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.

538 responses to “FAQs about crows

  1. Janet Holmes

    A mature crow seems to be languishing in our yard.
    The crow sits on the ground in shady areas. It drinks water but doesn’t seem interested in the peanuts we offer. Is this animal on his last legs and about to die?

  2. Melanie Anderson

    How long do young crows stay with their parents? I have been observing a young crow that can fly yet still stays close to its parent. It opens it beanie it wants to be fed and nuzzels the adult for grooming days or affection.

  3. Erica

    This spring a young mated pair started their family in a large tree a few doors down from me. I didn’t realize this at first. I just knew that the larger group I’d been feeding earlier in the spring disappeared and no one came around for a short period and then there was just one pompous fellow with puffed head strutting the street corner for awhile alone who would occasionally take my offerings but seemed more interested in strutting about with his puffy head chasing off anyone who came through, squirrels, jays, cats, other crows, etc. Then almost overnight, the strutting stopped and several times a day I was handing off food to this handsome young male crow from my porch for a month or so. One day he appeared with a “friend” who i much later deduced to be mom finally free of sitting on the nest, after reading many posts on behavior. He introduced her and seemed to make it clear that I was not a threat and was a reliable food source, although she has remained consistently wary around me in comparison to him, as has the one fledgling I think is female based on her higher pitched reedier caws. With regard to the fledglings, one squalling fledgling appeared about two months ago, and nearly a month later a second and now I have a lovely family who visits me multiple times a day for food and water. Mom will even leave the youngest tucked in the shade tree a few feet above where I sit on my patio while she goes off to do things on her own for awhile and the two of us have a comfortable co-existence where he calls and I come and when I put the food on the fence post he literally charges at it with no fear while my hand is still trying to get it set. At times he’s appeared squalling at me the same way he does at mom when he’s begging which seems to be a near constant state, but she’s not around. She usually appears post haste though. Just today he landed in my very small yard a few feet away to get peanut scraps and hot Cheetos which the crows appear to love as we learned when someone left a nearly full bag with some garbage on the curb. This is to me the greatest act of trust as the dog was also sleeping at my feet although I think they’ve deduced that she’s useless as the whole family watched with amusement when she got beat up by the cat the other day. Anyway, recently this lovely picture has been disturbed when I accidentally fed a strange crow and a their accompanying fledgling out in the front yard. I mistook this pair for members of the family although I did find it odd at the time that they were so standoffish and now having seen them all together close up I’m ashamed I mistook them. Now they are showing up routinely in the morning and it has resulted in near daily territorial battles in the street although there is never contact, just posturing, and dad has had to chase them away repeatedly but they rarely go far and linger nearby waiting for the family to wander elsewhere so they can sneak in and take what they’ve left behind. I am wondering if these new crows may have been part of the larger group that was frequenting before nesting season started and I am hoping that this constant pressure isn’t going to scare off my family eventually because mom has her hands full still so it’s left to dad to carry the load of defending the territory. Is it safe to assume that because there is no contact, this is probably part of their larger family group that was here earlier in the season and dad is just warning to make sure they know who is in charge in case they get any crazy ideas about moving in? I know I am anthropomorphising these birds, but I’ve been quarantined so long it’s one of the few joys I have right now 🙂

    • Hi Erica! I completely understand what a source joy and relief these birds, and their antics, can provide so no worries about anthropomorphizing.As for your question, it’s impossible for me to say exactly what’s going on here based on your description alone. My guess is that’s is simply a competing pair, but I really can’t know that for sure. Part of the joy of watching them is that some things will just remain a mystery!

      • Erica

        My story has come to a tragic end with a series of events since I wrote that 😢 the trusting baby landed on my small backyard lawn to investigate a squirrel digging holes for peanuts. They both sat there in a curious and peaceful coexistence for a minute until my cat, who had snuck outside unseen, sprang from the bushes at both of them and the frightened squirrel reacted by launching himself at the baby crow and both nearly collided as baby crow sprang straight up into the air screaming and mama shrieked from the power line. Total chaos ensued. Since then, everyone has been on edge and their visits when I’m present in the yard have become more and more rare, wary and distant. As a result, the crows I reported as previously lurking on the sidelines have moved in with more confidence. This morning I saw one aggressively chase one of the fledglings away from the food and invite another unfamiliar crow to come in. I am devastated. It’s clear that the seeming trust of crows is incredibly fragile and it doesn’t take much to break it. I realize the seasons are changing soon and the family dynamics and their movements will shift, and I’ll just have to look back on this past spring with fond memories after I‘m done grieving the loss of this deeply felt bond that was so clearly unrequited. My family is completely mystified and somewhat amused by my distress but I really feel like I lost a little friend. 💔

      • I’m sorry to hear that Erica. People here will certainly understand your heartache even if your family doesn’t!

  4. Chris Wirvin

    Wow! Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge. I am just beginning to befriend some crows in my neighborhood. They are so weary and smart! I’m in for the long haul, as these lovely animals are not easy to win trust from! My new crow friends enjoy peanuts. Take care!

  5. Nancy E Dragun

    Do crows share food with their family members? I have a pair crows that I’ve been feeding for quite some time – I’m pretty sure they’re descendants of crows I originally befriended several years ago and have been giving snacks to since. They hang out every day on the deck railing outside my windows. When I place food on the railing for them, one of them (the larger and I think older one) is quicker to grab it, and the other one is often left with nothing. Sometimes I try to put scatter the snacks far enough apart that they both have a fair chance, but the littler crow still misses out sometimes. Do they go off somewhere and eat together? Or is the big crow just being a jerk?

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