The first thing to know about crows is that a group of them is called a murder.
In America, crows count as a Halloween decoration, like skeletons and mini-gravestones. Homeowners perch plastic ones in their trees to instill fear in passersby. People in many cultures consider the crow to be an omen, a harbinger of war and death. In Islamic hadith, reports about Muhammad’s sayings and practices, crows are one of the five animals “for which there is no blame on the one who kills them.” On the Faroe Islands, virginal women once had to throw a stone, a bone, and a clump of dirt at a crow for some reason. Farmers literally erect mannequins in their fields to scare them.
Can we give crows a break?
The world’s treatment of crows is grossly unfair. When I was a kid, my parents told me about their friend Linda, an elementary-school teacher in Illinois. One day, Linda and her class decided to adopt a zoo animal as a service project. When she was reading to them from a list of available animal adoptees, “crow” came up as an option. “Who would want a stupid old crow?” one little boy asked. The class adopted a polar bear instead.
When I heard this story as a child, it devastated me. I knew what it was like to get picked last. I would feel a pang of pity whenever I saw a crow perched on the power lines behind my house or pecking through the yard. Stupid old crow, I would say to myself sadly. But in fact, crows are not stupid. That little boy in Illinois can eat crow—because these birds are really, really smart.
Crows, along with magpies, jays, and ravens, are members of the family Corvidae, a group known for two things: exhibiting complex behaviors, and having massive brains. A New Caledonian crow named Betty once made a TED Talk audience go bananas by bending a wire to make a hook. And researchers believe the Hawaiian crow is likely to have the same talent.
“One of the reasons I got so excited by them was because hooked-tool use is something that only New Caledonian crows and ourselves have invented,” said Alex Taylor, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland. “The great apes haven’t invented using hooks, and [humans] only invented using hooks probably around 100,000 years ago. It’s possible that crows beat us to that bit of technology.” Taylor says the birds have a high encephalization quotient, which means their brains are really big for their bodies. The crows he works with aren’t spooky; they’re observant: “Basically it feels like you’re constantly being observed and assessed,” Taylor says. “You’re dealing with a very smart and watchful animal.”
Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist at the Cornell Lab in New York, told me that the crow’s spooky reputation is pretty unwarranted. “It’s because they’re black and they’re scavengers,” McGowan said. Their bad rap started in northern Europe, where there are no vultures, so ravens and crows were always the first to show up to snack on animal carcasses. When Europeans came to North America, they brought their crow prejudice with them. “That whole combination of being near death, not having a very pretty song, that was all a big negative stigma for these guys to overcome.” He also wishes The Birds had never been made.
“Crows are beautiful,” McGowan says. “A big adult in the sunshine is beautiful, the way the light shines off their wings ... They’re just a really nice-looking bird.”
But sometimes crows are victims of mistaken identity. Grackles look like crows, except they are smaller and shinier, more of an iridescent purple. They bully other birds at feeders, and they can damage crops. They also make a horrible sound, like a screen door closing, or a rusty gate swinging open. Grackles are the birds that you hear and you think ugh. Crows, though. Crows are matte black, and they make a sharp, clear caw caw. Ravens, like the one who barges into the chamber in the Edgar Allan Poe poem, are also not crows. They are much larger, roughly the size of a red-tailed hawk.
While humans might sometimes conflate crows with their avian relatives, research shows that crows rarely forget a face. John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, once conducted an experiment with two masks—a “dangerous” mask and a “neutral” mask. His assistants wore the dangerous mask to capture and band several crows, and for months afterward, he and his students wore both disguises around campus: The ones in the dangerous masks were repeatedly scolded by crows, while the ones in neutral masks were left alone. The crows also appeared to warn their friends of the danger at hand.
They have “great family values,” McGowan told WBUR in 2015. “They do neighborhood watch. They help each other out.” McGowan said. “They are very interested in working together to make the world a safer place for other crows.”
Kaeli Swift, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington, researches crow “funerals.” On her blog Corvid Research, Swift writes that crows “appear to respond strongly once they discover a dead member of their own species.” They use death as a teachable moment, gathering around their fallen comrades in an attempt to identify potential threats. It’s something only a handful of nonhuman animals do.
And they can be generous gift givers, too: In 2015, an 8-year-old girl in Seattle named Gabi Mann started feeding her neighborhood crows scraps of food. In return, they left her dozens of little tokens—buttons and paper clips and pieces of colored glass. Gabi told the BBC that her favorite gift from the crows was a tiny heart charm. “It's showing me how much they love me,” she said.
It’s high time we give these resourceful, community-minded creatures some love in return. McGowan, who has spent more than 30 years studying and teaching people about crows, says he’s working to do just that. “I do try to tell people they’re not evil birds,” he said. “They’re just trying to make their way and do the best they can.” He tells me that this year at the Cornell Lab, the tagging color is orange, which means every crow identified by his team will get a little pumpkin-colored tag pinned to its wing. “It looks real nice, the orange with the black feathers,” McGowan says. “It looks really nice.”
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