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Beware of Crows

As surreal as it seems, the following story is entirely truthful, based on my recollections of events that happened last Sunday and afterwards.

One of the first things I noticed when I got out to the Pacific Northwest was how large the local birds were. I first arrived in Portland in November of 2013, and while walking around my neighborhood, I noticed that the average blackbirds were easily two or three times larger than what I was familiar with, having lived in New Jersey for most of my life. It was a piece of information that I filed away and occasionally shared with people who asked me about living in Oregon. But I’m no ornithologist. 

My interest in birds, up until the events of last weekend, was basically limited to trying to determine if a bird I saw in the wild was the same as the mascot of a baseball team. (“Oh, do you think that’s an oriole? Could that one be a blue jay?”)

I live in a small apartment in a duplex with a backdoor that leads to a driveway. There is a little bit of plant life in my shared “backyard”–some indiscriminate bushes and a tree–as well as some patches of recently cleared land. Over the weekend, I was preparing a meal for the slow cooker and realized that I had forgotten to purchase a can of tomato paste from the grocery store. It seemed like a reasonable excuse to go for a walk. I opted to use my backdoor, which is slightly more convenient for going to the supermarket. I put on a baseball cap and ventured outside, fumbling through my pockets for my phone. (I planned on making a phone call on my walk to the store.)

Immediately as I opened the door, I noticed two things:

  1. A large black bird on the patch of dirt within 2 feet from the door.
  2. A loud “CAW!” that came from another direction.
Neither of these things phased me, though in retrospect, I should have sensed the tenseness of the situation. So I took two steps outside, closed the door, and turned around.

Suddenly, I felt a whir right around me, as the second bird (the one I heard but did not see) started its attack. It swooped around me rapidly a few times; I ducked instinctively to avoid it and fell to the ground. The bird then slammed itself, hard, right into the back of my head, which was mercifully protected by the baseball cap. My phone went flying. They were all over my new patio conversation sets that I got to relax outside.

I staggered forward, scooped my phone from the ground, and started running. I made a hard left turn to get out to the nearby street, made another left at the street, and kept running as fast as I could. All the while, the large bird followed, CAW-ing the whole way. I sprinted past two passersby, whose facial expressions betrayed their bemusement at my predicament.

At the end of the street, I stopped short, turned around and doubled back. The crow may or may not have followed me at this point. I leaped up the stairs and back into my apartment, thankfully picking the right key to open the door quickly.

Since then, I have felt as if the local crow population is monitoring me more closely. This is, in part, due to my new sensitivity to them; I basically paid the local crows no mind prior to the attack, so I have no baseline of crow behavior for comparison. Even as I first relayed the story, these were “blackbirds,” not specifically crows.

So, what actually happened? The Audubon Society of Portland provides the relevant information that I did not have at the time:

Fledgling crows can be found learning to fly during the months of May, June and July. People are frequently concerned that the crow they have seen on the ground is injured rather than simply a youngster learning to fly.

One easy way to tell if a crow is a juvenile is to look at the color of the bird’s eyes Young crows have blue/grey eyes, while adults have black eyes. Another easy way to tell if a crow is a fledgling is to look to see if other crows are hanging out nearby.

If there are other crows nearby, they are likely the parents. Size of the bird is NOT a good indicator of age since fledgling crows are frequently close to the size of their parents when they leave the nest.

 

Everything about the story makes much more sense with this context. The narrative, then, changes. There were two crows in the area. The one on the ground was the fledgling crow. He was on the ground, learning to fly. The one above (probably on my roof above the door) was its parent. From the parent’s “perspective,” the story is a bit different. (I’m going to anthromorphize the parent crow, but the logic is too solid not to do so.)

We picked this area because it was quiet, relative to the local streets. Plenty of shade, some space for the fledgling to walk around, some high places so I could survey the landscape. I’d have enough time to warn off anyone who threatened my kid.

Then the building that I was on all of a sudden opened up. A large hominid exited! These damn buildings; exits everywhere! The perimeter had been breached! I screamed a warning, and it ignored me. It even approached my kid! That was not acceptable, so I escalated to attack mode. The predator went down easy; a real paper tiger. I smacked him in the back of the head and chased him off. 

The true abnormality of this story is that the normally proactive response of the adult crow was short-circuited by my breach of the crow’s perimeter. I had put myself between the protective parent crow and the vulnerable fledgling crow. This was not acceptable.

Worth noting is that since the incident, I have not seen any crows in my “backyard” area. My suspicion is that the crow no longer sees the area as safe for fledglings and has moved elsewhere. But that will only be true until I am next attacked. Why? Crows remember faces and respond accordingly. The National Wildlife Foundation describes an experiment conducted at the University of Washington.

In 2006, crow behavior that had been an inconvenience was put to the test with an experiment in which researchers netted and banded sets of crows at various sites on campus and around Seattle while wearing rubber human masks.

A few days later the researchers walked through the same areas wearing assorted masks and recording how the birds responded. At each site the crows ignored all but the particular mask that had been worn during the banding, which they greeted with loud scolding cries and the formation of small mobs. The effects were the same regardless of what clothing the researchers wore or who wore which mask. “The interesting part was that not a whole lot mattered except the face,” Marzluff says.

… the most interesting aspect of the Seattle study may be the degree to which campus crows have clung to their memory. Today, close to seven years after the study began, the birds continue to harangue the banding mask even though they see it only twice a year for a few hours at a time. Even more remarkable, the percentage of birds joining the ruckus has roughly doubled since the experiment began, even though most have never been banded and likely didn’t witness the original traumatic event. Some are young birds born in years since.

It seems that the crow’s calls on later viewings of the threatening human essentially provided information to fellow crows. In other words, if crow A had a run-in with Steve, and then sees Steve again, it will likely sound the alarm and call other crows over, who will also add Steve to their memory bank. It is akin to a virus.

Currently, I’m sailing in what feel like uncharted waters. I don’t suspect there’s a ton of information around surrounding the type of crow attack I experienced–how often does a crow attack escalate so fast?–so I don’t necessarily think there’s a playbook to follow in terms of future expectations of attacks (though if anyone has any more useful information, I would love to hear it!). My one consolation is that I am not certain that the crow got a good look at my face. I was wearing a baseball cap, and the whole thing happened so quickly that it may never have fully identified me and stored me as a threat. But I’ll know more in the coming weeks, as I water plants, or take out the trash and recycling, or walk to the store.

So if you see a big crow walking on the ground in May, June, or July, just move away from it. There are others nearby, and they are on hair-trigger alert.

Cover photo by Dick Daniels (http://carolinabirds.org/) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

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42 thoughts on “Beware of Crows

  1. And here I was, just reassuring my son that crows hardly ever attack people. Looks like I’ll need to eat some…words.

    I knew about corvids’ facial recognition, but I didn’t recall that clothing was quite so irrelevant, else I would have speculated that your hat was maybe similar to one they’d encountered before under adverse conditions.

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  2. Crows and Ravens are indeed quite brilliant. My family, when they moved into their farmhouse in the howling wilderness, had quite a host of crows and some ravens about who made themselves quite a nuisance. My father, ever the pragmatist, shot a couple of them and nailed the carcasses up in prominently visible fields behind the house (very old school Roman of him). The birds have, by and large, absented themselves from my families turf, at least whenever we’re around.

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    • Depending on the nature of the ‘nuisance’ they’re causing, another approach is to befriend them. It’s not hard to do.

      My wife once house/cat sat for a lady who had taken that approach – one of the evening chores, along with feeding the cats, was to put some peanuts in the crow’s dish in the back yard. She forgot to do this when she got home the first day, and the crow reminded her – hopping along the fence cawing at the silly human until it clued in, went back to the garage, and fetched some peanuts.

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      • The nuisance in question primarily involved devouring plants out of the garden, attacking chickens (killing chicks) and generally making themselves pests. My father was not from the befriend the wildlife school of thought but it was the countryside. The crows suffered little from being excluded from our couple of acres.

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  3. I never thought that much about birds that weren’t pigeons or edible. Then I moved next to a bird sanctuary, and the movie Birds no longer seems nearly so silly to me. There’s something… nefarious… about birds. When they’re circling and hovering above, it’s hard not to think they’re not… planning something.

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    • Sometimes that bird, he looks right into you. Right into your eyes. You know the thing about a bird, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’.

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      • R. was “attacked” by a bird (likely a mocking bird, but I wasn’t there and she has been unable to show me the bird that did the “attacking”) a few weeks ago, and has developed a bit of a complex. Despite the fact that it did her no physical harm, she’s become convinced a.) that it wants to hurt her, and b.) that it can hurt her, and no amount of me telling her otherwise has convinced her. She’s avoiding a whole area of her neighborhood as a result.

        It probably doesn’t help that every time she brings it up I laugh uncontrollably. Yesterday she told me she’s going to get a new boyfriend who was raised in a city.

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        • She’s never been hurt by a bird, has she?
          I know someone who has been physically attacked multiple times by corvidae. And has gotten hurt each and every time. (well, except for the time they all went after the deliveryman. in his defense, he was carrying a 50lb bag of corn)

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      • ” You know the thing about a bird, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’.”

        Happened to me. Scary. Then I realized it was just Governor Scott Walker on TV and he probably wasnt’ going to come right out of the screen. Whoo!

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    • I have a minor obsession with birds. If we’re ever having a conversation in real life, it’s very likely that I will interrupt myself, or you, to talk about a bird I’ve just spotted or heard. This is not endearing, I recognize, but I can’t help it any more than I can help commenting on the music in a restaurant (also not endearing). It may also get me killed, because I will frequently stop in the middle of the street or parking lot when I see or hear one. I sometimes spend hours sitting outside watching crows, swallows, nighthawks, monk parakeets, black vultures, red-tailed hawks, and various other birds. There’s probably a name for this disorder.

      Anyway, there is a murder of crows that lives near my home, and at least one pair frequently alights [on my roof.]

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  4. I wonder if you couldn’t work the crow facial recognition to your advantage. That is, get some stale bread or some other corvid delight and just go somewhere and feed them. (Probably not your house). Then you might get a reputation with crows as an all-around good guy.

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  5. My nemesis-nemeses? are Grackles The family and I were walking through a calm, serene, Japanese garden I was just passing over a picturesque bridge when out of a clump of long grass squawked a Grackle and pecked my ankle. Ever since then we see groups of grackles (appropriately enough named a plague or an annoyance of Grackles) every where we go. The kids are highly amused at the thought of their Stepmonster being stalked in perpetuity by Grackles. Latest theory is an ancestor of mine offended the Grackle king and I am paying for their sins.

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      • Drive them out how? Mostly they tolerate other birds, but at times there are so many of them, particularly when they roost in groups of tens of thousands in the winter, that there isn’t any room in the trees for other perching birds.

        Here they’re almost aggressively tame. During my first week here, I was eating at an outdoor table at the UT Student Union when a female landed on the other side of the table, walked nonchalantly across and stole a fry out of my fry container (from Wendy’s) not 6″ from my hand.

        She looked at me the whole time she did it, and while I know she was just watching for any sign that she needed to fly off, it felt like a “Fuck you” look.

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  6. I’ve never had an issue with crows, but my dogs & have. My shepherd would get into rather heated arguments with crows, who would dive bomb her to harass her. After she passed, they tried that with my retriever, much to their chagrin, as he’s a jumper & after he splashed a few diver bombers (no deaths, only wounded corvid pride), they learned to keep to the high ground.

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  7. So was it a crow or raven? Crows have wedged-shape tales, are slightly smaller, and have a simpler call. Ravens have more diamond-shaped tales, and an incredibly complex language; and from what I can tell from literature and limited experience of ravens are really smart (crows just being smart, not really smart).

    First I’d guess you interrupted some family activity. Perhaps, for instance, the crow on the ground was injured, they were about to mate, or even the bird down was a juvenile fledgling, and the parent was defending it while it figured out how to get into the air. Birds are very protective of their young; except for grackels which foster their abominations off on other birds to raise instead of their own. (Grackels lay their eggs in other birds nests, and their young, typically being larger than their foster-parents offspring, tend to push their foster siblings out of the nests and hog all the food. Nasty creatures.)

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    • Where I live, the ravens are not slightly bigger than the crows, they’re reallly big. You don’t see a lot of them in the city though, you have to get out of town a ways. Lots of crows though.

      From what I’ve experienced, crows will tell you if you’re doing something they don’t like – if you hear a lot of squawking, look around, and you’ll likely see if there’s something you shouldn’t do.

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      • When I see ravens flying, I frequently mistake them for hawks initially, because they are so big (and they like to glide with open wings like raptors).

        However, I’d bet it was a crow, because while there are ravens in the Pacific Northwest, crows are much, much more common up there.

        Also, crows are really, really smart. The smartest birds in the world are crows (though not the species you’d find in Oregon). Related birds, like some jays and jackdaws are also super smart. One of my favorite birds, the Steller’s jay, is common up there, and also pretty smart.

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    • I think it was a crow, but truth be told, I can’t be sure. I never really got a good look at my attacker, and my knowledge of birds going into this whole thing was… lacking, to put it mildly.

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      • Yes if its the Pacific Northwest and suburban/urban it’s a crow.

        When I lived up there (20 years) it seems like three species basically split up the turf: Crows, Seagulls, and Pigeons kind along the lines of Suburbia, Shoreline, and Urban. But all in their way aggressive scavengers. Altho Pigeons more passive aggressive like the panhandlers they were competing with while Seagulls were more like stickup artists and Crows just all around tricksters. But none of them afraid of ‘Civilians’.

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    • I’d suspect crows. Ravens are snobbier about where they hang out. And yes they’re insanely smart; they’d prise the latches open on sheds and then pull the tops off feed barrels in my neck of the woods.

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  8. I remember being at the grand canyon and a ranger talking about how they had to replace the garbage cans with the bear proof ones because the ravens figured out how to work together to open the can and get the garbage out.

    And then there was the time the raven was perched on a sign on a bryce canyon overlook, posting for pictures….and wanting a treat…clever girl…

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  9. Since you first wrote this, I’ve been trying to remember a story a friend told me; said it was a friend of his (an Uncle or something, I don’t remember,) but the is that Crows Count to More Than Two.

    Uncle has a big old crow getting into his corn field, pulling up the sprouted seeds. So he builds a blind in the field so that he can hide and shoot the crow. The next day, he goes out to the blind; crow see him go, and won’t go into the field. He waits a couple hours. No crows. Crow waits, sees man walk back to the house, and starts pulling up corn.

    Next day, Uncle decides to trick the Crow by having Aunt walk to the blind, too. After a few minutes, Aunt walks back to the house alone. Uncle waits for a couple hours. No Crow. Uncle goes back to the house, and Crow starts feeding on the corn.

    Next day, Uncle takes Aunt and Cousin to the blind. They wait a few minutes, then the Aunt and Cousin go back to the house, and Crow starts feeding on corn and Uncle shoots him.

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  10. Crows are intelligent critters that are fun to watch. I used to watch them on the shores of Lake Okeechobee (Florida). I have seen them dive bomb each other and play on the power lines. If something would strike them a particularly funny (is this possible?), they would hang upside down from the power lines and caw.
    If they don’t feel threatened, they will come and hang out with you. They would also accompany me on my daily runs on the Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee.

    Fond memories…

    P.S. They are true omnivores. I have seen them wait for the fishermen to finish cleaning fish so they can eat the leftovers, as well as eating my leftover lunch. Popcorn was always a favorite.

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