, then fish and game but neither are a thing anymore. I called the spca and it is just a recording. So I then called 911 they told me nowadays you just let nature take its course when you find an injured wild animal. So they are no help at all. I’m concerned it may be a disease that could spread to my pet ducks, should I be concerned? I feel it should be investigated.

    • Hi Laura. I feel your compassion, so brace yourself because you might find the following bit graphic. As eyes are the softest, most readily available tissue they are often the first thing scavengers go after-even before the animal is dead. This is why ravens are crows have such a bad reputation among sheep farmers. So it’s not that unusual that a crow injured to the extant that you find it docile might have already lost an eye. Alternatively, an injury to the eye, and the resulting infection, could be what had rendered it incapacitated. So while crows can carry disease (as all songbirds can) nothing shared here sends up red flags that this was a communicable disease. Hope that helps

  4. Darcy Matthews

    I was walking along and 2 crows began circling with their feet intentionally down while vocalizing. As I work further I saw a dead crow on the ground. They were circling over it with their feet down and it had just died. I know that because I had just walked past there less than 10 minutes previously. Why were they flying with their feet down?

  5. Pingback: What Do Crows Eat? – BestBirdGuide

  6. Joel Tracy

    Hello,
    We rescued and raised a crow that was blown from its nest by high winds this spring. Water softened dog food, bits of cooked chicken, and chunks of apple along with bugs and goods looted from the garden, were its standard fare as it grew and became flight capable. Now we set a bit of kibble out (plunder for all neighborhood birds) but it forages mostly on its own.

    Five months into this experience and “Benny” spends most evenings with us and sleeps in a dog crate “nest” in our utility room at night. It gets let out in the mornings before we both leave for work and returns (or is waiting) in the pm when we get home. Early on, it flew and played great games of chase with local doves and has recently been flocking about our small town with a group of young magpies. We’ve also seen some socialization with crows, ones we assume to be parents and some younger ones. Benny gets along with our 15 year-old reservation rescue dog too.

    It has been gone for periods of up to two days (stormy and nice conditions) but has clearly made us “home” for the time being and winter is coming. I am concerned with transferring the crow to the outdoors in the early mornings and about its ability to stay warm, especially on freezing or sub-zero days. Our thoughts are along the lines of putting a small heat mat (the type used for chick hatchlings) in the dog crate, which is routinely set outside each morning before we leave for work as well (a foul-weather bunker of sorts, though rarely if ever used by the crow for that purpose . . . to my knowledge).

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on this temperature quandary and how we could best continue caring for this most unusual come-and-go friend we have made.

  7. Hi Dr Swift,

    Someone recently began harassing the Renton crows at their mega roost near IKEA with some explosive noises that sound like M80 fireworks. When the birds begin to head into the grove at dusk the explosions go off and they panic and veer away back to the rooftops of the surrounding industrial buildings or smaller trees. It’s really distressing. Is this kind of harassment illegal or are businesses permitted to bring in wildlife “pest” control contractors to perform these kinds of deterrent activities when they’ve decided the dusk and dawn activity around the roost has gotten too noisy or destructive?

    • Hi ebchill, this kind of management is allowed but you’d need permitting through fish and wildlife. I might put in a call to them complaining, and see if the city is behind it. If they are not (or the responsible business didn’t go through the state), you would have a strong case to compel Fish and Wildlife officers to investigate and issue a citation. (Whether or not they’ll actually do any of that is not guarantee). That’s really disappointing to hear and I hope you keep me informed of what you find out!

  8. Jasper

    Hi, this is a great site! I’ve recently become a friend of two crows in my neighbourhood, and for the last few months now I have been feeding them only once a day almost every day. They spend most of their time now around my house at feeding hours (12-1ish, and then back around 4-5pm, i feed usually at one of these times but not a constant one cause of my erratic schedule), and they’ve become one of my favourite parts of my days. They perch on the wires outside my bedroom window and watch me go about my day!

    I wanted to comment, however, because I’m concerned of the effect I have on their health. I’m paranoid that they’ve started to become overweight- I can’t tell for sure, but it definitely seems like it. I have probably fed them too much because I enjoy sitting outside and feeding them. I feed them small dog kibble- small enough for them to eat comfortably. It’s meant to be a healthy kind as well. So I guess I’m asking around how much should I be feeding them a day? I don’t want to feed them over 100% of the food they need, ideally more like 75% or so, so they still forage without me. usually I throw out a few small handfuls of food. I’ve been scouring the internet for an exact amount that the average crow needs- similar to a human’s caloric intake or something, so that I can feel confident i’m not overfeeding them. Or maybe the solution is another kind of food that’s less likely to make them gain weight? Thank you so much for reading and hopefully responding. My crows, Bor Gullet and Piti thank you!

    • Hi Jasper! So in my opinion you should be aiming for feeding them a snack, rather than 75% of their diet. One handful of food a day. They are not pets, and should not be coming to you for the majority of their nutritional needs. Feel free to drip it out throughout the day-a few pieces each time you see them-as well. Thanks for asking!

      • Jasper

        Thanks so much! It’s really helpful to have your advice- I’m used to dogs where there’s a lot more info out there on how to care for them properly! I’ll gladly start giving them a healthier amount. Thanks again,
        Jasper

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