Hanging Out at the Crow Bar: the Secret Lives of America's Smartest Birds

Rose Bak


Photo: Stary Smok via Unsplash

My roommate has developed a close personal relationship with the neighborhood crows. First, she started putting out water for them. Then she started feeding them. And now they are starting to communicate with her.

It’s cool. Or creepy, depending on how you feel about crows.

“I went outside to walk the dog,” she told me today. “And a crow buzzed just over the top of my head. They were telling me they’re hungry.”

I might have thought she was imagining things if I had not seen their fixation with her myself. They clearly know my roommate, and can tell the difference between her and the others in the house.

I have seen them respond to her, making eye contact or cawing. When she walks her dog, a little crow posse follows behind her, keeping an eye on her. Or looking for food, I’m not sure which.

One time my roommate came inside and told me she needed to get some crackers because the crows were too upset that she didn’t have any food for them.

The crow’s fixation with my roommate has gotten so intense that her dog refuses to walk during the early part of the day because all the swooping and screeching crows freak him out. It’s totally valid – he’s a very small dog. It would probably only take three or four crows to spirit him away.

And when she’s not around, I swear they are looking for her.

The crows pay no attention to me, but when she leaves the house they’re like, “Hey lady! Where’s our damn food?”

Once I left for work and a group of crows were staring at the house like they were casing the place. They had no interest in me. I texted her from the driveway and told her that she had visitors waiting outside.

My brother was visiting once and when he went outside to smoke he came racing back in, telling me, “I don’t know what’s going on but there are like a million crows hanging out on your lawn like a horror movie!”

Hearing about these close encounters with our corvid friends made me curious: What is up with these crows?

It turns out that there are over forty species of crows. They are part of a group of birds known as “corvidae” or “corvids”. This group includes several other birds including jays, magpies, rooks, and ravens.

Crows are medium-sized black birds which are extremely adaptable and are able to live all over the world. Their numbers are plentiful.

Crows are solitary but will often work together and hunt in groups called a “murder”. They raise their children cooperatively, in groups.

It turns out that crows are extremely smart, as well as very social. You have likely heard their loud “caw caw” sounds as they communicate with other birds in the area. Or people.

They were relentless, brilliant scavengers with a keen sense of craftiness, and no human being could outwit them. The kind of cunning mischief and competition that a murder of crows possessed was unbeatable. ― Rebecca McNutt

Crows can learn and reason in a way that many other animals cannot. They have also demonstrated problem-solving skills, the ability to make and use tools, and they can recognize themselves in mirrors.

One of the unique things about crows is that they can differentiate between humans and recognize familiar faces. They clearly know who is a friend or an enemy, and share this information with others. So if you anger one crow, other crows will band against you too. Word of advice: do not anger the crows.

Crows also remember which people feed them and are able to track their schedules so they appear when they know that person will be around. Crows can essentially tell time, and they prefer a fixed feeding schedule so they know when to stop by and get some grub.

Crows also have a wide range of vocalizations, with different sounds for mating, danger, and “it’s dinnertime.” Often it seems like they are talking to people. Clearly they’re saying to my roommate, “Feed me! Bring me a beer!”

“Oh my god, our house is like a biker bar for crows,” I told my roommate when I read that. “It’s a crow bar.” (I know, I am hilarious. I bet you wish you lived with me too.)

Crows don’t just care about food though, they also care about their buddies.

If a crow dies, other crows will circle around their fallen comrade  and have the crow equivalent of a funeral. The purpose of the crow funeral is not only to mourn, but also to figure out how the crow died.

It’s like they are little Columbos, fighting for justice for their murdered friends. (Note to younger readers: Columbo was an awesome and clever detective on TV.)

This autopsy and investigation helps them avoid whatever killed the other bird and, in some cases, get revenge for their death. Researchers have tracked their efforts to get revenge when a human harmed a fellow crow.

Crows are omnivores, but they have definite tastes. They are particularly fond of fast food, eggs, peanuts, fruits, pasta, and bugs.

Once my roommate put out stale Rice Krispies for the crows and they were totally annoyed, cawing, and circling and fussing until she took out some Trader Joe’s trail mix. That they liked. Crows have expensive tastes.

Crows also eat bugs, which can help protect crops and keep the insect population down. Although they are often criticized as harming crops, this actually sees pretty rare. They do sometimes carry seeds with them from place to place which helps plants repopulate in new areas.

It is always good to have the crows on your side. You can make friends with your local crows by providing water, seeds, or other snacks, and keeping a respectful distance.

There have even been stories that crows have brought little gifts for their human friends like shiny baubles, ribbons, and acorn caps.

So far, my roommate has not received any gifts from the crows in our neighborhood. I guess she needs to start offering a better menu at the Crow Bar.

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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at rosebakenterprises.com or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

Portland, OR

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