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 Befriend 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 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, the crows 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 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 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 bag full of nuts 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 questionable. 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 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.
At least those are the reports I read. 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 my 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 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.
Why Don't They 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 they noticed the eye-daggers most people shoot at them, how cars veer to the shoulder to intentionally run them over, so why wouldn't that distrust be mutual?
So anyhow, 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
Communicating 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 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, it sound 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 crow (the babies often sound whinier and chattier than their parents, go figure). If you're lucky and the crows 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 Communicate (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.