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 genetic analyses indicate that males only father about 80% of their offspring, at least in the populations studied so far.  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?  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.

438 responses to “FAQs about crows

  1. I just had hundreds of crows flying over my apartment building this morning! They were very very very loud! Does this mean that someone is dead? It was really weird to see them all flying above the apartment building!

    Can you tell me the meaning of this?

    Thank You

    • Hi Gloria, no it doesn’t mean someone is dead. It mean that today your apartment building fell under the commute route and you became privy to the daily occurrence of crow movement and communication.

  2. Madilyn

    I was once almost attacked by a large group of Crows but a larger Crow among that group attacked it own Flock chasing them away from me. I really want to understand this behavior.

    • My guess is the larger “crow” you saw was really a raven and you were witnessing commonplace aggression between the two.

      • Biohazard Eclipse

        Hey this is Madilyn. That isn’t the oddity of the behavior I was talking about. The Raven with sitting in a Crabapple tree beforehand. It was watching me for a while then the crows swarmed toward me attacking. Then the Raven attacked them. He didn’t even bother them until they attacked me. They both were in my yard coexisting that is until the crows attacked me.

      • Sometimes that kind of thing (crows going after a perceived predator) can excite other animals and that’s what got the raven involved. As for why they “attacked” you I don’t know. Maybe you look like someone that wronged them, or maybe they weren’t attacking you at all and for whatever reason you misinterpreted their behavior. Hard to make a firm assessment without bearing witness myself, you know?

  3. Sarah

    Do crows take over the territory of other birds? I’ve noticed where there were once blue jays there are now crows. Also is their population increasing perhaps as a cause or effect of this observation? Thanks

    • Hi Sarah, so they don’t take over the territories of other birds, but crows are nest predators and can be tough on jays. It’s a rarely a direct cause and effect though. Most often (even though they are nest predators) there is something else at play that discourages other birds and encourages crows.

  4. We have a pair of crows tearing our windshield wiper blades off our vehicles. We have no explanation for this activity or how to stop it. Can you offer some advice or comments on the behavior?

  5. Sue garner

    We’ve been feeding the crows for 4 months outside our temporary home while our house is being done, but there’s one adult crow that can’t fly. He flaps his wings but can’t take off. He has one tail feather missing. He obviously survives on the ground but what would be the reason why he cant take off? We leave in a couple of weeks and with winter setting in I’m worried how he’ll get his food.

  6. Shay

    Hi,

    A murder or two of crows moved to my area 1.5 years ago. I know to be nice to them, but I am a human to 2 cats—cats are allowed in the backyard only when I am around—so the crows are definitely cautious of me and announce my presence whenever I go outside, front or back. I don’t know if that is good or bad. Yesterday, I climbed up on my roof to clean the gutters. The crows called every crow in at least a 5-mile radius. There were 40-50 crows sitting on the rooftops around my home cawing like crazy. Were they impressed or worried with me being so high? Or plotting my death?

  7. Janell

    Have a family of three crows the mom and dad have left. All of a sudden I have a large crow attacking one of the youngsters the other two siblings help run off the rouge crow. What is going on

    • I don’t know Janell. I’d need more information. Maybe this “rouge crow” is trying to take over the territory. Maybe it’s really a raven. A lot more details need to be sorted out before I could offer an educated guess.

  8. Pingback: Christmas Trivia – Colly Birds . . . – The Penny Mason Post

  9. Deby

    How long will a group hang around a dead crow?
    Thank you

  10. Mahmud Hasan

    why do crows fly round and round over brick kilns

  11. Tessa

    There’s a group of crows that tend to sit in a nearby tree, i’d like to try and gain their trust somewhat but feeding them is difficult considering when i leave food out for them seagulls tend to swipe it up.

    Is there any way i could try to gain their trust without food? Or make my garden a bit more comfortable for them?

  12. Sam

    There is an injured crow in a park near me. Some of its long wing feathers are sticking out in an unusual way, so I assume its wing is injured. It’s been perched on the same low evergreen tree for a couple of days. I’m reluctant to approach it and cause it to injure itself even more but I also don’t want it to suffer because of my inaction. I’ve left it some seeds and apple pieces today—Google says they can eat fresh fruit—but other than that I’m completely clueless as to what to do or whom to call. Do you have any tips or information you can give me so that I can help this poor bird?

  13. merty1260

    Hi, we have a lovely crow couple in our yard. How long does the baby stay with the parents? We have had a few babies and they seem to leave their parents very quickly (or have they met with some other fate?). Thanks. We are in Burpengary Queensland Australia.

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