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 are about 2.5x 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 about 20 years old.  In captivity they can live twice as long.

4) Can crows really talk?  Do you have to fork their tongue?  Yes they 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 genetic analyses indicate that males only father about 80% of their offspring.  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.  Females also produce a sex-specific “knock” call.

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?  The death of a crow is 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.

332 responses to “FAQs about crows

  1. Vincent Vandemeer

    I absolutely love crows. Read about them,collect things about them,look for them,etc. Without question my favorite animal. So today I’m in a cemetery and they’re everywhere-I’ve been there a few times before to feed them-and I toss out some crackers and a lot of cracked corn. Well,the cawing was unreal, from every direction and many flew away. As I was leaving I decided to circle back as it’s a huge property….and many were where I was before eating what I had left out, but Canadien geese were present as well.
    It seems every time I get close, the crows fly away and gulls and geese come. Many times I’ve seen 6,8,10,even more crows just watch me from the trees above throw food out as hungry gulls and other birds swoop in. I want the crows to trust me and I want to make friends with them. I don’t want the gulls and geese around, just the crows. I’ve used a crow call as well. Advice?

  2. I’ve been feeding a family of crows in my yard for several years now. There was a regular pair, one of whom had a missing foot, and their fledglings each year. They used to fly in from the surrounding woods when I called. Now they’re all gone. What could have caused them to all disappear? There are no crows on our whole hillside anymore.

    • I wish I could tell you, Jennifer. I get these messages from time to time and I hate that I can’t offer folks any closure. But there are so many possibilities that it’s pointless to just guess.

  3. Elizabeth Jordan

    I was walking earlier today as I turned the corner I saw a black crow in the middle of the street. It was just standing there. I stared at it it didn’t move. Does it mean death?

  4. Zamira

    Obviously the following questions are purely hypothetical:
    Would you say crows are more or less trainable than ravens?
    If you had to train a crow or a raven to attack you enemies which would you pick and how consistent at following orders would they be?
    Asking for a friend.

  5. Coraxo Ravenite ( Obviously not my real name.

    A two questions ….Are Crows in different geographic areas subspecies ? Do the crows from different geographic areas behave differently – specifically is there a difference in “intelligence” ?

    • Hi Coraxo! So there are 45 different species of Corvus (the genus that contains crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws) around the world. So depending on how you define “geographic area” and where you are, the answer could be yes but they would be full species differences and not just subspecies. For example across much of the USA we have American crows, but if you were to travel to England you would find carrion crows. Then again, you may consider the pacific northwest a different geographic area than the northeast but you can find American crows in both regions. So it’s highly variable. As for intelligence it’s apples and oranges. Different species will excel at the skills that match their natural histories and depending on where they live their natural histories will be different. For example New Calendonian crows are the most adept tool users but that it because the island on which they live had an available niche which selected (as in natural selection) for tool use. American crows did not have that available niche and don’t appear capable of manufacturing tools. But they on the other hand are expert at recognizing people and exploiting them for food. So it’s all relative.

  6. datadiva69

    One time I was headed for my car in Oakland, CA’s Market Hall parking lot, and this raven was hopping around on the pavement, crying out to people for something it apparently really needed. I asked it what, but I couldn’t understand raven language.

    My first thought was, it is defending a nest nearby, but it was autumn, which didn’t seem like breeding season for birds, but who knows. It was also a warm day, so the only other thing I could think was, thirsty? Didn’t have any water in my car, so I went back into the shopping warren to procure a paper cup, get a key to the restroom, tear down the cup to dish size, fetch water, and by the time I did all that and returned, the raven was gone.

    So, I nestled the cup down into the dirt strip between the front of my car and the fence, out of sight for the bird to find.

    Any ideas what that was about?

    • Could have been trying to communicate with another out of site raven or begging for food. Not begging for food like “I’m starving, help kind human!” but like a well fed dog begs at the dinner table.

  7. Mary Lee

    In illustrations, some photographs, I notice a light or white ball in the beak of a crow. My neighbor watches a crow come to a water source with the round object in it’s beak. What is that object?

  8. Kathryn Hildebrandt

    Ah. That didn’t cross my mind, since this was a fairly busy parking lot, and I felt the little dude was taking a risk hanging out between all those cars…but they are pretty ballsy critters I reckon.

  9. I had a great experience with a magpie in Sun Valley…I was lonely in a condominium and the magpie came to get crackers..he would stack and carry two at a time..also gave him a lamb chop with bone:) I made a video.i could send.
    Gail

  10. Today my crow friends spent time with me foraging for the food I put out, they are a confident young couple with a prime nesting spot in the corner of the park. They stayed with me a while and seemed to be in a good mood. One of them rustled through some nesting materials and then went kook-*click* a few times at the other crow, who was standing nearby. It seemed like s/he was communicating to her mate about nesting materials, or maybe furtively picking at the ground and then vocalising some other sentiment. I wonder if we can speculate why she made such a specific sound? Do we know much about communication between crows and do you have an idea if they use clicks for anything specific?

    • Hi Ramblinone, what species of crow are you dealing with and/or where are you (generally) located?

      • carrion crow, in southeast UK, in an urban park : )

      • Hi Ramblinone, so it’s still a bit early for them to be collecting nesting material. Not saying it’s out of the realm of possibility, just that it’s a bit suspect without further evidence. It’s more likely they were just processing through vegetation looking for bugs. In either case though the sound, as you’ve described it, was probably what we call a rattle call. As far as the literature is concerned this is a female-specific contact call. That’s as specific as I can be as far as the meaning. It comes as a surprise to people, but crow calls are not referential (meaning X sound=communicates Y) in the way some other animals calls are (chickadees many monkeys, etc.). So unlocking their calls has been exceptionally difficult and most remain mysterious!

  11. Thanks, that’s interesting! About their nest, I thought they might be using the same nest that has been there a while, because it is in a very good location and seems to have gained bulk over the past week or two. The female is there often, but maybe only because that spot overlooks a huge area. Do you think they will definitely make a fresh nest in another location?

    Thanks for the info about the call, I googled “rattle call” which seems to mean a continuous rattling sound, quite different from what I heard – I think it was the female, and it was kook-*click*-kook-*click*-kook-*click* at a medium volume, and seemed to be directed at her mate nearby. The clicking sound was a proper click like a parrot might make. So we know specific calls don’t have specific meanings, but do we know if crows have a vocabulary of idiosynchratic calls, or do they seem to improvise sounds more by mixing and matching the sounds they know how to make? Any resources or studies you know that try to penetrate the mystery?

    PS this particular crow vocalised a quiet “oh” once when I removed my hat while we were stood observing each other at close range.

  12. Is it better to have some sort of feeder or platform to put food on or should I just throw it out in the yard?

  13. Jo

    I have made friends with a crow in my yard and he will now eat out of my hand.. But tonight he had a little peck/pinch of my finger (not at all painful) why do you think he did this?

    • Might be testing to make sure there wasn’t food left, letting you know it wanted more food, or being affectionate. In any case this is not a behavior I would encourage from a wild bird because, as sweet as it is for you, these behaviors, if applied to other people, can and do get them killed. Which is really tragic.

  14. Bee

    Oakland, Ca
    I have a trio of crows that come twice daily for food. All was great until another pair decided to have territory wars with “my” crows.
    I changed their feeding location to my backyard but the other pair have located the secret stash and have become even more aggressive! How can I feed them all without such aggressiveness??
    By the way…the baby has learned to say “Hello” got video on it. So sweet
    And yes…the aggressive pair have a baby in nearby tree.

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