Observation Logs, Washington, U.S.A. The American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos.

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Washington State Crow Observation Logs

Updated: August 12, 2001

This section includes reports of various observers from the State of Washington.


Pesky crows like urban areas, where the living is easy

by Eric Sorensen, Seattle Times staff reporter (July 25, 1999)

Now, on top of more Californians and cars, comes another byproduct of runaway urban growth.


idnight black, with thumb-long anvil-like beaks and raucous dawn-hour chatter, they are following the spread of concrete, lawns and Dumpsters as new homes and people creep across King County and beyond.

Their numbers are soaring.

As many as 3,000 visit a single parking lot at the University of Washington, apparently just to talk; as many as 10,000 may roost nearby on Foster Island. If you are trying to sleep past 5 a.m., it can seem like those same birds are in the tree above your bedroom window.

And with rising numbers of crows come more complaints and an occasional scene like something out of Hitchcock.

"We're getting complaints where they're actually pecking at people," said Virginia Dalton, enforcement supervisor for Seattle Animal Control. "It's kind of like 'The Birds.' "

The crows most likely are protecting their fledglings, which can spend a week on the ground in late spring learning to fly. But try telling that to their victims. A man from Seattle recently called the Progressive Animal Welfare Society Wildlife Center in Lynnwood to say, "I think I have a crow with rabies in my neighborhood," said Mary Lee Larison, seasonal wildlife assistant. Birds don't get rabies.

A woman from Everett reported: "It actually hit me and I've got a big knot on my head."

UW researchers are studying whether so many crows threaten area songbirds by preying on their nests.

In a more general sense, the growing dominance of one such species cuts against the ecological theory that a natural area is more resilient when it has a diversity of species. "The crow is really the messenger here of increased urbanization," said John Marzluff, a UW wildlife biologist who has studied crows and ravens from Maine to Hawaii. "And urbanization is bad for biodiversity. The more concrete, the less biodiversity you have."

Which is not to heap on the crow even more of the bad press that has given rise to expressions like "a murder of crows" and "eating crow," a term that ignores the fact that some people actually like eating them. (Crow tastes a bit stronger than the rich red meat of mourning dove, and depending on its age, is tougher, said Steve Pozzanghera, a state Department of Fish and Wildlife manager who has hunted crows in North Carolina.)

"It's one of those species that everybody thinks they know - but don't really," said Marzluff. "For instance, crows never fly in a straight line."

Lost in the furor of pecked heads and early-morning wake-up caws is the fact that the crow is among the most intelligent animals waddling about, with superhuman memory and clear problem-solving skills. That it is doing so well is just one sign of its ability to adapt and even flourish in changing times. Crows' feet are designed for both walking and hopping and are strong enough to carry an ear of corn. Their wings are rounded for maneuverability but can span 2 feet for the times a bird might need to fly a dozen miles in search of food. The beak, a blend between a robin's and a woodpecker's, is long enough to dig for worms but stout at the base for pounding hard seeds and flaking bark.

They are consummate scavengers, especially in the city and suburbs, where they find a feast fit for a rat on a state-fair midway: crusts of pizza, half burgers, stale French fries. When Marzluff and his students bait traps for their research, the crows will pick up the sound of a dropped peanut. They are connoisseurs of road kill and usually know just when to get out of the way to avoid a car.

But their greatest gift, the thing that sets apart members of the crow family, or Corvidae, is their minds.

Russ Balda, Marzluff's Ph.D. adviser at Northern Arizona University, studied how the Clark's Nutcracker, a corvid, can cache tens of thousands of seeds a year - and remember where it put 90 percent of them. Gavin Hunt, a researcher at New Zealand's Massey University, observed crows using tools to forage for insects, centipedes and larvae. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts saw a blue jay, another corvid, wad a piece of newspaper and use it to sweep up food pellets that had spilled on a ledge outside its cage. They make fools of scarecrows.

"We've all seen photos of crows sitting on scarecrows," said Candace Savage, author of "Bird Brains: The Intelligence of Crows, Ravens, Magpies, and Jays."

It takes less than a second to snare a crow after Marzluff springs a net powered by the charges of four .308-caliber shells. But in that millisecond, a crow remembers what it was eating, who was nearby, even the way weeds covered the trap. Marzluff saw as much last week as he attempted to lure in two crows trapped last year and outfitted with small radio transmitters used to track their movements. For more than an hour, Marzluff waited for the birds to light on the Chee-tos and peanuts he had strewn on a path near the birds' home in a residential neighborhood by Seattle's Discovery Park. Finally, after Marzluff pretended to be out on a stroll and just casually tossing Chee-tos, a family of a half-dozen crows drifted down and began taking samples. But the two birds fitted with transmitters knew better, staying on the utility wires across the street. When another crow returned with a snack, one of the older crows stole its food - a cheap trick known by the $10 word "kleptoparasitism."

On the UW campus, crows have grown so wise to Marzluff and his fellow researchers that the scientists have to pretend to eat a lunch and leave it near a trap. They can pick us out," said Marzluff, "and they see 30,000 students every day. How the hell do they know?"

"If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows." When Rev. Henry Ward Beecher said that in the mid-1800s, the American crow was confined to the Southern and Eastern states. But as people moved west, planting crops and building cities, the crow went with them. Now, the American crow is so mixed with the local Northwestern crow that most researchers have stopped thinking of them as separate species.

And as boomed King County, so boomed the crow.

In 1960, when the county's population was a little more than half of what it is today, a party of birders in Seattle would typically count three crows during the annual Audubon Christmas bird count. Now a group will see 30 to 40.

The county's crows break down into several distinct demographic groups. Few live in the country. There's not enough food, unless there are campgrounds around, and it's dangerous, what with hawks and hunters and such. Young single crows lean toward urban living. Because firearms can't be discharged in city limits, they don't have to worry about being shot, and there are few natural predators. There are also lots of good restaurant dumping bins, prime eating opportunities for birds too low on the pecking order to steal from fellow crows. "If you're not strong enough or fast enough, the best strategy is to hang out at Dick's and eat burgers," said Marzluff.

The most successful breeding couples head for the suburbs. There's less competition from other crows, more earthworm-rich lawns for feeding the newborns, "and trash cans once a week for them to get a bonus," said Marzluff. "It's an absolute heaven for crows." It's only natural, then, that the increasing sprawl of large building lots and planned developments would help the crow's numbers here. In less than two years, Marzluff and his students have banded more than 400 crows, and attached transmitters to more than 40. Eventually, they hope to understand what kind of land-use patterns might best discourage crow growth and encourage a more diverse natural environment. Until then, those suffering at the beaks of crows have a few options.

Crows can be hunted from October through January, and it is the only bird for which there is no limit. But hunting is likely to be best - and legal - in remote forested areas of King County where crows don't bother that many people to begin with. Closer into town, people being harassed can open and close an umbrella, spray water from a squirt bottle or ward off a bird with an open newspaper or shiny pie plate, said Larison of PAWS. And keep your garbage covered.

"I counsel tolerance, unless there seems to be a serious population problem," Larison said. "We don't recommend getting rid of them. We recommend living with them."

Unwilling to take such advice, parks workers in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, last winter rid a downtown park of crows by killing several and tying one to a tree for all its fellow corvids to see. The crows, apparently figuring the same might happen to them, left.

They're that smart.


We live in a suburb of Seattle and are surrounded by trees. Our house has two skylights and recently two crows started pecking at the glass on our bedroom skylight. This has happened at least twice around 7 AM, we are usually gone to work by then so we only see it on weekends. They seem to have worked hard at it and now have produced a crack in the glass and are tearing our composition roof shingles off. Any ideas of what we can do to discourage this behavior?

Kent, Washington: June 15, 2001

Three young crows left their nest about 6/15. Two were smashed by a neighbor with a shovel. The third hid in a vine by another neighbor's front door. This neighbor is terrified of birds (credit Alfred Hitchcock) and asked us to do something. The baby had been chased and harassed most of the day by various folks and appeared injured, so we took it inside to inspect and allow the neighborhood to quiet down. It was fully feathered and the only obvious injury was the left leg - not an noticable break, but it wasn't able to clutch with that leg. We released it early the next morning (parents arrived about 1.4 seconds later - (THEY CAN SURELY YELL!!!) into a sheltered area of our (fenced) yard.

For about a week, Russel (have you seen Gladiator?) stayed in our yard. He worked up to short flights (compost pile to wood pile and back). One flight put him on a chain link fence, facing into some bushes. He couldn't figure out how to turn around (with only one grasping foot) and sometime during the night came off the fence with a squawk. He has since figured out how to turn around and has been rotating through three adjacent properties since then.

On the second weekend we saw him about six feet up in a tree and figured we could reduce our vigilance about our neighbor's cats. Since then, however, he seems to have regressed and is spending all his time on the ground. Luckily, he is currently in our yard (no resident cats, easily controlled dogs, one person temporarily between assignments and available to chase away cats.)

We had a good view of him this afternoon as he spent it sunning in the middle of the yard. He is able to hobble around fairly well on the injured leg but we are concerned that he isn't flying anymore (that we have seen). Is this normal? I don't want to interfere as his parents are doing an excellent job and continue to feed him.

Ashford, Washington USA: Ongoing. (submitted May 27, 2001)

Location_Description: Some fallow pastureland, stands of Doug fir, alder and cottonwood. The observations were made also in Rainier, WA, an open prairie. The observations are identical in both locales, and came from my years of "speaking" to my crowd of breakfast guests.

Behavior: Vocalizations:

1)four caws of similar length, uttered "caw, caw, caw..caw" (brief hesitation) indicated "Safe food" and my feeding station was mobbed, whether I was standing nearby or not. 2)three caws of the same length as those previously mentioned indicated "Food I'm not sure about. Approach with caution." This serving would be watched for a while before the crowd descended. It usually had to do with the feeding being something I hadn't served before. 3)single, harsh, short caw indicated "Take flight!"

Comments: In both instances sited above, I communicated with the birds successfully, even though I speak with an atrocious accent! As an experiment, I put out food which was unfamiliar and announced it as "Safe food." They fed without hesitation. My present group of several dozen has actually "named" me "Safe Food" and announce my presence in the yard whether I'm carrying food or not! We "chat" back and forth, although I have no idea what I'm saying. They seem to be "amused" by my attempts with their speech, imitating my accent with repetitions until the silly human has to give up and say something different. ( Petrina Soong-Vecchio)

Seattle, WA: 5/25,5/29,6/1,6/5/2001

Location_Description: neighborhood street at the base of a hill with houses and electrical wires long one side and a low warehouse building along the other.

Behavior: On the last four days that I have chosen to walk to work I have been escorted by a young (small) crow. He will caw at me roughly 4 or 5 times, fly over my head to a perch on the opposite side of the street, ruffle his feathers, and caw at me some more. He will do this approximately 6 or so times until I leave his range. He does not leave his block. He could easily follow me home as I live quite close, but he does not come up the hill. The first two days it happended he was in the company of another larger crow who was quiet the whole time, but would fly with him. The last two times he was alone. The wierd part is that he does this in the morning when I leave and in the eveing when I come home. I do not see him doing it to anyone else either. No one I know has reported a crow following them. He is getting closer and closer too when he flies over me. Most of the other crows in the area don't seem to mind me. In fact they seem quite freindly and will let me get quite close. I don't feed crows nor have I ever shooed a crow. I like crows and often talk to them. Am I invading his territory? I have black hair that I wear in a pony tail. Does he think I'm a crow? Anyways I'll rather miss the noisy bird if and when I walk home and he's not there.

Edmonds Washington: June 5, 2001.

Location_Description: edmonds is a community with homes, shops restaurants, boats.

Behavior: there is 1 crow in particular that recognizes me. Whenever I take a walk in that area he flies toward me and lands somewhere near me. I always give him something to eat! Yesterday he recognized me coming from a different direction and followed me for a couple of blocks. He even flies right above my head and touched my hair with his feet sometimes. I did not have any food on me at that time but got him some bread shortly after. He is a character. He seems to be with another crow alot of the time. I think he is young and the other one is his mother. I think he has gotten to know me over the last few months. (Heidi Mitchell)

Richland, Washington:May 12, 2001. (reported 6/3/2001)

Location_Description: Looking out my window to street area where cars pass by regularly.

Behavior: Two crows with acorns dropped them into the street, waiting for a car to drive over them and them flying down to eat the nut. Sometimes they miss and have to get the acorns and start over.

Comments: This seems like a learned behavior. Maybe one crow accidently dropped an acorn which was run over by a car and then showed the others how to do it.I have also seen this behavior in other parts of our city.

Gig Harbor, WA 98335 USA: May 29, 2001.

Location_Description: My home,indoors and outdoors in Gig Harbor, observing a baby crow [that we rescued and are feeding] as he reacted [a]to the sound bites from your website and [b] to my assimilated banty chicken cooing noises etc.

Behavior: [a] went from resting with head tucked in sleep position to startled reaction and open mouth breathing [b] responds accordingly with juv. crow cooing

Ocean Shores, Washington: April 18, 2001

I work at a Resort in Ocean Shores Washington called SurfCrest, and I have become a conversation piece of sorts. The resort is really close to the beach as well as it is all a part of a huge animal, bird refuge. Amongst the eagles, hawks, and seagulls, there are crows. A whole lot of crows! We started feeding them years ago, and we have noticed some rather strange behavior from them lately. They can talk! They say one and two syllable words such as hello, and got ya, and they can also mimic sounds, cats meowing, an animal of un-known origin, in distress, and more. They have grown incredibly tame and are able to distinguish the people who are "theirs" and those who aren't. What do you think? Chandra Christine Cross

Redmond, Washington: December 12, 2000

Location_Description: Microsoft Campus at 148th and 51st

Behavior: I've been intermittently feeding a trio of crows. After eating some of the food (parched corn, potato chips, cooked beef, nuts, etc), they start taking the food to adjacent lawns, poking holes in the turf with their beaks, pushing the food into the holes, and covering the hole with a pinecone, leaf, or other piece of debris. One of the crows, an individual with very pronounced feathering around each of his thighs, has lately taken to flying very close to me, within about three feet, without vocalizing, at least once each time I feed them.

Comments: Looks to me like they're storing food. The close approach seems a sign of trust. (Donald Riggs)

Lacey, Washington: June 24, 2000

Location_Description: It is an apartment complex near a park and a McDonalds and Grocery store. Near by parking lots and wooded area that is undeveloped.

Behavior: I was feeding squirrels peanuts (unsalted) when I realized that a family of crows were very interested. Soon one of the adults flew to the edge of the yard and watched for some time. Cautiously the adult edged forward until it could grab a nut. It flew witht the nut to the blacktopped drive and proceded to crack the nut. Immediately it was joined by a juvinile just past the fledgling stage. The immature crow had full flight abilities. It landed in front of the adult and proceded to display "Feed me" behavior. The wings slightly out, the front body lowered and the accompaning squawks continued until the adult fed the immature crow the nut. A few moments later the adult retrieved another nut and again the immature begged for the nut. The adult put the nut on the ground and walked a few feet away. The immature crow followed the adult still begging despite the nut laying at its feet. The adult lead the immature crow back to the nut and picked it up in its beak then dropped it again. The adult again went a few feet away from the nut and the immature followed. It is now the 26th of June and I have not yet seen the immature crack and eat its own peanut or pick one up from the ground when cracked by an adult.

I am observing a family of 6, 2 adults and 4 immature crows who live somewhere near our apartments. All of the immature crows seem to spend some time able to fly but refusing food unless fed by the adult.

Comments: This behavior may be an attempt at preventing young from eating poisoned foods or toxic things until they have developed sufficiently to observe qualities about the food and it's safety. It definitely looks like lessons in what to eat are given after the birds are flight capable. (Marjenna L. Gittings)

Seattle, Washington: December 1999 (submitted April 26, 2000)

Location_Description: (#1) Fairly urban area.."downtown". It was in a parking lot.(#2) Sidestreet in high density residential/commercial area - lots of cedars, firs, and elms lining the streets.

Behavior: Within 30 minutes and approx 1.5 miles of each other, two seemingly separate crows flew closer to me, perched, and then made sounds that can only be described as "Flipper the Dolphin" noises. Not caws by any means. The crow(s) did not seem alarmed but were flicking their heads up and down as they produced this sound. Comments: This is so odd to hear this sound in two different spots within such a short time frame. It very well could have been the same crow. I tried to see if the first one followed my car when I left (it did take off in that direction but that is all I could observe). A friend witnessed the first occurence and we joked about what the crow was trying to tell me. Both were very focused on me and almost seemed amused, if you care for the idea. Anyway, just curious if you could possibly lend an insight into this. (Curtis Linderman)

Woodinville, Washington: Over 7 years

I was custodian a an elementary school and "momma & papa" were my friends for 7 years. She loved me talking to her all the time and was always near by every day. She got fed daily while I washed lunch barrels and always expected something special other than her stash. I loved that crow she never ceased to amaze me! I had to leave her when I retired and still miss her. I have many stories, maybe not scientific but pertain to the personal lives of the crows. Papa was always near by or on the parking lot light on guard. I never touched her, which would have been easy to do, but probably would have cost her her life. (Elaine Pierce)

(This section will be added to on a continuing basis. Your comments and suggestions are welcomed. Other parts of the site are also under construction. This site will be continually expanding as the Project grows.)

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