Remarkably Curious and Intelligent, Crows and Ravens Deserve a Closer Look

A new book offers a close look at the lives of these wonderfully smart, charismatic birds.

Where we live, crows and ravens use nearly 2,000 miles of inland shoreline as a feeding ground. They dig clams at low tide and use the roadways and traffic to crush the mollusks. The birds dare to take from others what they need and will team up against the larger animals. Gulls, oystercatchers, eagles, otters, and seals are all able to catch and open up what the crows cannot, so crows apply their brains against the others’ brawn with amazing results. As one appears to move with indifference toward the feeding animal, another crow pulls the feeder’s tail. The feeder drops its meal, which the pair of crows seizes and shares.

Sharing your own yard with a family of crows is nonstop excitement. If you discover a nest, you can observe all sorts of cooperative enterprise that corvids—which include crows, ravens, jays, magpies, and Clark’s nutcrackers—employ. There may be helpers, offspring from previous years raised by the pair of breeding birds, that contribute to the raising of their sibs and defense of the family from hawks, owls, raccoons, or cats. Their determination to protect and sustain their familial investment is an inspiration to behold. Has the crow figured out how to get access to the sunflower seeds and suet in the bird feeder, or does it hunt the other birds, small mammals, snakes, frogs, and insects that also live in your yard? The lives of predator and prey intertwine, and you will see strategy and counterstrategy shape these primal interactions.

In our neighborhood, we have seen the reemergence of small raptors that rely on crows, not for food but for shelter. The merlin is a small falcon that occasionally tolerates human settlement, but it is competitive and an anciently hostile associate of crows and jays. Nevertheless a remarkable tie binds the species. More often than not, merlins, which do not build nests, will use an abandoned crow’s nest as a comfortable platform to hatch their eggs and raise their young. We’ve watched crows with nests two trees re- moved from the merlin family sit contentedly with their young on a telephone line as the parent falcons flew back and forth over their heads, delivering food to their own clamorous brood.

Perhaps no other application of human technology has favored the crow and raven’s expansion of population more than the interstate highway system. As you drive, look at the cornucopia of rendered food served up on an easily accessible plate of asphalt. You’ll see crows and ravens emboldened to follow the hurrying traffic. And you can find new nesting strategies evolving along the roadways. Cell towers, power-line pylons, billboards, and outbuildings now support well-stocked nests. Even a lack of traditional nesting material doesn’t slow down the innovative crows. They use everything from barbed wire to bailing twine to make nests (and short out power supplies on occasion) and line them with the hair and fur plucked from roadkill or from live cattle on the plains.

Today, from observing these innovations and the increases in many corvid populations, we see how our species has changed earth and how these animals can change people. Out of the blue we get letters and calls with stories: Caroline feels a deep connection to them; Denise is considering changing jobs because her business plans to move to a new office and she’ll lose her view into an active raven nest; Levi has just released a new disc of music, and Jeanne a new set of cartoons, motivated by the local crows’ comings and goings. The crows in our lives continue to shape us as a species.

As we have explored the crow’s brain and emotional behavior, we have come to marvel at its true gifts. Evolution has endowed the species with a big brain that empowers it to readily exploit and adapt to whatever we throw its way. This body of curious and intelligent beings has given us an invitation to develop a fresh relationship with nature, one that is no longer “multiply and subdue” but rather contemplate and learn. Future generations will continue to enjoy these gifts and reap new ones.

Our realization that the nature we often take for granted includes animals that think and dream, fight and play, rea- son and take risks, emote and intuit may be the crow’s great- est gift of all. Companions since our birth as a species, crows, ravens, and their kin prompt us to briefly step away from our current technological, urban lifestyles and to explore, understand, and appreciate nature. In so doing, they will continue to stir our souls and expand our minds.

Excerpted from GIFTS OF THE CROW by John Marzluff and Tony Angell. Copyright © 2012 by John Marzluff, Ph. D and Tony Angell. Reprinted by permission of Atria Book Group, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

How to Tell Ravens and Crows Apart

The striking resemblance between a common raven and an American crow can confound any birder.

Common Raven Size: Significantly larger, about the size of a red-tailed hawk. Average total length is 24 inches. Beak: Thicker, powerful beak. Feathers: Wedge-shaped tail that comes to a point. Long, shaggy throat feathers. Call: Deep, croaking. Behavior: Less social—often seen alone or in pairs—confident and inquisitive. Flight: Buoyant and graceful, slow flaps, interspersed soaring and gliding. Range: Primarily found in western, northern, and north-eastern North America and mountainous regions.

American Crow Size: Average total length is 18 inches. Beak: Thinner beak. Feathers: Rounded, fan-shaped tail. Shorter, smooth throat feathers. Call: Caw, caw. Behavior: Very social, rarely found alone, can be mischievous. Flight: Methodical flapping, rarely broken up with glides. Range: Widespread through-out temperate regions of North America. —Brianna Elliott

This story originally ran in the May-June 2013 issue as "Brains Over Brawn."