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The Secrets Of Gift-Giving Crows

You may not receive a gift from crows in return for feeding them, as one family reports they did, but the experts say it’s OK to share a snack with these smart, social birds.

By Vicki Croke

Joe McKenna-Flickr

Joe McKenna/Flickr Creative Commons

It’s an intriguing headline: “Seattle Girl Befriends Neighborhood Crows, Making Bird Lovers Everywhere Jealous.”

It ran over Audubon online’s story about Gabi Mann, an 8-year-old girl in Seattle who has befriended a group of crows in her neighborhood by putting food out for them. Gabi and her family report that for the past couple of years, in an exchange—or just out of pure friendship—the birds have been leaving the girl small, often shiny items, which the family says are gifts: small pieces of brown glass, a bead, a button, a paper clip. Her favorite is a little heart pendant.

As soon as I read that story, I wanted to know more about it, especially because I had had a fun friendship years ago with a group of crows in my neighborhood, a friendship that had been coached by Kevin McGowan, a crow expert with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Vicki spoke with Here & Now’s Robin Young about the incredible intelligence of crows (and how willing they are to make friends with us).

First, I read what John Marzluff, a crow expert and author, and professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, had to say about this to the BBC News Magazine. He pointed out that crows do give gifts among themselves and that they certainly interact with people and quickly learn things when food is involved:

“If you want to form a bond with a crow, be consistent in rewarding them,” advises John Marzluff, professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington. He specialises in birds, particularly crows and ravens…

 

Marzluff, and his colleague Mark Miller, did a study of crows and the people who feed them. They found that crows and people form a very personal relationship. “There’s definitely a two-way communication going on there,” Marzluff says. “They understand each other’s signals.”

 

The birds communicate by how they fly, how close they walk, and where they sit. The human learns their language and the crows learn their feeder’s patterns and posture. They start to know and trust each other. Sometimes a crow leaves a gift.

 

But crow gifts are not guaranteed. “I can’t say they always will (give presents),” Marzluff admits, having never received any gifts personally, “but I have seen an awful lot of things crows have brought people.”

Next, I phoned “my” expert, Kevin McGowan at Cornell. He has never seen this kind of “gift giving” behavior among his study crows on the East Coast. Though he says that crows cache food, and young crows play with objects and cache things that aren’t exactly food, like acorn caps.

I wondered if West Coast crows different than East Coast crows. And Dr. McGowan said there are differences in their social structure.

I know that crows certainly seem to display “cultural” differences between populations. And Marzluff and others have written at length about how amazing these birds are. They score as high as primates in some intelligence tests. They fashion and use tools.

How do you raise the water level in a tube to reach a treat? Clever crows figure out a solution fast:

Crows in captivity will figure out how to fill a cup with water to moisten their food, or bend wire into a hook to lift a tiny bucket. In the wild they’ll bring dry bread to a birdbath to soak and soften it. They may stack scattered crackers into a pile so they can carry the whole pile away. And in Japan, they place walnuts in front of stopped cars in an intersection and wait for the cars to go forward and crush the nuts. Then they swoop in and safely retrieve the nut meats.

They recognize individual human faces. They can mimic human voices. They’re very social and they are terrific problem solvers.

I asked Kevin McGowan if it is OK to encourage people to feed crows and interact with them as this little girl in Seattle did (and as I once did myself).

With a few cautions provided, he said he’s in favor of positive interactions between crows and people.

He’s been studying the birds for 26 years, and he started feeding crows himself long ago in order to make up for what the crows perceived as his bad behavior. As part of his work, he would climb up to crow nests to weigh the babies, and the birds saw him as a nest predator.

“You get kind of paranoid after a while when you’re driving around and crows yell at you,” McGowan said, “so I decided I was going to try to make some of them like me and we started offering them peanuts and it turned out it’s a good research tool actually, because it allows us to census families and so keep track of who’s alive and that kind of stuff and make sure that we’ve actually found them and so we do use it not indiscriminately—in fact, I discourage people from doing a whole lot of heavy feeding of crows.”

Kevin McGowan crow nest

Kevin McGowan checking in on some baby crows. Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

McGowan first talked to me about that in 1998, and I immediately began to feed peanuts to the crows who would hang around the park where I brought my dog every day.

The birds very quickly—within a few days– recognized me—swooping over and calling to me—to get their handout.

They also recognized my car—and in a maneuver that I cherished, they would act like fighter jets escorting Air Force One: they’d glide right next to the driver window at head level, guiding me into my parking spot.

I hadn’t spoken to McGowan in more than 15 years and I was eager to tell him about this. But when I excitedly described the escorting behavior, he said matter-of-factly–“standard.” To him this was ho-hum.

But even if Kevin didn’t make me feel special, the birds did. They made it clear that they had a relationship with me. I knew that because if someone else used my car to bring my dog to the park, the crows would not swoop down. They would stay back. They knew me specifically.

David Levinson-Flickr

David Levinson/Flickr Creative Commons

Unfortunately, it appears that West Nile virus wiped out “my” crows soon after, as it did crow populations in a lot of places in the late 1990s. Dr. McGowan says some places lost 75 percent of their crow populations and in some areas they still have not recovered.

He saw many study birds die during this time. And for him it was personal. As he phrased it, he lost 35 birds that he had known since they were eggs. And these are animals who under the right circumstances can live a long time—one captive crow made it to the age of 59.

If you decide to befriend some crows near you, there are a few guidelines to follow to make sure you’re being responsible:

*Feed them something healthy—unsalted peanuts, with or without the shells are recommended by the crow experts themselves.

 

*Don’t throw the nuts AT them, and don’t feed them too much. These are wild birds accustomed to gathering their own food—so a few peanuts are plenty.

 

*Also, make sure you’re not luring these birds into a dangerous situation—a place where cars are coming or an area where neighbors might get angry about loud crows hanging around.

McGowan knows of a case where an angry neighbor shot some of the crows because they were loud and messy—dropping peanut shells. Dumping tons of food for wildlife can cause a problem.

It’s easy to see why we are intrigued by crows. They seem a lot like us.

They’re noisy, smart, and social. They’re omnivores and opportunists. They mate for life. They can live in large extended families with the kids helping out around the nest. Young crows who have left for years will be recognized and welcomed back to the family. They have extensive vocalizations and vocabularies.

Kevin McGowan talks about what he calls crow “family values”—when we hear them cawing—they’re communicating to each other—often helping save one another from danger, an owl for instance. And they’ve been observed feeding injured adult crows in their family. “They have great family values,” McGowan says. “They do neighborhood watch. They help each other out. They are everything almost that you would want from a moral animal as we see it. They really do pay attention to the threats that are occurring to other crows. They are very interested in working together to make the world a safer place for other crows. It’s kind of just the way they are.”

What is “snowlidding”? Let a fun-loving city crow show you:

Funny thing is that he’s also witnessed not-so-nice actions he compares to human behavior:

“Have you ever seen the movie …‘Body Heat’?” McGowan asks me. “We have a story pretty much exactly like that where the female lures in a male and gets him to kill her husband and then she double crosses him by actually taking a different male as a mate.”

Some of my favorite crow stories come from the late Jean Craighead George, the children’s book author, who once had a rescued orphaned crow named Crowbar who would eat scrambled eggs with the family and walk the kids to the school bus.

Crowbar could mimic Jean’s voice and confuse people by calling out “Hello!” from treetops. And he used a coffee can lid to play with the kids on the slide.

As Jean recounted in her writing, Crowbar often stole milk money from the kids and would cache it on the rooftop next door, which just happened to be a bank. Coincidence?

For more about crows and ravens, check out the stories that BBC magazine readers sent in about their own experiences with the birds in response to the original article about the Seattle crows.

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27 Responses to “The Secrets Of Gift-Giving Crows”

    • TerryTheSpyderRyder

      didn’t really have much to do about crows….the movie referred to a flock of crows sometimes being called a “murder” of crows, just as a gaggle of geese, covey of quail, etc.etc.

      Reply
  1. Jeff

    I watched crows chase off some hawks recently. At first there were about 4 crows then all of a sudden there were about 8 or 9. The hawks also increased their numbers to about 5 of them and at one point the sky looked like some kind of WW1 dogfight. The crows were diving at the hawks from many directions.
    The hawks eventually gave up and flew off and crows all landed in trees around the house and seemed very pleased with themselves.

    Reply
    • Jennifer

      Ah, yes. My crows always seem to do victory laps and preen on the garage roof after chasing off their enemies. :)
      Oddly enough, they share a large tree with an owl and a large family of bats. It seems to be a friendly enough relationship.

      Reply
      • Jeremy

        I would think if the owl was small enough not to be a threat to the crows the owl could benefit from the crows being protective of the territory… And the crows could scavenge the owls food scraps.

        Reply
  2. Teri

    I discovered crows in early 2002. They had gathered all in my tree and all over my yard when I happened to look out of my window and seen there were maybe 20-30 crows hanging out quietly. I don’t know what drew them to my house, but they have seemingly been everywhere I have moved. I notice crows and wish to try the feeding them now that I know how to do it the right way from reading this article. I wish I knew what brought them to my yard that first time. I still can’t believe I didn’t hear them when they arrived as they didn’t make a sound!

    Reply
    • Brittany Paul

      I’ve found that large numbers of crows will flock to spiritually minded people who are lost in their path. If you believe in guardian angels/animals, they are there to “problem solve” with you. If you are spiritual give it a Google , if some time has passed you’ll understand, you’ll see the crows intentions.

      Reply
  3. Nadine

    Last year I saw a gang of crows and 2 magpies and some seagulls ganging up on a baby rabbit
    The rabbit kept trying to escape but they was all pecking it …it hid under a car and they all circled the car …the seagull went under the car and chased it out … Then thy all carried on attacking …oh I like crows …well I like all birds but this was not nice …I couldn’t dare them as I was on other side of dual carriage way

    Reply
  4. Annie Colon

    I feed the crows and have never received a gift from them but I have noticed that they ALWAYS call their group when there is food share it with them.

    Reply
  5. Tammy Tolbert

    When I was a child my neighbors had a talking crow. I also seen and heard one in an old Mom and Pop store. This was in Chillicothe Ohio. I have always loved them. They are beautiful and interesting birds.

    Reply
  6. Mike Harris

    Love the show!
    The more we study, the more we see that birds possess traits of intelligence once reserved for primates … and not just crows.
    Here is a video of a bird “fishing”

    see: https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10201667663243500&pnref=story

    Importantly, this bird can compare the immediate reward of eating the bait, vs the subsequent reward of a higher quality fish … understanding the concept that sometimes a bird in the hand should be sacrificed for the two in the bush.

    Reply
  7. geckojoe17

    I once worked at a restaurant where a crow had learned to knock on the door to get food. He came around with his buddies every year and pecked at the door. We’d throw some food out for them. They’d eat it and fly away. How in the world did they learn to peck on the door in the first place?

    Reply
  8. vickie

    I have been feeding a crow and his mate for two years now. I told my mom I thought he was following my van, it is good to know that they do that and I’m not crazy. Lol

    Reply
  9. Michael

    I always heard stories of my father having a pet crow. In 1979, we moved to Oklahoma, and one evening, while walking along a creek, I heard, then watched a big bird fly out of a next in a Cedar tree (ever wonder what that white ‘paint’/stuff coating the trunk of those trees?). Cedar trees are easy to climb, and I reached this next with 4 blue eggs. I returned to the ground, and retrieved my father, and we monitored the nest for several weeks until the eggs hatched. There were 4 blind, featherless, dark skinned chicks in the nest.

    We returned a week later, and retrieved 2 of them. I named one ‘hawk-eye’ after the character on the television show “M.A.S.H”, and the other my brother named Pete. We feed them day and night, a mixture of bread dipped in raw eggs, (supplemented with raw liver, and even raw hamburger) until their crop (an area of expansion of the lower esophagus to one or two esophageal pouches where a gizzard is used to grind their food for further ingestion) was full. We kept them in a home-made incubator (card board box with rags with a lamp on the other side to provide additional heat). When they needed to ‘excrete waste’ they would stick there rears up higher than the wall, and squirt out and away from the box (this is the white ‘paint’ coating the trunks of many cedar trees in Oklahoma).

    When they grew out their feathers, and started to explorer, we placed them in the garage while everyone was away from home. The slightly larger crow, Hawk-eye, never imprinted on us, and I believe it was because he was older. While he would hop around the hard, and come to us when we displayed food, he always had a wilder side. Pete was always perched on our arms, shoulders, leggs, chairs, and even our basset hound. One day, we returned home to find that a Real Estate sign had fallen sideways and killed Hawk-eye.

    My family has had several crows over the decades, and each had their own personality, but none as incredible as Pete. Crows are territorial. They can certainly recognized individual people (they also had an odd and natural fear of guns, even toys). While there were many people on good terms with Pete, others were scared of him, and he would land on their head, dig his beak into their head, and pull out hair.

    Our crows experienced a weird behavior when exposed to carbonated beverages. They would open their wings, and flop backwards when exposed to carbonated (Soda and beer). When poured into a shallow bowl, they would immediately jump into the bowl and bathe in that carbonated beverage.

    I lived 2 miles from my middle school, and had to ride my bike to Football practice during summer practice. Pete would follow me to school, even flying and landing on my outstretched arm, or shoulder. He would even entertain himself during the multi-hour practice, and return home with me, or he would fly home on his own. He rarely bothered the others members of my team, excluding one guy from my neighborhood, that attempted to approach him, and Pete quickly jumped, flew, over his head, and onto a car top.

    We lived behind a high ranking official with the Oklahoma Wildlife Department. A really nice guy, nice family, however our crow would continually attack his children (land on their head and peck them to remove hair). He gave us an ultimatum, to either Cage the bird (which is actually illegal due to it being a bird of migration thus Federally protected), or he would have it removed and possibly destroyed. Even at the age off 11, I could understand he was going above and beyond my families consideration and love for Pete.

    My father constructed an 8′ foot high, 8′ Wide, and 8′ long structure next to the house from 2×4 studs, and then covered all sides (excluding the dirt bottom) with chicken wire. He also created a 3′ x 6′ door, and covered it with chicken wire. I would still allows Pete out of the cage, supervised. We had a swimming pool, and had friends over all the time, and Pete had no problems remaining free, and untethered to mingle around our close friends and neighbors. He just developed an unfriendly relationship with other kids on the block (didn’t attack adults).

    (so much to say, and so little space to say it).
    I enter Pete’s cage every morning before school, and every evening. I started finding the bodies (separated from the heads) of dead birds. I later discovered that Pete could even hunt other birds sparrows, common grackles, and starlings from inside his cage (after the dog ripped a hole near a 2×4 cross support from which Pete would offer the dog food). He would hide inside a large mailbox (we put in their for shelter from the elements) while food was out on the ledge, and 6 to a dozen birds would come feast on the food. Pete would then charge the flock, and some birds would be trapped in the cage with him, trying to get out. He would attack and kill them (all inside his cage), rip their lower beaks down to their chests, (and if that wasn’t gruesome enough for you) he would then rip off their heads. He may have eaten their brains, but would never again touch the main body.

    In September of 1993, someone had let Pete out of his cage, and he was never to be seen again. An individual from a neighboring street, a person which we would watch his bassett hound when they left town on vacation, had witnessed Pete in his yard, then shot and killed him with a pellet gun (discarding Pete’s remain in the trash). I still hold Pete’s feather’s, in my childhood bible as the remaining keepsake of this outstanding friend.

    Reply
    • Nonenone

      Very touching story. So sorry both their lives ended so badly. Thx for sharing that ♥

      Reply
    • Gillian

      I can’t get over the fact that you climbed up into the tree and stole two babies! Actually made me cry to think about the parents coming to the nest and finding out that two of their children were gone. When you raise a baby crow away from its family and its group, it doesn’t learn to speak or interact with other birds because, unlike many other animals and bird species, baby crows must be taught language and behavior by adult crows, meaning that you effectively isolated these birds from their world and kept them from developing into true crows. I’m sure you got a lot of enjoyment from having those pets, but it was at the expense of a family and their normal development. They probably seemed perfectly healthy to you, but they weren’t what they could have been and moreover, it wasn’t their choice. Personally, I think that the only time it’s ok for a person to raise a baby Corvid is if the bird is found injured and for some reason it’s not possible to restore it to its nest or parents when it has healed. People often see baby crows on the ground and assume that they have been abandoned, but that’s a false assumption. Baby crows learn to fly by falling out of the nest and spending a day or two on the ground until they figure out how to get back up into the tree. The best thing you might do if you’re worried about predators is to put them in a box that’s at a safe height from predators — maybe nailed to a tree or firmly wedged between branches. If the baby is on the ground, it is almost always being watched and guarded by adults, so you should just leave it alone, especially if you hear upset birds overhead calling out in distress when you go near it. Only touch it if is injured and immobile. Please, please, PLEASE don’t take crow babies from their nest!!!! 😢🐦

      Reply
  10. Heidi

    I feed a number of animals including crows. Often times I find pieces of colored glass or plastic pieces from bottles in my yard. I thought they had been buried in the ground and then surfaced after a storm. Anyway, today I found a vintage carpenter figurine. I suddenly put it together that the crows are bringing me these things. I see them walk around with things in their beaks. Also, they dig in back regularly. I have hoped they would bring me something. Now I realize they probably have been doing this for quite some time. The figurine is on my desk, of course. I am so happy :).

    Reply
  11. WBUR's The Wild Life

    Hi Hannah, Kevin McGowan at Cornell has told me we can feed crows some unsalted peanuts. But he wants us always to keep the birds’ health and safety in mind when we interact with them:

    *Feed them something healthy—unsalted peanuts, with or without the shells are recommended by the crow experts themselves.

    *Don’t throw the nuts AT them, and don’t feed them too much. These are wild birds accustomed to gathering their own food—so a few peanuts are plenty.

    *Also, make sure you’re not luring these birds into a dangerous situation—a place where cars are coming or an area where neighbors might get angry about loud crows hanging around.

    Reply
  12. Kas

    This is so interesting! Crows are so intelligent and intriguing. I never considered befriending them, though.

    Reply
  13. Lou T.

    We have a murder of crows that hang around our house now. We have been leaving them food and they come to visit everyday. They are beautiful creatures and we love having them around. :)

    Reply
  14. Dawnell Holt

    I have a crow’s nest in a tree in my backyard. Today I found a dead rat on my lawn. It was a pretty fresh one with a hole in its side. I wondered if it was a gift or a warning. My yard has lots of berries and fruit trees. Also, I cut up twigs from my grapes for birds to build their nests. Any ideas?

    Reply
  15. Denise

    I am so happy!!! I have been feeding a murder of 3 crows (my “3 Amigos”) from my 4th floor apartment patio for approximately 4 months. I had read of crows bestowing love gifts and hoped that someday I would receive one. Today, after I gave them cooked whole wheat rigatoni (they love pasta; I cook it al dente for them and they grab several in their beaks and go back to the roost with it/cache it); a handful of low sodium Cheez-its (a crow’s very favorite junk food); a handful of unsalted mixed nuts and dried cranberries, and a cut up Hebrew National hot dog, which their leader “Black Jack” loves. A half hour later, as I sat reading on my sofa, Black Jack appeared on my patio railing looking straight at me through the window, bobbing his head and cawing loudly 3 times twice in a row. He definitely was trying to get my attention. When he flew away, I spotted something on my patio railing…he had brought me a large piece of a juicy red strawberry from his cache. I had never given them strawberries so he definitely brought this to me from his cache of goodies…it was his love gift to me. AWWW…I love my crows.

    Reply

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