How to Make Friends With Crows
The Family of Crows in My Neighborhood
In 2010, I was sitting on the steps in front of my house watching my kids play on the sidewalk when I looked up and saw a crow sitting on the telephone wire. While my kids chattered and squawked and fought over who got the green chalk, that crow sat with her head cocked to one side, observing us with one friendly black eye. Although I can't be certain, it sure seemed like she was just as amused as I was.
I'm not an ornithologist or even a birdwatcher, but crows intrigue me. Since that day, I have become friends with the neighborhood crows, and I've learned a thing or three along the way.
The Way to a Crow's Heart
The best way to introduce yourself to a crow is by feeding it. I'm sure there are other ways to go about it, but the easiest, fastest way to a crow's heart is food.
Some may argue that a crow is a wild animal and by feeding it, you encourage an unnatural dependence. And with most wildlife, this is an excellent philosophy. But crows and humans have been living side-by-side for centuries now, and researchers like Marzluff and Angell, who wrote In the Company of Crows and Ravens, point to many instances of cultural coevolution between us. It's been an arguably symbiotic relationship for quite awhile now.
Certainly, after all this time together, humans' and crows' lives and histories have become closely intertwined. I moved to this neighborhood in this small city 15 years ago. I'm relatively new here, but since crows have territories they pass on to their children, the crows in my neighborhood may have descended from birds who lived here more than a hundred years ago. They've watched people come and go for years, people who may have watched them right back.
So anyway, we're neighbors, and feeding is the neighborly thing to do.
How to Make Friends With a Crow: Step-by-Step
- Find some food that the crow seems to like. This requires some trial and error, as they can —or maybe it's just the urban ones who can—be surprisingly finicky. You'll know the crow likes it judging by how quickly it swoops down to grab it. If that pile of leftovers sits all day, they just aren't interested, so try something else, only make sure it's healthy. Crows like junk food, but giving it to them is probably not a kind thing to do. (For more food options, Aves Noir has a nice list of things crows do and don't like.)
- Stock that food. Buy enough so you don't run out. I buy huge bags of unsalted peanuts from Costco. If you have any menu suggestions, please share them in the comments section below.
- Establish a regular feeding schedule, so they know when to expect you and vice versa. If you don't establish a rhythm for interaction, the relationship may never gel. And don't feed them so much that they become dependent—just a handful of something to show you care.
- Be dependable, steadfast, and observant. Don't just throw the food out there and walk away. Stay (at a safe distance) to watch them eat (or select carefully and fly off to cache it for later). Since crows have territories, take some time to try to get to know how big your local crow family is. (FYI usually, a mated pair builds a nest and lays an egg or two every year. Some of the previous years' hatchlings hang around for several years before they move away to mate and take a new territory. This is what a "normal" family looks like, but I've heard stories about multiple generations sharing a turf.) (Please describe your neighborhood's crow family in the comments!) My crows feel most comfortable swooping down to grab the peanuts I throw if I'm sitting in my car, so I keep a bagful in the front seat for this purpose.
- Don't try to get too close. These are wild animals, after all. Your goal shouldn't be to tame them or take them as pets, which is illegal in most states anyway, and ethically dubious. Even after years of friendship, a crow will be skittish and standoffish (but admiring from afar) and it's better this way.
What Do Crows Like to Eat?
Crows are omnivorous scavengers so they're quite open-minded about what they eat. They'll do fruit, vegetables, insects, berries, kibble, popcorn, kitchen scraps, road kill, and—in a pinch—even vomit. I've heard that they show a preference for food wrapped in a fast-food wrapper (yes, they even recognize the brand). Their bad reputation as harbingers of death probably has something to do with the fact that they'll swoop down to help clean up a battleground (they are scavengers, after all). They'll pillage eggs from other birds and they'll rummage through your garbage can if you let them.
What can I feed the crows?
The crows in my neighborhood are slightly more choosy about what they eat, perhaps because they have access to many sources of food and can afford to be picky. I imagine that the diets of country crows differs vastly from that of their city-dwelling cousins. I've tried getting them to help me out in the garden by eating the snails, but they're not interested. I've tried kitchen scraps with mixed results—they pick out what they want and leave the mess for me to clean up—so mostly, I give them boiled eggs (which they gobble up, shell and all) and I keep a bag of roasted, unsalted peanuts in my car so I can toss them a handful whenever we meet.
Sometimes, the crows will peck open and gulp down the food right there in the street. Other times, especially with the peanuts, they'll stuff their gullets and fly off to cache their horde so they can enjoy it later. The peanuts' shells make them very portable and cacheable.
Crows' Favorite Foods
- unsalted peanuts, in the shell
- boiled eggs, shell and all
- table scraps
- cat or dog food, wet or dry
I've heard they love fast food but don't recommend that you give it to them.
Why Don't the Crows Trust Me?
One day, a man was walking by while I was feeding the crows. He was excited by the idea and wanted to try, so I gave him a handful peanuts. He walked under the telephone wire they were sitting on and held up his hand. The crows just eyeballed him.
"They're not going to come to you," I told him. "You have to throw the peanuts into the street."
So he tossed the peanuts down at his feet and looked up at the crows, who didn't budge. "What's the matter with them? Why won't they eat?" he wanted to know, and when I explained that crows aren't like that, that even though I'd been feeding them for years they never came closer than a few feet away, he lost interest and continued on down the street.
Crows can be skittish and aloof. They are never going to come running like a dog will for a lick and a pet, and their standoffish attitude is probably a major reason why they have thrived as a species for so long. Remember, crows are wild animals. In the US, it is illegal to keep native songbirds (crows included) as pets. If you want a pet you should get one, but if you're interested in crows, you'll have to learn to appreciate their charms from afar.
Besides, get real, most humans view crows as ominous, murderous evils (or at best, rats with wings). For centuries, they have played the bad guys in the stories humans tell themselves, and I'm sure those crows have noticed the eye-daggers most people shoot at them, how cars veer to the shoulder to intentionally run them over. Why wouldn't that distrust be mutual?
So crows will take their own sweet time deciding if they trust you or not, but once they know who you are, they'll never forget. At first, they may give you the cold shoulder and ignore your offerings, but don't take it personally. Remember that paranoia is all about survival but patience and vigilance will eventually pay off. If you pass the test, they will decide to trust.
Crows Recognize Faces
How Can I Communicate With Crows?
There are stories of crows who have learned certain words—the way a parrot can—but those stories are rare. Most of us will settle for a subtler kind of bird/human exchange and will learn to interpret the crow's own natural forms of communication.
Experts can identify many different calls, but even an amateur like me can begin to recognize certain sounds:
- When the crow on lookout sees the food you've offered, she'll summon her family members with a caw, caw, caw.
- To me, the "come eat!" call sounds a lot like the scolding noise they make when they see a stranger or a dog or some other possible threat.
- Then there's that rattling they do most often during mating season.
- After awhile, you may begin to recognize the difference between the vocalizations of an adult and a baby. (The babies sound whinier and chattier than their parents, go figure.)
- If you're lucky and they like you, they might mutter at you from above.
The crows will return the favor of your attention by learning to interpret your signs, as well. They will memorize your schedule and the sound of your car keys. Sometimes, when I'm standing like a crazy person in the street with a hard boiled egg in my hand and no crows in sight, I've taken to whistling to let them know I'm there. My whistle (a "yoo hoo" sound issued between my teeth) is like the dinner bell letting the crows know it's time to eat.
One summer I went away on vacation for a couple weeks and within a few days of my return, I came out of my house to find a huge group of crows waiting for me, making a cacophony of caws. It was a quite a spectacle and I don't know what they were trying to communicate to me, but I know it was something (see video below).
Crows Talk (But I Don't Know What It Means)
(The video above is one I took when I discovered a huge flock of crows outside my house one day.)
Where Did the Crows Go?
Although the crows you see in your neighborhood "own" that territory and are very territorial, that doesn't mean they never leave. For most of the year, before the sun goes down, crows fly to a communal roost. They may fly for miles to get there, stopping here and there along the way to chat with other crows until they reach the roost, where they'll all sleep together, perhaps as many as a thousand in one place. (I've never seen a roost myself; one report says up to 40,000 crows may roost in one spot, another says that a roost may be a few hundred to two million.)
The only time crows build individual nests in their territory is during spring, when they become quite secretive to protect their young from predation. You may spy them from afar, carrying nest-building materials in their beaks. During this time, after the eggs are laid and when they're newly hatched, crows become even more skittish and standoffish than usual.
So if the crows suddenly disappear, don't worry—check your watch and calendar and you may understand why.
Do you want to be friends with crows?
Questions & Answers
Have you ever witnessed a crow funeral? I saw one a couple of years ago near my house under a telephone pole.
I have often seen crows gather in large groups and have strange- and emotional-sounding conversations. I always wonder what the topic is, but I suppose the only way to know for sure it is a funeral is if there is a dead crow. I have never seen a dead crow in my neighborhood. However, I have seen a dead baby raven in the place on the mountain where I walk every day. It was at the foot of a tall tree and I assume that's where the nest was and it did not learn how to fly fast enough. For days, I heard the parents croaking and muttering in the trees overhead.
I have been feeding a young crow who was introduced to me via his dad whom I have been feeding for over a year. The young bird and I were very close and would feed out of my hand and bring gifts but I have not seen him for a few days? Where is he and why?
My guess is that she or he is out wooing someone. It's that time of year, you know. When crows are old enough, they mate for life and then establish their own territory. Maybe your crow friend is growing up.
Is that normal to have only one lonely crow camping in my backyard? I have been giving this crow my leftover food & fruit. She/he would be on the tree branch looking in my back door when I come down for coffee in the morning and when we have dinner at night.
I've heard crows collect shiny trinkets. Is this right?
I believe most corvids (including crows, ravens, blue jays, magpies, etc.) have artistic eyes and like to gather bright, shiny, colorful things. I don't know what they do with them, since I've never looked inside a nest to see how they've decorated. "Nesting" is the term we use, and it applies to both corvids and many humans!
Do you have specific crow friends and can you tell them apart? If so, how?
I'd like to believe that I can tell them apart, but the truth is I'm guessing. I can usually guess that the two or three crows that linger outside my house and caw when they see me are the mated pair and their fledgling, and that the other crows who come flying are the neighboring families. But in truth, I am only guessing based on behavior. None of the crows I see have any distinguishing marks (variations in size, distinguished beaks or feathers, or other marks) that would help me. When a large (10+) crowd shows up, there is one crow that has a unique voice that sounds almost human. I can hear that crow's uniqueness, but I couldn't pick that strange-voiced crow out in a lineup!
© 2014 Joanna