by Laura Fawks Lapole
Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, “Man is by nature a social animal … ” We humans have social ties to family, friends, communities and other human beings. Even those that are introverted and enjoy spending time alone are tied to others. These bonds can be complicated and convoluted, but we are by no means the only animal to have complex social lives. Crows, a common backyard bird, are very social animals with bonds and interactions similar to humans. Read on to learn more about these fascinating feathered friends!
First, some quick background information. Crows are in the corvid family. This family also contains blue jays, ravens, magpies and a few others. We have two crow species here in Maryland, the American crow and the fish crow. The easiest way to tell the difference is via their call. American crows have the classic “cawww” call we are all familiar with, while fish crows sound like someone is pinching their beak while they say, “Uh huh.” Visually, they’re virtually identical. American crows are found throughout most of the United States and north into Canada in nearly any type of open area with trees nearby. Fish crows inhabit areas near bodies of water, along the East Coast, Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi River.
Now, on to the really interesting stuff. As I said, crows are social birds. American crows spend much of their time with their extended family. This family may consist of parents and their offspring from the past few years, or siblings helping raise their “nieces and nephews.” While many birds chase off their young after they have fledged, crows welcome the help of their children in raising chicks, defending the home territory, bringing in food and guarding one another. These family groups are typically small but could contain as many as 15 birds.
There is one breeding pair per group, while everyone else helps. Crows are considered socially monogamous, meaning they tend to stay together for life, as long as things are going well. However, when looking at DNA, not all babies always have the same father … so some extra “pairing” is going on. If the male from the breeding pair dies, his brother may take his place.
Once the young disperse, they may set up a territory next door to their parents or somewhere nearby. Within flocks and families, males are always dominant and territorial toward other strange males. Therefore, once female offspring pair up, they are made to cut ties with family, while males are free to continue interacting.
When not with their extended families, crows spend time in large flocks searching for food, eating and, sometimes, getting into trouble. It seems they spend no more than a few days with these big foraging groups. I’m sure you understand that it’s nice to get to spend time socializing with those besides your family.
Fish crows have some different social behaviors from American crows. They do not help one another in raising chicks. They only have a territory during breeding season while the rest of the time they gather in foraging and roosting flocks.
In the late fall, crows are known to form huge flocks in the evenings, known as winter roosts. These flocks can range in size from a few hundred up to 2 million. Families may join a flock together, but then intermingle once they arrive. These groups may consist of local birds as well as ones that have migrated from up to several hundred miles away. It isn’t unusual for these roosts to contain both American and fish crows.
One such roost is located in Rockville and has been since at least the 1970s according to Leila Fiester’s article, “Rockville’s Raucous Roost.” Back in 1984, the roost was estimated to contain around 100,000 crows. Local birders confirm that this roost still remains in the area, but the flock is smaller now. This may be due to a combination of factors including West Nile (corvids are susceptible) and habitat loss, as the original roosting area has lost most of its trees due to development.
There could be several explanations for why crows form these winter roosts: to stay warm in cold temperatures by huddling together, to look for potential mates in early spring, to keep predators away when food is scarce and seemingly to share information such as feeding locations. Ornithologists are still piecing together many aspects of crow behavior and motives are not always clear. Many animals gather in large groups for similar reasons though, so these assumptions make sense.
As you can see from the previous information, crows exhibit high social intelligence. They are known to work together to drive off predators (mobbing), find food and solve problems. This requires them to be in constant communication with one another via a wide variety of vocalizations and body language. Again, very similar to humans.
This social intelligence even carries over to their interactions with other species. Crows are known to be able to recognize and remember individual human faces. If you are a friend to crows, they will remember and may even bring you trinkets. Harm a crow though and watch out. Not only will they remember you, but they have been observed teaching their family and flock members to recognize specific undesirables and will join together to drive them away. Crows don’t forget and it doesn’t seem like they forgive.
This article only scratches the surface of the incredible behavior and intelligence of crows. Though we may look nothing alike, humans and crows share a surprising number of similarities in how we go about our daily lives and perceive the world. Keep that in mind this fall as you look up to the sight and sound of hundreds of noisy, black-feathered birds flying overhead, headed home on a chilly evening.
American Crow. (n.d.). All About Birds. Retrieved September 2, 2022, from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Crow/overview
Date, T. (2020, January 28). Visit of 15,000 crows to Lawrence fascinates researchers, bird enthusiasts. The Eagle-Tribune. Retrieved September 2, 2022, from https://www.eagletribune.com/news/merrimack_valley/visit-of-15-000-crows-to-lawrence-fascinates-researchers-bird-enthusiasts/article_5624715a-cb01-5f0f-9ee1-e05e8dedc247.html
Fiester, L. (1993, February 18). ROCKVILLE’S RAUCOUS ROOST. The Washington Post. Retrieved September 2, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1993/02/18/rockvilles-raucous-roost/7efb87ef-5c3f-4cfe-b951-8f80cd18694f/
McGowan, K. J. (1996). Family Lives of the Uncommon American Crow. Cornell Plantations Magazine, 51(1), 1–4. https://www.birds.cornell.edu/crows/planta.htm
McGowan, K. J. (1997, December). REPRODUCTIVE AND SOCIAL BEHAVIOR OF TWO CROW SPECIES IN NEW YORK. U.S. Dept. Agriculture, Hatch Project NYC-183429. https://www.birds.cornell.edu/crows/hatchrep.html
Sharon, S. (2019, March 7). Birds of a Feather — Why Crows Congregate in Winter. Maine Public Radio. Retrieved September 2, 2022, from https://www.mainepublic.org/environment-and-outdoors/2019-03-07/birds-of-a-feather-why-crows-congregate-in-winter
Swift, K. (2015, March 5). All in the (crow) family. Corvid Research. Retrieved September 2, 2022, from https://corvidresearch.blog/2015/03/05/all-in-the-crow-family/