Nest-Door Neighbors

By Matt Seek | September 1, 2018
From Xplor: September/October 2018


Whether you live in the city or country, it’s a good bet that a family of American crows lives somewhere nearby. It’s no caws for alarm. The brash, black birds can be nosy — and noisy — but if you know what to watch for, they make interesting neighbors.

Crow families are close-knit. Besides mom and pop, a crow clan usually consists of newborn crows, featherbrained 1-yearolds, and fully grown sons and daughters.

Crows may live with their parents for up to five years. The youngsters help their parents build nests, raise babies, find food, and watch for danger.

You may notice blue-eyed crows in your yard in the late spring. These are babies that have just learned to fly. Their eyes will turn dark brown in a couple of months.

Crows usually build their nests high up in the tops of evergreen trees. On a ship, sailors climb up the mast to reach the “crow’s nest,” a high place where they can get a good look around.

Crows will eat nearly anything: grains, nuts, fruits, insects, worms, mice, birds, eggs, fish, frogs, small snakes, young turtles, crayfish, and even garbage. Crows feed their babies mostly grains and insects, but youngsters may get other foods, too — even french fries!

Brainy Birds

If you think “birdbrain” is an insult, you’ve never watched a crow.Crows are known for being creative and clever. In fact, they’re among the smartest birds on the planet.

Biologists have learned that crows can count, solve simple puzzles, be trained to talk, and use tools to gather food.

Snack attack!

Crows have been seen flying high into the sky to drop walnuts, pecans, clams, and dead turtles onto paved roads. Crack! When these snack bombs hit the ground, their shells break open, allowing the crafty crows to eat the meat inside.

A biologist once watched a family of crows team up to outwit a river otter. The otter had just caught a fish. But before the furry fisher could snarf down its dinner, a crow flew in and began pecking on the otter’s tail. When the angry otter spun around to teach the cheeky crow a lesson, another crow swooped down and flew away with the fish.

Robbin’ a Robin

You may see songbirds dive-bomb a crow, swooping down to peck at the crow’s
back as it flies. The smaller birds aren’t being bullies. They’re trying to keep the crow away from their eggs. Crows sometimes follow mama birds back to their nests to steal an egg for a snack. The crow doesn’t mean to be mean. It just wants to find enough food to survive.

Caws for Alarm

If a crow spots a hawk or an owl in your neighborhood, it usually causes quite a crowmotion. The crow will scold the predator with loud calls. Caw! Caw! Caw! This attracts nearby crows, who join in on the scolding. The ruckus they raise usually drives away the bird of prey, and the crow mob often pursues the predator, harassing it as it flies.

Play Time

Biologists believe there are more than 10,000 different kinds of birds on Earth. But play has been observed in only about 25 bird species, which must make all those feathered flocks incredibly b-o-r-i-n-g. Crows, however, love to have fun.

Young crows play tug of war with bones, twigs, and leaves. They also wrestle with their brothers and sisters and pull on tail feathers when their siblings aren’t looking. Videos on the internet show crows rolling in the snow, sliding on their backs down icy car windshields, and using a plastic jar lid to sled down a snow-covered roof. When the wind blows, crows go surfing. They fly beakfirst into the breeze and then flip over to let it fling them backward. Sometimes, apparently for no reason, crows grab a skinny branch with their feet and dangle upside down like a shiny black Christmas tree ornament.

Making a Trade

If you want to make friends with your crow neighbors, leave them something to eat, such as shelled corn or whole peanuts. People who feed crows are often surprised to find that crows sometimes leave “gifts” in return: bottle caps, shiny wrappers, shirt buttons, keys, coins, or Lego blocks.

If you feed crows long enough, they may learn to recognize you. A biologist who was studying crows learned that crows can even teach other crows to recognize people. The biologist wore a Halloween mask when he trapped and banded crows for his study. The crows hated being trapped and banded. So when the biologist returned to the trapping site wearing the mask, gangs of crows would dive-bomb him. But when he showed up without the mask, the crows ignored him. A decade after the study, nearly all of the crows that were originally trapped are gone. But when the biologist wears the mask, he still gets mobbed.

What’s the moral to this story? It’s best to stay on the good side of your nosy, noisy, nest-door neighbors!

Fun Facts

  • Crows often save their leftovers for later. They dig shallow holes, place food inside, and cover it with grass and leaves. While doing so, crows scan the sky to make sure other animals haven’t spied their hiding spots.
  • Cities — with their buffet of trash cans and dumpsters — are ready-made crow cafes. Discarded human food may make up more than half of an urban crow’s diet.
  • When crows feed on the ground, one member of the gang stays up in a tree as a lookout. If the watchcrow spots a cat or another predator, it caws loudly, and its fellow crows skedaddle.
  • In winter, crow families gather with other crows to sleep. They arrive at their community roosts before sunset, sleep all night, and return home the next morning. Some roosts may contain 2 million noisy crows!

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This Issue's Staff

Bonnie Chasteen
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Angie Daly Morfeld
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White