Birds of Wisconsin

Changing the Notion on Crows

Very few species generate a mix of public emotion like crows. Seen as friend or foe, crows have adapted well to human presence, intermingling with us, sharing our land, shelter, and food. Crows are in the family Corvidae, which includes ravens, jays, and magpies. In the U.S., we have two distinct species of crow. Fish Crows are found anywhere near water in the east and southern coastal regions. American Crows are found everywhere throughout North America, including Wisconsin.

Negative Perceptions About Crows

Our negative perceptions of crows are deeply rooted more in culture than fact. In the 14th century, Plague ravaged Europe. Looking for food sources, as omnivores, crows naturally responded by scavenging on bodies; people therefore began associating the birds’ presence with death. In the late 19th Century, a German scientist named Ludwig Edinger studied the physical structure of the crow brain. As it was not as physically complex as ours, Edinger concluded they could not be capable of intelligence, coining the term “bird brain.”

But research has since shown that Edinger picked the wrong bird to deem unintelligent; studies are shedding light on the intellectual capabilities of the family Corvidae. John Marzluff is a Wildlife Professor at the University of Washington. His research proves that crows exhibit facial recognition, recalling people they have interacted with in the past. In his book Gifts of the Crow, Marzluff explains that the crow brain forms memories and learns from mistakes just like we do. In fact, a crow’s brain is proportionally larger than ours!

How Crows Communicate

It’s no surprise that with their advanced cognitive abilities, crows have strong communication skills and complex social lives. Deep, guttural caws signal that a predator is nearby. Cawing to others while flying keeps tabs on everyone’s whereabouts. Quiet ‘coos’ while perched with one’s mate convey admiration.

These birds love to play, which is a behavior that scientists often observe in the most intelligent members of the animal kingdom. Crows have been spotted using tools, sledding, and playing tag with each other.

I encourage you to spend more time watching these complex creatures. You’ll quickly learn that there is more to them than meets the eye. And they’re perceptive enough to learn the same about you.

Read about Loki, the Center’s resident American Crow.