THEY ASKED ME to write about crows. I was skeptical. Aren’t we all skeptical of crows? I told my wife that they wanted me to write about crows, and she was definitely skeptical. “Don’t do it,” she said. “What do you know about crows?” Nothing. Up until this assignment, I knew nothing about crows.
Well, I knew this: I knew crows annoyed me, and I knew the feeling when they would come in my backyard every morning — it was as if they were laughing at me for putting that plastic owl in my spruce tree last year. OK, I admit it: I put the faux owl (sticker price: $18.99) there to try to scare the crows away. It didn’t work. And not only did it not work; those (expletive deleted) crows began to mock me. They became more annoying than ever. They would caw at me. They would eat MY worms. They would spy on me through my windows. They would pick through the narrow openings in my trash can. And how’s this for timing: Two days after they asked me to write about crows, crows stole a nearly full bag of delicious lime-flavored tortilla chips off my back porch and ruined a perfectly good afternoon. (Expletive deleted) crows.
So, yes, absolutely: I would be happy to write about crows.
JOHN MARZLUFF IS a University of Washington professor and wildlife biologist who, in 30 years of studying birds, has become simply The Crow Guy. But even Marzluff acknowledges that he, too, was skeptical of the crow at first, and he understands why others would generally feel the same.
“They can be a … challenge,” says Marzluff, chuckling at his careful word selection. “They’re pulling your plants up. They’re digging in your lawn. They’re spreading your garbage. They’re pooping all over your buildings and railings.”
Huh. It’s almost as if he had a hidden camera in my backyard.
“Yeah,” he says; “they can be a pain in the butt.”
Growing up in Kansas, Marzluff was captivated by the outdoors, and he still keeps in touch with two high-school teachers who stoked his passion for birds in particular. When he got to graduate school in Arizona, he studied pinyon jays; in doing so, he became more familiar with crows and their close relative, the ravens, both of which are part of the corvid family and both predators of pinyon jays. From there, he and his wife spent three years in Maine studying the behavior of ravens, under the guidance of acclaimed biologist Bernd Heinrich.
“The more you got to know them, the smarter they became and the more challenging they were to understand,” Marzluff says.
In Seattle, Marzluff found an ideal location to continue studying crows, whose presence in the Puget Sound region grew substantially from the 1970s to the early 2000s, according to surveys conducted by the Seattle Audubon Society. It’s no coincidence that that growth reflected the rise in the human population here, as crows seem most comfortable in open foraging environments — out of forest cover and into urban areas. There’s always another garbage can around the next corner to pillage, eh?
Indeed, Marzluff says, Seattle is a hotbed for crow-human interaction.
“It has been for a long time,” he says, “starting with coastal Native peoples who revered crows and ravens as part of their strong religious beliefs.”
Crows are tame here, especially compared to crows in other regions of the United States. We seem to tolerate them as they are, much like we do a gray spring morning or our passive-aggressive neighbor.
“There’s some sort of cultural co-evolution here between us that’s a little different than other places,” Marzluff says. “They’re here year-round in big numbers, which is a little different than the East Coast and the Midwest, where (crows) clear out for a lot of the winter. It’s a unique spot.”
What, I asked Marzluff, has he come to appreciate most about crows? And what would he say to a skeptic — ahem, like me — to change his or her mind about crows?
“First off, I would say they are sentient beings that deserve our respect — or at least not our ire all the time,” says Marzluff, who has co-authored a half-dozen books on birds, including “Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans.”
“You can be mad at them, but you shouldn’t take it out on them,” he says. “They’re doing what they do, just like we do what we do. I’m sure if they could ‘get us’ for changing the habitats and doing the things we do, they’d be right in line.
“The second thing I would say is, they do provide an ecosystem service for us. They can warn us of hazards in the environment. In particular, when West Nile virus came through … crows were the reason we knew about it, really, to start with, because they were dying. And so as a kind of midlevel organism — they’re a predator and a vegetarian — they let us know when the system is out of whack.”
CROWS PERHAPS HAVE no better friend-slash-promoter than Kaeli Swift, who recently completed her doctoral degree while studying the birds at UW’s Avian Conservation Laboratory.
April 27, it turns out, was International Crow and Raven Appreciation Day, the perfect excuse for Swift to share her expertise to her 55,000 followers on Twitter (@corvidresearch). “I don’t find this holiday tongue-in-cheek, even if it’s not printed on anyone’s calendar,” she wrote. “Most people have ancestors that respected and revered these birds, and I hate to see that so many of us have strayed from that path. Let’s find our way back to it.”
Her enthusiasm is contagious and extends to her blog (corvidresearch.blog), where she interacts with folks from around the world who have questions and anecdotes about crows. “Why do I love these birds???” she wrote. “ … They are smart (like primate smart), playful (I’ve watched one play ball), cheeky (they’re light fingered), accessible (right in your backyard), complex (have funerals), mysterious (long list).”
For her doctoral dissertation, published by ScienceDirect.com in March, Swift attempted to answer an ambitious question about corvid behavior: What are crows thinking when they see death?
In earlier research, she and Marzluff studied crow funerals — yes; crows have funerals — and discovered that death means more to them than it does to most other animals. “What I mean by this,” she wrote, “is that crows don’t ignore their dead, they don’t reflexively flee from their dead, and they don’t just go about carrying out undertaking behaviors without a second thought (or a first thought). They really see their dead, and they respond in a variety of ways.”
Crows’ responses to death can vary greatly. But generally, upon seeing a dead comrade, they most often give an alarm call to recruit other crows, who gather in large numbers in a raucous mob near the dead for up to 30 minutes. To better understand what the crows might be thinking during these funerals, Swift examined the brains of seven crows who had just been shown a dead crow (among other things) in a controlled lab, and then put the living crow through a specifically fitted positron emission tomography (PET) scanner.
The resulting images allowed Swift and her UW colleagues to see which parts of the brain were most active, and they found the crows’ “executive center” — where critical decision-making happens — was most affected. Which means they’re likely thinking: What the heck should I do about this? (And wouldn’t you be thinking the same?)
That didn’t align with the researchers’ hypothesis that crows’ hippocampus and striatum areas would be most active — those are responsible for fear and spatial learning — but when put in context of their earlier understanding of the crows, Swift says, it “makes sense they would be really evaluating these (deaths) on a case-by-case basis.” Keep in mind, too, she says, that in this experiment, crows were inside an unfamiliar lab and faced with an unfamiliar dead crow, so there were a lot of variables. What researchers haven’t been able to study is how crows respond directly to the death of their mate, and that could help them better understand whether and how crows might mourn. (Swift proudly notes all seven crows used in the experiment were unharmed and released.)
In the end, the crows’ responses to death further Swift’s belief that they are extraordinarily complex and worthy of deeper analysis.
THE CAVEMAN CAME out of hiding on the UW campus this spring, and the angry birds soon followed.
This goes back to Marzluff’s most famous experiment, which began in 2006 and tested whether crows can recognize human faces. The reaction was overwhelming in the years that followed: Yes, he concluded; they can most definitely recognize humans — and especially that crazy caveman mask that was responsible for capturing seven crows 14 years ago.
When Marzluff went back out on campus with the caveman mask one day in early April, the crows took notice — and they were not happy to see him. Six of the 25 crows he encountered scolded him, including two of the original seven captured (and released) in 2006. He went back out a few days later, wearing a mask of former Vice President Dick Cheney — also used in 2006, but as a nonthreatening control test — and even more crows (12 of 27) scolded him. Apparently, crows hate anyone in masks now. (Note to self: Stay away from the UW on Halloween.)
Marzluff says the crows not only remember, but they also teach their offspring and others in their flock about specific threats.
“Their memory is amazing to me,” he says, “and their ability to respond and figure things out in the here and now is amazing.”
I TOOK DOWN the owl. I didn’t mean any harm in the first place, and I’ve realized there’s no need for me to antagonize the crows — even if that (expletive deleted) owl proved useless, anyway.
So the crows have won over at least one skeptic. They have my respect. I figured, if they have learned to adapt to us and our changing environments, I can do my small part for them. We all can evolve, right?
But I would prefer if they’d leave alone my delicious lime-flavored tortilla chips, please.