FAQs about crows

These are short answers to some of the more common questions I get asked.  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.

Crow (left) raven (right)

Crow (left) raven (right)

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.

203 responses to “FAQs about crows

  1. Sieglinde K Smith

    My neighbors and I are noticing the occasional grey feather or two, on our crows this year. It doesn’t look like disease, but we are wondering what it might be – perhaps just genetics playing with the beautiful blue-black plumage?

  2. Pingback: FAQs about crows | SunRay Sorceress

  3. Thea

    Nice text , thank you for all the info! I have a question, hopefully you can answer it. We found a crow few months ago and not knowing exactly what to do, we kept him at home and took care. He is now about 6 months old and was used to fly a bit inside the house, but for the rest his life with us was in a big cage. We heard lots of stories about how they get busy and hard to handle, so we had decided from the begin to let him go someday. We didn’t want to bring to a shelter because all his family is living on the other side of the street, among jackdaws and magpies. We kept throwing them nuts everyday, just to don’t loose contact an hoping that they could accept our little crow back.
    Today we just let him go, and after flying around in the backyard for about an hour he just left and didn’t come back. He flew beautifully for a bird who was used to fly only inside the house. He even took a little flight following a magpie who came along. Before going away, some other magpies and crows came along to get food from the backyard and a few of the crows were watching him closely for about 10 minutes. Is this a good sign? Could it be that he’s accepted back by his family? The other crows didn’t attack him. Do you think he has a good chance to survive? Thank you in advance.

    • Hi Thea, well your question is a tricky one. In general, survival outcomes for handraised crows are bad. This is for a variety of reasons but the main ones are that they often lack necessary skills they would typically learn from their parents and they are often so friendly towards people that they are killed by assholes. That it wasn’t immediately attacked is obviously good, but I can’t say whether that means its family recognized it or not. It’s been a while since you initially posted this, what have you observed?

  4. Ann

    thanks for the great info. I love my yard crows, they are such great birds. I feed them regularly, and while they and I keep our distance they really do like to hang around and keep me entertained all the time. They will follow us for a ways on our walks through the neighborhood flying above us from tree to tree or a pole. And when we arrive from being away from home, they fly in over us as we drive down our street. We enjoy them, and I’m pretty sure they have brought their family here many a time for meals. There are a few hundred in the roost, and about once a year they all gather and make quite the ruckus..we assume it might be mating time. They do molt their feathers, and leave them for me in the yard. Thanks again, Crows are truly wonderful.

  5. Julie

    My mom lives in Sudbury Ontario and has a family of crows that visit her everyday. They trust her and she loves them. She is worried about feeding them and upsetting and migratory patterns. Is this possible? Thanks!

    • Hi Julie, crows in northern climates typically leave due to temperature, not lack of food. Her feeding them will not influence their migratory patters, but it could be attracting crows from outside her area depending on how much she’s feeding, which isn’t great for other wildlife. If it’s limited to a single family (meaning a handful or so of food a day) she should have nothing to worry about from a biological perspective though.

  6. Sieglinde K Smith

    Thanks for asking a question that has been on my mind. The answer reassures me.

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