Ammo & Gear Reviews

What A Crow Knows

Barbara Baird Contributor
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By Barbara Baird, Women’s Outdoor News

If you ask online search engines for crow experts, Kevin McGowan appears at the top of the list. A bird biologist who has worked at Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., for 27 years, Dr. McGowan’s knowledge and sense of humor about crows is evident. But, would he aid a hunter?

The next business day, we talked.

Initially, McGowan studied Florida scrub-jays for his doctoral dissertation in 1987, because he preferred studying social birds. When he turned his attention to American crows, he was surprised that people didn’t know much about them. “A lot of the numbers that one needs to manage a game population, all the things that we have spent millions of dollars to find out about white tailed deer and mallards, we knew nothing about for crows,” he said.

Now, he marks baby crows in their nests – which requires, on average, climbing 70 feet to get them– and observes them for the rest of their lives. He’s been watching one female, MP, for 18 years. He figures he’s watching as many as six generations and sometimes, thousands of crows at a time.

“American crows have extremely complicated family lives,” said McGowan. He noted that as he started following individual crows, he started noticing more personality trait differences among the flock.

McGowan believes that the birds have changed their attitudes about people in the past 25 years. And, that people have changed their attitudes about the birds. “When I started this, crows basically disliked you, unless they had a reason not to,” he said. Now, he thinks crows look at humans in a more positive way, especially in urban settings. That’s because of food. “All the urban crows are watching people as potential food sources all the time,” said McGowan. He thinks people in urban areas are warming to the trend of feeding crows, along with other birds, too.

During the early years, McGowan carried a slingshot, so that he could shoot an unsalted peanut in the shell far enough away that a crow would not feel threatened. Now, crows recognize his car and fly up to it in the parking lot. He thinks they can even recognize the way he walks, and fly in from behind him.

(Kevin J. McGowan photo)

Also, since he and fellow researchers mark the birds in nests that are as high as 70 feet off the ground, they would routinely get “mobbed” by neighborhoods of crows. “All the birds do a neighborhood watch … if they yell, the neighbors come over. They’ll even round up neighbors,” said McGowan, who has attracted as many as 75 birds.

(Kevin J. McGowan photo)

Now, researchers are seeing fewer mobs of crows, and attribute this to the fact that these crows have accepted them and know that they come bearing gifts of peanuts.

Perhaps we, as hunters, should start carrying peanuts. 

McGowan says crows will appreciate that, and come in quietly to eat them. “It could pay for you to make friends with crows. … And if you leave a gut pile in the woods, they like that, too,” said McGowan.

As for crows sounding alarms, McGowan affirmed my suspicion that crow calls tell the entire animal kingdom that danger lurks. “All animals are paying attention to alarm calls of other animals. The selection to pay attention to that is very strong. The ones that don’t have been eaten,” said McGowan.

Crows are particularly strong on mobbing things that don’t move quickly through the woods, like a person, dog, coyote or owl.

McGowan said crows know the difference between a person and a person with a gun. “Early on in my study, I was looking at a gathering at a golf course, about 3,000 crows. I went back to my car to get my spotting scope on a tripod. All of a sudden, the crows yelled and flew up. Same place, same person, same everything, except I now had a long object. They cued in on me as a person with a gun,” said McGowan.

He wondered how many birds, particularly in this urban setting, had been shot at, and surmised that not many had. However, “their parents told them that’s something you need to be afraid of and when crows tell another crow that there’s something they need to be afraid of, it sticks. It’s possible that the image is still in there,” explained McGowan.

“They know the difference between a farmer with a gun and a farmer with a broom or rake – not all crows do, but in the areas where it pays, they seem to,” said McGowan.

So, in a nutshell, crows can distinguish you from someone else, and they pass along that information to other crows and to their offspring.

Talking Crow

(Kevin J. McGowan photo)

Crows have dialects, but probably not as strong as turkeys. Since turkeys live in smaller, isolated populations, they develop more distinctive dialects. “American crows have less of that, because they do have a large interchange of birds from far away,” said McGowan.

Above all, McGowan has learned that crows have strong family values. “They’re out to protect their family and their neighborhood and they don’t do anything alone or quietly. They’re a little bit more like people than basically any other animal on earth, at this point. They have very much the same social system that we do have as Westerners,” he said.

He squashed the idea that crows are egg-sucking varmints. “They’re not trying to eat all the baby birds. They’re wannabe predators. They would love to eat more meat and baby birds than they can. They just aren’t built to do it,” said McGowan.

Dr. McGowan on a job site. (Jay McGowan photo)

In fact, they’d probably just as soon eat some peanuts.

Discover more about McGowan’s crow research at Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Barbara Baird