American Crow

American Crow, Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Seattle is a city of crows. And they have a nasty reputation. Folks here know them as picnic terrorists, garden plunderers, and (on garbage-collection days) maniacal strewers of trash. We know them also as destroyers of nests (they eat eggs and baby birds) and as ruthless mobbers of hawks, owls, and eagles.

Crows are also brilliantly intelligent and highly socialized. And we keep learning more and more impressive facts about their minds and behaviors.

Crows mob a Red-tail Hawk

Crows mobbing a Red-tail Hawk

I recently grabbed a sandwich and took a stroll through a large forested park in West Seattle, under the watch of dozens of hungry crows.

An ethic among birders is never to hand-feed wildlife. Human food is generally bad for non-humans, and feeding wildlife makes them more likely to become pests. But I made an exception in this instance, figuring these crows were probably already getting 90% of their calories from the many picnickers nearby.

I placed a piece of bread on the rail beside the path, and experimented with how far I had to back away before a crow would venture to grab it. By avoiding eye contact, I could induce one crow to take the bread from my fingers. And so I fed several crows, took a few photos, and walked on.

Then things got interesting.

I was walking quietly when WHOOSH! a black figure swooped by from behind, pivoted, and hopped along the path ahead, eyeing me for another handout. Despite my refusals, two crows continued this behavior for the next hour or so.

Crows are known to identify individual people by face and other features (see book reference below). Will the crows I fed that day remember me the next time I’m in their neighborhood? My hypothesis: I’ll be recognizable to them. But they’ll all look the same to me. Stay tuned.

Do Crows Like To Play? My neighbor Andy recorded a video of a crow interacting with a tennis ball in his yard. Perhaps the crow thought the ball was edible, but then discovered it worked better as a toy? For best viewing , watch it on YouTube.


Gifts of the Crow (book)Recommended Reading:

Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans, by University of Washington wildlife biologist John Marzluff and Seattle artist Tony Angell.

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  1. Posted August 14, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Marc, I absolutely love crows and they’ve been one of my urban bird joys since moving back to Seattle after 20+ years away. I had a similar experience. I usually carry some peanuts and bird seed in the car … long story, but it’s helped avert a few bird-auto collisions when I can distract birds from standing in the middle of the road. Anyway, I was at a parking area where crows were looking for handouts. I tossed a small handful of peanuts which they readily grabbed. I started to drive slowly out of the lot and the crows, having none of that, flew in front of the car and stopped on the pavement! It would have been suicidal if I had been one of those people who drives through flocks of birds. I stopped, of course, not wanting to possibly injure them. I’d start to inch forward and they’d do the same thing — they’d fly up and then stop in front of the car. They did this repeatedly until I threw out more peanuts. After the last batch, I left the lot and had a few of them follow my car half a block.

    In less positive circumstances, I stopped on a road in the U District to rescue a fledgling crow that had been hit by a car. No one was stopping and I quickly pulled over to the side and ran back to get her. She died before I could help her, sadly. As I moved her off the road into a grassy area I found another dead fledgling there, probably same nest, same car fate. They appeared to be the same age. The crow parents were cawing at me furiously as I would have expected — these were their babies. Of course my repeated refrains “I’m so sorry” had no effect. When I drove away, they flew after my car, mobbing it for a block. I felt so incredibly disheartened for them.

    • Marc Hoffman
      Posted August 14, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Ingrid, as you can imagine, I completely empathize with you about crows. As pesky as they are, they only seem more endearing to me, especially since their peskiness is always connected to their intelligence.

      It’s very difficult to rescue a bird once it has been severely injured. They tend to be worse off than they ever show, so if they look bad, you can be pretty sure they’re in very severe condition. I rescued a beautiful Kingfisher once that had apparently been struck by a car and was flapping by the side of the entry to the SR 520 bridge over Lake Washington. I pulled onto an unused traffic ramp, raced back with a piece of cloth torn from a bedspread I had in my car, and wrapped the bird in the cloth to help keep it subdued. But it died during the 10-minute drive to my home.

      Readers may want to read my post “When a Bird Hits Your Window” for some suggestions about helping birds recover from a trauma.

      • Posted August 14, 2013 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the kind reply, Marc. And yes, you’re right about those severe injuries. I volunteered at a wildlife hospital for about 6 years so you could say I can’t help myself, despite how dire the situations appear sometimes. 🙂

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