We are a group of behavioral ecologists and ecosystem ecologists who are researching American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) in terms of their social behavior and ecological impacts.

With us, we have:

  • Dr. Anne Clark (AnneBClark), a behavioral ecologist and associate professor at Binghamton University who turned her work towards American crows after researching various social behaviors in various birds and mammals.

  • Dr. Kevin McGowan (KevinJMcGowan), an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He's involved in behavioral ecology as well as bird anatomy, morphology, behavior, paleobiology, identification. It's hard to write all the things he's listing right now.

  • Jennifer Campbell-Smith (JennTalksNature), a PhD candidate working on social learning in American crows. Here's her blog on Corvids!

  • Leah Nettle (lmnmeringue), a PhD candidate working on food-related social vocalizations.

  • Yvette Brown (corvidlover), a PhD candidate and panda enthusiast working on the personality of American crows.

  • Ben Eisenkop (Unidan), an ecosystem ecologist working on his PhD concerning the ecological impacts of American crow roosting behavior.

Ask Us Anything about crows, or birds, or, well, anything you'd like!

If you're interested in taking your learning about crows a bit farther, Dr. Kevin McGowan is offering a series of Webinars (which Redditors can sign up for) through Cornell University!


Fund our research and receive live updates from the field, plus be involved with producing actual data and publications!

Here's the link to our Microryza Fundraiser, thank you in advance!

EDIT, 6 HOURS LATER: Thank you so much for all the interesting questions and commentary! We've been answering questions for nearly six hours straight now! A few of us will continue to answer questions as best we can if we have time, but thank you all again for participating.

EDIT, 10 HOURS LATER: If you're coming late to the AMA, we suggest sorting by "new" to see the newest questions and answers, though we can't answer each and every question!

EDIT, ONE WEEK LATER: Questions still coming in! Sorry if we've missed yours, I've been trying to go through the backlogs and answer ones that had not been addressed yet!

Again, don't forget to sign up for Kevin's webinars above and be sure to check out our fundraiser page if you'd like to get involved in our research!

Comments: 6094 • Responses: 62  • Date: 

Rojugi2700 karma

I googled Ben Eikensop and this came up: http://imgur.com/08A6Msx

My question is: how can you research crows when it appears that you plan on eating them?

Unidan3295 karma

To truly get to know an animal, you have to experience it holistically. I eat all my research animals!

iflanzy1312 karma

Then I must ask, what does crow taste like?

Unidan2168 karma

I'll let Dr. McGowan handle this one, as he's actually eaten crow.

SN4T14917 karma

I googled Ben Eisenkop too, and this came up: https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-_reUffeIaoE/AAAAAAAAAAI/AAAAAAAAAAA/TrcTIZllRwg/photo.jpg

My question is: Is /u/Unidan secretly a wrestler?

Unidan1971 karma

I'm Rey Mysterio, Jr. on the weekends.

Eternally652457 karma


KevinJMcGowan2655 karma

Yes, they are that smart. I have had this experience, too. Looking at a flock with just binoculars got no reaction. But, when I went and got my telescope and tripod, they alarm-called at me.

When that first happened to me I pondered over how many crows had actually been shot at, and it couldn't have been many. But, lots of crows had heard other crows yelling bad things at a person with a long object, and they believed it to be dangerous.


What exactly is their "alarm call" like? Is it just a tone they emit that correlates with an assumed threat or is it different for each bird/flock?

AnneBClark154 karma

yes and yes! There are calls associated with alarming situations or predators that have specific forms (if you make a sonogram of them) and also are easily recognized by us (by ear). Any crow would understand the meaning. But it is also true that calls have individual characteristics that could allow one crow to recognize that it is made by its sibling versus its mom calling. (Our research group has demonstrated this for several different calls, not just alarms) We have not demonstrated that they use these individual differences, but it is hard not to think that they would and might respond more quickly if a family member gave an alarm call than an unfamiliar bird.

lula24881898 karma


KoreanTerran2519 karma

Gee, I bet this one was a tough one to verify.

Unidan2657 karma

It was really tough because the crows kept pecking the camera and flying around the room, but we finally got it.

teahc1640 karma

I'm so happy I found this thread before it explodes. I have heard that some birds commit suicide in certain traumatic situations. One example I have heard of occurs in birds that mate for life and lose their partner. Is there any truth to this? and if so, is it documented in a certain species of bird?

KevinJMcGowan2124 karma

No, birds never do that. If the behavior was controlled by a gene (or complex), which would leave more offspring, a suicide/widow gene, or a get-over-it-and-get-on-with-life gene? All of the mate-for-life birds, including American Crows, stay with a mate for the shorter of the 2 lives, then it's find a new partner and keep keeping on.

teahc1482 karma

Well that's a little more realistic and a little less touching then I had hoped.

not_a_morning_person941 karma

I'm choosing to suggest reductionism on the part of the researcher in regards to crows behaviour. It's nicer to believe birds are like Keats, calling out for love and suffering for its majesty. I want crows with existential crises, and complex love triangles.

Unidan2418 karma

Complex love triangles are quite another story!

There's actually some drama with the crow relationships, actually. We had one family of crows, a son, a father and mother. The son was with another female crow, and then the mother crow died.

The following spring, the father began to court the son's partner, and the two were vying for her attention!

Scrubzyy374 karma

Who won!?

Unidan1168 karma

We're waiting to hear back on the paternity of the brood, but Anne tells me that the father died that fall, so let's say the son.

xander_sch1417 karma

I've looked at crows differently ever since I saw the popular TED talk about them. How accurate is this talk on the extent to crows' intelligence and memory when it comes to people and their ability to complete tasks with tools?

JennTalksNature2806 karma

We were the research group that the TED speaker in that video worked with. I can tell you a couple things about that talk in particular. 1. The photos used are mine, and are uncredited. 2. The photos are not of a functional machine. The box was placed at a composting facility that our research birds frequent and is non-functioning (i.e. the components of the machine are not on or even in the machine, it's just a shell in the photos). We placed cheezits on the box to get birds to land on it simply to see if they could land on the box based on it's current design, as requested by the TED speaker. The photos were not taken by me to fool anyone, but I certainly feel like they were used to that effect :/ 3. Although the talk doesn't explicitly say it, it sure implies that the box had been tested on wild birds, it had not. Only stood on by crows interested in cheezits.

The machine was never successfully used by the wild crows. They were always too afraid to get near it and when the mechanics were on, forget it, they wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. Our wild crows never dealt with it and the box itself certainly never, ever saw our captive zoo crows (as implied in later articles). We ended up parting ways with the TED speaker because we felt that he was jumping the gun on the results, and the multiple media articles with false claims really put us off. That's not how science works. In our realm you need the results before you say something works or generate hype, apparently in the technology realm you build hype before you get any results.

Could it have worked on wild crows? Probably not. The box itself was off-putting to a crow, an animal that is very neophobic (scared of new things). Also, why would a wild crow care? They have so much other, delicious food items readily available all around them to forage for, so there's really no incentive for them to learn or bother with the machine.

ANYHOW, as far as the extent of crow intelligence and memory, they are quite extraordinary. Here's one of many articles on crow intelligence: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/11/crow-intelligence-mind_n_2457181.html

As far as tool use goes, the New Caledonian crow is all over the internet with their tool using abilities (ex. here's Betty making tool spontaneously and awesomely http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TtmLVP0HvDg). New Caledonian crows are a completely different species than the American crow, fish crow, common raven, carrion crow, hooded crow, etc. and are specialized tool users. We do not see this kind of impressive tool use in any other species of crow. Check these birds out, they are SO FREAKING cool: http://www.psych.auckland.ac.nz/en/about/our-research/research-groups/new-caledonian-crow-cognition-and-culture-research.html

aryst0krat353 karma

Look up videos of crows using tools on YouTube. Shit's crazy. They'll bend wire to make a hook, or fill a bottle of water with rocks to bring floating food up to where they can reach it.

Or maybe that's ravens.

Unidan1183 karma

You're most likely looking at New Caledonian crows, who are quite prolific tool users. They will also teach these tools to the next generation with modification, suggesting that there is, in fact, crow culture!

AppleDane810 karma

Oh, I got a question!

Bird legs are so skinny. I've been wondering how come birds don't lose their toes and shins due to frostbite in the winter. Do they have a sort of anti-freeze dinoblood?

Same goes for waterfowl. How come they don't go into hypothermia paddling around using what seem to be huge heatsinks for propulsion?

Unidan851 karma

Great question!

There's very little muscle in bird feet, it's mainly tendons, and the muscles that do operate the legs are actually toward the top and insulated quite a bit.

brunub781 karma

Hey guys, thanks for being here! Always exciting to have access to this wealth of knowledge.

How do you guys feel about string cheese as a snack food?

Unidan932 karma

We're wondering:

Do you mean string cheese as a human snack, or for crows? I'm okay with string cheese, to be honest.

brunub412 karma

Both! Do you guys like it? Do birds like it? Do you mostly appreciate the variety of flavors and styles, it's portability, or the interactive nature?

lmnmeringue683 karma

I like string cheese and I've never fed string cheese to a crow, but I'd bet they'd love it. As for their favorite food, peanuts are at the top of the list!

KevinJMcGowan599 karma

And cheese curls! Birds are less excited about dairy products than we mammals are.

alderno467 karma

I don't know if these guys really specialize in symbolism, which is definitely here. Other than that, this is mostly a predator/prey kinda thing, I think.

KevinJMcGowan1196 karma

Totally predator-prey thing. Crows are wannabe predators: they love meat, but they don't have the tools to catch and kill much. So, they're always on the lookout for an easy target. Those doves must have looked lost or stupid, and the crow and gull both agreed they were potential meals.

Cozmo23650 karma

How much of the movie The Crow was scientifically accurate?

Unidan1560 karma

Well, people were sad when Brandon Lee got shot, and I'm pretty sad when a real crow gets shot, so I'd say about 96% accurate.

KevinJMcGowan745 karma

What percentage do you give the whole rise-from-the-dead thing?

Unidan1167 karma

Oops, my mistake: 100%.

the80s_partlymyfault616 karma

Until recently I have never seen a flock of crows. How common is it for crows to form a large group?

EDIT: TIL a group of crows will murder stuff. EDIT2: TIL a group of crows will bring you a bouquet of flowers made from bacon.

AnneBClark630 karma

It might help to know where you live and what crow species you are watching. American crows often live in family groups, but while the family shares a territory, they may not often fly in a tight flock (of 2-12 in that case). It is in winter that one sees the largest flocks. Crows in the northern parts of the US move off their territories and join up in foraging flocks of varying sizes. The largest flocks are seen when multiple foraging flocks join up at night to roost together. If you don't see flocks, you may be living in a more rural area where family sizes are smaller and where no winter fields are attracting foraging flocks.

surfnaked337 karma

Heh. Just bring a predatory bird like a hawk or owl into their territory,and you will see the flock form in an amazingly short time. Crows are gangsters.

AnneBClark531 karma

Gangsters you may call them, but hawks and owls eat crows! I find it particularly sad when I find a female crow at the bottom of her nest tree, victim of the owl that also ate her whole group of babies.

LatinArma572 karma

Could crows make good pets? Ever since I was a little kid, I've loved them.

Have you guys also read a childrens book called "Crow boy"? I think it started my obsession.

Edit: This is the book "Crow Boy"

GirlGargoyle424 karma

Would love to hear some professional talk on this. I've seen a few different people on Youtube who fed wild crows in their yard while they were young, and the birds learned that those individuals were trustworthy and good sources of food, bonding with them to the point they'd visit daily and act like free-range pets, sometimes even sleeping in the garage or shed during winter. That always seemed like an ideal setup for all parties involved.

AnneBClark1059 karma

Crows do make excellent pets because they are so social and bond readily with humans when young. BUT--and this is an important BUT--it is illegal to keep crows as pets without special permits, which are granted if there is a special use, as in a zoo. Crows are covered by the same laws as other migratory songbirds, a group to which crows belong.

That said, crows in one's backyard certainly are rewarding free-range pals, as you describe. They do come to recognize individual humans and/or specific human behaviors (the toss of a piece of food). If you do feed crows, best to choose high quality foods. They all too readily accept bread and crackers, but a good cat food would make a better offering for them, particularly in spring when they have young. We have studied urban and rural crow nestlings and the urban ones grow more slowly. This is possibly due to poor but readily available garbage-foods.

Enjoy your crows!

IP_Freely_OnYourCunt543 karma

Which bird is the best bird?

Unidan1074 karma

As someone in a room with American crow biologists, I feel like I shouldn't answer anything but American crow.

I hope they're not reading this.

KevinJMcGowan679 karma

The one you're looking at at the time!

kcbrush507 karma

Yay! Thanks for doing this.

Are birds color-blind? How do you even test birds to find out if they can see colors?

Unidan832 karma

No, quite the opposite!

You can test birds neurologically and physiologically to see if they can see colors, actually. You can also design experiments to essentially make them make choices based on those colors, too.

Birds are quite visual, like us, so seeing bright reds among tropical birds is quite important!

aznsk8s87502 karma

/u/Unidan! One of my favorite reddit celebrities.

Why did you all choose to research the social behavior of crows? How applicable do you think your findings will be to ecosystems outside of North America?

How has climate change in North America (and globally) affected the social behaviors and patterns of crows?

Lastly, I'm a biochemistry major and graduate this year. I was planning on going to medical school, but I haven't been accepted yet. What do?

Unidan538 karma

Great question!

I actually fell into this work through a lucky collaboration. I joined a research lab that is concerned mainly with soil biogeochemistry, and we decided to do a joint project combining Dr. Clark's research crows with our biogeochemistry projects, and the crow project was formed as a result and I was lucky enough to join the lab of these great crow biologists!

This research, from my point of view, will be applicable to lots of "hot spot" biogeochemistry, which is a new topic in the field. It looks at how nutrients transform and change depending on their volume and time of residence. So, even if it's not crows, the research is pretty applicable on the nutrient angle, so input into lakes, agricultural fields, forests, etc. may benefit from this, actually!

Shotzfired468 karma

Why are scarecrows effective for, well, scaring crows?

Unidan915 karma

They may be initially effective, as they do resemble a person, but crows will quickly learn that it's a ruse if it's not moved.

Cllzzrd444 karma

Why are crows attracted to shiny things? Are their nests usually found near abundant sources of said shiny things?

lmnmeringue622 karma

In short, they aren't! See Jenn's blog post on the subject: http://coyot.es/thecorvidblog/2013/10/29/crows-and-shiny-objects/

deus_ex_machina69427 karma

How intelligent are crows, when compared to higher order mammals, eg:- chimps, dolphins, elephants.

Unidan713 karma

It's difficult to compare intelligence across the board, in my opinion, as intelligence tends to be relatively specialized. They're incredibly social, just like the ones you list, though!

James81xa426 karma

I've seen a lot of debate around reddit and I have not found an answer, and I hope you don't get offended by me asking, but are you a boy or a girl?

Edit: Messed up wording

Double Edit: Obligatory "Wow! My most upvoted comment! Thanks!"

Unidan1558 karma

Yes, I am.

Toastwich393 karma

Hello! A park near my house hosts a lot of aggressive crows, and they occasionally attack people who walk through the park. Is there a way to fend to fend them off without being marked as a future target?

Unidan660 karma

It's relatively likely that those crows may be using the park as a nesting site, are there large trees in the park? Next time you get mobbed, see if you can spot a nest!

Unfortunately, crows might be pretty gung-ho about protecting their babies, wouldn't you?

AdmiralJuz369 karma

What's up with those huge groups (murders?) of crows (100+ birds) that sometimes form? Are they plotting something? Should we be worried?

Unidan581 karma

Crows are partially migratory, and as Kevin like to say, if there's two crows in a city, they'll get together!

They naturally form these big flocks, often for safety or information about food, especially during the winter where lots of migrant crows will join together. In some areas, you'll see crows numbering up to 40,000 or more in a single area!

Here's a photo of one of the large roosts coming in to Auburn, NY last year!

DeliriumWigger343 karma

I was looking through your posts once but didn't want to do the work. How much gold do you actually have now?

Unidan887 karma

Well over a decade or so now? It's getting scary!

leif827324 karma

Hi! What's your favorite part about working with crows?

Thanks for doing this AMA!

Unidan642 karma

I enjoy seeing that there's an entire little melodrama being acted out all the time, personally. Hearing some of the drama that goes on between crows is pretty interesting for me, to think that while I'm indoors and cosy, crows are out there all the time, living their lives, too!

ArsenicAndRoses310 karma

Can you comment on language use? What evidence (if any) have you seen for complex communication between crows?

lmnmeringue450 karma

Discussing language in animals is a somewhat controversial and very complex topic! There isn't a firm understanding on what the definition and requirements of animal language are (does language require sentence structure or can language just include calls that indicate a certain food, action or individual?). Additionally, to complicate things, some animals have learned to communicate with humans using human (not animal) language. Koko the gorilla and Alex the parrot come to mind, as examples.

As for crows, a lot is still unknown about their vocalizations. Very few people have studied them. Crows do have a large repertoire of complex calls. We already know that crows give calls associated with certain contexts; they have alarm calls, calls associated with breeding, and possibly food calls. I'm currently working on calls associated with food and breeding and finding out that their calls are sometimes too complex for me to figure out!

They give calls, as opposed to songs. Calls are relatively short vocalizations (caws, squawks, chatters, etc), whereas songs are longer melodious vocalizations that are usually associated with courtship. Calls probably have the most potential to form a language (rather than songs). For an amazing example of call use in animals- see prairie dogs! http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/wild-kingdom/videos/prairie-dog-language.htm

isoprovolone71 karma

Do crows in different parts of North America have different "languages"?

Background: A relative of mine is very familiar with the crow sounds of Michigan. When she visited Seattle, she said the crows had, for lack of a better word, a different accent. They sounded same but different, noticeably twangier is how she explained it. She's very fond of crows, so I trust her observations.

AnneBClark96 karma

A good observation. The Seattle crows include both Northwestern crows and American crows, and the former certainly have a different sound to their calls. This is in part influenced by a smaller body size, but it is also true that crows can do some mimicking. Within species, this makes it likely that there are "regional dialects". But it can also occur between species. In Ithaca NY, we found one Fish Crow (a different species found in NY along with American crows) that was mimicking an American crow call, until a young pushy American crow showed up and chased him. The Fish Crow stopped giving American Crow calls quickly!

whycantispeakfinnish303 karma

I've heard a lot about the tendency of crows to "play games", so to speak. Have you noticed much of this behavior in your research and, if so, what's the most complex activity you've seen crows participate in?

KevinJMcGowan521 karma

Young crows and jays play all the time. The adults, not so much. Young corvids mostly tear apart items, chase each other to get an item (like a feather) back and forth, and hide everything. Most adults are too interested in daily life to be much fun. It's usually a young crow or a yearling that do things like hang upside down and flap their wings.

Ak_Crusader105 karma

Does it ever seem like the adult crows get annoyed with the younglings and retaliate or attempt to stop them?

KevinJMcGowan191 karma

Adult crows definitely get annoyed with young crows, but not with their playing. It's the begging that gets old. Fledgling crows will literally knock down adults to get at food. And then they follow the adults around and beg to their faces all the time the adults are foraging. Very annoying.

readonlyuser104 karma

Hey mum! Mum! Mum! Mum! Mom! Mummy! Mom! Mom! Mom! Mum! Mama! Mommy! Mama! Mama! Mama! Ma! Ma! Mom!

introvertideal57 karma

I saw a video of a crow using a leaf or piece of bark to "snowboard" down a car's windshield. Do these sort of play behaviors help with their cognitive development similar to how human babies play to learn basically everything in their early lives?

EDIT: By 'leaf or piece of bark', I meant white circular object and by 'car windshield', I meant rooftop. My memory sucks and my brain likes to fill in blanks with other things.

Thanks, /u/n9ucs!

AnneBClark38 karma

IT is a reasonable bet, although there have been few studies of physical and cognitive development in crows. I know of no studies of crow play behavior. The specific benefits of play have been hard to demonstrate in any animal, but most behavioral biologists would bet that they are there and important! Might take a long time to demonstrate in animals that take some time to grow up and then live a long time!

buddhabuck272 karma

As crow researchers at the Lab of Ornithology, you are probably uniquely qualified to answer this question:

Why are there so many crows here in Ithaca?

lmnmeringue419 karma

Hi! There actually aren't an extraordinary amount of crows in Ithaca. The Ithaca crow population has actually recently experienced two fairly significant West Nile Virus episodes over the past two summers, so the crow population has actually decreased recently. However, in the winter, you may see large flocks of crows that come in to town to roost. Crows are partially migratory and get together to feed during the day and roost at night.

Otaku-sama267 karma

As researchers, I'm pretty sure that you have some great stories about working with such intelligent birds.

Can you tell us a story or two of uncanny and intelligent behaviour that you didn't expect it to able to do?

JennTalksNature748 karma

Here are a few. Looking back on it, it doesn't surprise me, but at the time, I was shocked.

  1. We were doing an experiment looking at facial recognition. Marzluff's research is about crows remembering a "bad" person, so we were wondering if they might recognize "good" people (i.e. who feed them peanuts). They definitely recognized our faces, which didn't shock us, but what did is that they learned "safe" /behavior/. Once we started sending new people out (different faces) that did the same behaviors as us, they stopped caring who the face was and only cared that the person "acted" like us.

  2. I was trying to get crows to feed from a puzzle box and they were scared of it. One snowy day I loaded it up with peanuts and was sure they'd come down to the delicious food. A bunch of squirrels were interested and started eating from the puzzle box. I hoped that the crows would infer from the squirrels that the puzzle box was not, in fact, a terrifying deadly crow trap. Instead, what they did was wait for the squirrels to take the peanuts away, cache (hide them) in the snow, and go back to the box. The crows then RAIDED THE SQUIRREL CACHES and got all the peanuts they wanted without ever going near my puzzle box :| I was simultaneously impressed and pissed off, haha.

2Weird2Live2Rare2Die127 karma

Haha at number two, but holy shit at number one! If I may ask, what sort of behavior did they read as indicators? I'm just imagining that someone who's visibly dickish in public conduct (shoving in crowds, for example) and then throws something at or otherwise offends a crow could thus teach crows to hate (and, hopefully, poop on) assholes. I might have to make it my life's work to harass crows while wearing AXE body spray and listening to ICP.

JennTalksNature146 karma

Well, for our protocol it was walking toward them with eye contact (something they hate, but if they like you, will tolerate), throwing the peanuts out, then walking away and looking back. Sounds silly, but it was the protocol, and sure enough, if people followed the protocol the crows responded to them positively.

Also, I support that last sentence.

RepliesToBadComments261 karma


KevinJMcGowan437 karma

Both are large black birds that are related to each other. It's kind of like a tiger and a leopard: they are both large patterned cats, closely related, but different species. There are about 50 species in the genus Corvus, and we tend to call the large ones ravens and the smaller ones crows.

SgtChuckle75 karma

Are there differences in behavior, intelligence or diet? Or are ravens just Crows XL?

treerabbit23114 karma

I always envision ravens as being crows older, bigger, quieter, brothers who own muscle cars, drink beer and don't say much except to occasionally whoop someone's ass.

But I might be projecting a little.

KevinJMcGowan135 karma

All species are different in some way. Common Ravens are fascinating and intelligent, but their social system is simplistic next to that of American Crows. Ravens form simple breeding pairs and never see their offspring after they leave in the late summer. Crow kids can stay with their parents up to 8 years, and may come and go during that time.

onecoinguy249 karma

Honestly why do some birds fly multiple times against windows? Can't they remember the reflection of windows? Or are they brain-damaged afterwards?

lmnmeringue541 karma

Birds can fly in to windows for a couple of reasons. First of all, birds might fly in to a window because it cannot see the window and does not realize that the window is in flight path. The bird may fly in to a window multiple times in a row, particularly if it thinks another bird is on its territory. The bird attacks the "intruder" and the "intruder" puts up a pretty good fight!

ST22221 karma

Do crows develop friendships with each other? If so, could they also develop a bond with a human?

lmnmeringue298 karma

This is a great question! Crows do form long-term social bonds with their family group members. Their family groups are usually comprised of a male and female breeding pair and their offspring. However, we have witnessed aunts, uncles, cousins, and unrelated neighbors and unknown crows join these family groups. They help feed the young, defend the territory and feed and roost together. I would say that these relationships could qualify as a friendship! Friendships in the animal world are usually defined as two or more non-relatives that spend a lot of time together (and their behaviors toward each other is affiliative).

lmnmeringue230 karma

Oh! Forgot the second question! Crows can and have developed bonds with humans.

Huntor156 karma

What does this research involve? Is crow social behavior not well understood? What are you looking for in particular?

AnneBClark265 karma

Crow social behavior is indeed poorly understood, in part because crows are so long-lived (19+ years are our oldest documented birds) and because they are so socially complex. Think human social complexity and what it takes to "understand human social behavior". Individuals live in families on territories, but they leave these territories often (daily and sometimes for long periods) to find food or sleep in groups. Thus they meet and interact with large numbers of birds over their lifetimes, but clearly remember their family members.
It doesn't help that one cannot tell them apart without bands and that they are smart enough that it is VERY hard to capture the crow you want in order to band it.

And often common animals are the last ones that people think to study. They aren't exotic enough!

We are studying many aspects of crow social behavior, including how "personality" influences their survival and success in establishing their own families, how older siblings and other family members cooperate to raise the young of the breeding pair, how they react when West Nile Virus has killed family and neighbors (a sad but necessary part of our studies). And finally we are especially interested in how social behavior changes with their living in urban rather than rural areas.

ondaphonedriveing91 karma

Would it in theory be possible to put together a species specific bird to English dictionary? As a lover of small pet birds i listen to them talk all day and sometimes phrases seem to repeat themselves. But are they uniform enough to really translate or are they dependent on individual birds or environmental variables?

lmnmeringue141 karma

A lot is still unknown about bird vocalizations, especially crow vocalizations. Crows give calls, as opposed to songs. Calls are relatively short caws, squawks, chatters, etc, whereas songs are longer melodious vocalizations that are usually associated with courtship. We already know that crows give calls associated with certain contexts; they have alarm calls, calls associated with breeding, and possibly food calls. With extensive research, one could eventually create a rudimentary dictionary of sorts for particular calls...but to make things more difficult, we also know that calls vary due to social and environmental context and some calls are individually distinct for each crow.

Mister_Butters82 karma

My conure seems to be proficient at using tools, communication, has distinct emotional moments, how do parrots stand up on intelligence compared to corvidae? Thanks for the bird brained AMA!

AnneBClark89 karma

It would be hard to make a generalization about one being more or less intelligent. Corvids and parrots, as groups, are clearly among the most social and most manipulative of birds. And social intelligence is a concept that applies to non-humans as well as humans. Both parrot and crow species are going to have special areas of intelligence, but both are highly social and long lived, which seems to lead to sophisticated learning abilities, social memory and social tactics. Both complex emotions and communication are hallmarks of such animals.

v4-digg-refugee81 karma

A few years ago my dad's backyard became an overcrowded bird convention. He only had 8 or 10 trees, but every single branch would be filled with the birds. You could see more birds than trees. It was honestly more dense but less scary than the Hitchcock movie. They'd leave through the day, and come back at sunset. From any point in the city at sunset, you'd see birds flocking toward his house. It'd usually last for a few months through the winter and then they'd disperse. Came back the next year with more birds.

What. On. Earth?

AnneBClark49 karma

Were these crows? IF so, they are acting as many crows do in the winter, grouping at night for safety from owls and leaving to find food during the day. The crows may not even have been from nearby, as crows migrate from northern areas. We have caught and banded a few crows in Ithaca in winter that later were reported to be on summer territories in Canada!

It is certainly possible that parent crows that found your Dad's yard to be comfortable in one winter came back with their offspring the next winter. We also find that a roost site (like the backyard) will be used for a few years and then, suddenly one winter, no crows show up.

Danny87880 karma

Would you recommend studying Zoology at university?

Unidan153 karma

Yes, I would, haha!

SEpdx74 karma

Living in an area with walnut trees, I often witness crows repeatedly dropping walnuts onto roads so that they get smashed open by passing cars. What are the most complex crow behaviors that you have witnessed?

mnahmnah84 karma

I have a similar question; I want to find out if I'm imagining this crow experience or not:

Three years ago, I slowly walked up to a pair of young-adult-looking crows who were picking my cherry tomatoes and throwing them around, and at each other. In a reasonable yet ominous voice I said 'You can eat the grubs in the garden, but tomatoes are my food. Please leave the tomatoes on the vines' and similar, as I walked toward them. They sidestepped out of the garden, and I kept walking and talking, until they made it halfway across the yard, then flapped up onto the compost bin fencing. Once they settled on the compost bin, I changed my tone and said 'That's good. You eat that stuff. Go ahead. Good job' and similar.

I swear that those two crows came back, brought their young the next year, and taught them to eat from the compost, the plants around it (including mountain ash berries and wild grapes), and to leave the garden tomatoes undisturbed. I put lots of delicious stuff in the compost for the crows. I've seen all of the crows in the garden, eating the grubs (which are big and juicy up here in central Ontario), but none have touched the tomatoes.

I took a sabbatical this past year, so I was in or near the garden every day, and the pattern continues. I have never used any netting to protect my garden; I grow apples, blackcurrants, blueberries, blackberries, tomatoes, and the crows respect the boundaries.

Are the crows teaching successive generations to recognize my face and respect my crops?

AnneBClark73 karma

Well, as a friendly person who puts out crow-food in the compost, your face might well be learned by successive generations. As for their respect of your garden, it may be more that there are high-protein, high-fat grubs and high nutrient wild berries about as alternatives. The behavior of the parents may well influence the food choices of their offspring, though. You have a very nice symbiotic relationship with your crows!

OddietheDog72 karma

How prevalent are different personalities when it comes to crows?

AnneBClark93 karma

I would like to wait until another of our group arrives, but a quick answer first. She has been testing two aspects of personality that may be important to crows who move into urban areas: boldness and curiosity. And individual crows are wildly different, even between siblings. All combinations occur, e.g., very bold but not very curious (they come near new objects but don't pay much attention to them) and curious but not very bold (they watch new objects for a long time, but won't come near, even after 10 presentations of the object). We think that personality plays a big role in which animals can adapt to living close to humans.

DriftingMemes39 karma

3000+ comments, and yet the fundraiser only has 16 backers, Reddit, I am disapoint.

Unidan22 karma

We eagerly await your donation, DriftingMemes! :D