Before I came to work at the UW Bothell & Cascadia College library, I had heard about the “6 o’clock crows”. But it didn’t prepare me at all for the first time I saw 10,000+ crows flying into the wetlands at dusk. I had never seen so many birds in my life. At the time, it seemed so magical, to be standing under them. I was amazed that none of them pooped on me (and briefly held the misconception that they wouldn’t out of respect). This immediately got me thinking about how they interacted with the campus, and how they saw humans. Were they trying to be neighborly? Were they afraid of us, and trying to maintain diplomatic relations? Why were there so many?
These crows are like a neighbor that we see every day, but haven’t spoken to yet. We share this space with them, but there’s so much we don’t know or notice. I wanted to take a deeper look at the campus crow population, so I asked a Andrea Bilotta – a student at UWB who is doing undergraduate research on crows – to help me pull some information together.
By the way, I now know better, and wear a rain jacket when I go out to watch the evening crows.
Our Crows on Campus
- The evening migration is beautiful. Most local news articles I found immediately compared our crows to the movie, The Birds (an Alfred Hitchcock classic horror movie where birds attack humans). But that isn’t what they look like to me. Watching them arrive in the evenings, is a little bit like being under water, watching the surface. They ripple along the evening sky, far above me. If you watch them for a while, it becomes clear that they fly in small groupings which are likely family units. You can also spot them greeting other crows they know, and playing, as they fly in. Most of this takes place far above. Although as they arrive, they also land in the sports fields, and on rooftops. In my experience, they don’t congregate as much in places where people commonly walk, like the campus sidewalks and bus stop.
- You can spot crows around campus all year, but the most dramatic sighting is at dusk, in Fall to late Spring, when crows from all over the area fly into the wetlands to sleep for the night. We don’t see nearly as many at dusk in the Summer, because crows are leave the main community to raise their young. Parents only bring them to the main group once they are old enough (and well enough behaved) to join the main group. So when you see crows in the Summer, they are usually teenagers – old enough to be on their own, but don’t yet have their own children.
- Our population of crows is big. It’s even bigger than our student population: 10,000, up to some think 15,000 or more crows roost in the campus wetlands.
- Crows have been roosting in the campus wetlands since around 2006. Generally, crows roost in large groups near urban areas for safety, to find mates, and regular food sources. Our crows mostly likely roost in the campus wetlands specifically because it’s a safe area with little traffic – most of the wetlands have restricted access to humans, due to ongoing restoration efforts.
- There are about 40 species for crows, and they can be found all over the world. The crows you see on Campus are American crows. American crows grow to be about 16-21 inches long, with a wingspan of 33-39 inches and weigh about .7 – 1.3 pounds. They typically live 7-8 years in the wild, but in captivity can live 20-59 years!
- Local resources:
- Campus research around Crow communication by faculty member Dr. Douglas Wacker is ongoing. He typically works with a few undergraduate students, to conduct his research.
- On the UW Seattle campus, John Marzluff is a faculty member researching how urbanization effects birds (mainly crows). He’s written three books about crows, most famously In the Company of Crows and Ravens.
- On the UW Bothell website, Stacey Schultz writes about campus crow life.
How We See Crows: Fact & Fiction
Fiction: Crows are scary. Crows and their calls are featured in many horror movies to create ominous scenes, or jump scares. In folklore crows are often seen as a sign of death, or bad luck, have been feared throughout history, and can always be found around death and violence.
Fact: Crows have a long, complicated – but not entirely bad – history with humans
- Many cultures have myths around crows and ravens- often as symbols of death, or bad luck. But not always. In Serbia, the Raven god Kutkh was a creation god. In North american indigenous cultures, crows are often seen as tricksters – more of a chaotic neutral. In the Hindu Story of Bhusunda, a very old sage is depicted as a crow.
- Crows are associated with death because they are all black (a color sometimes associated with death), their vocalizations are distinct, and they are scavengers – they eat dead animals, and plants that they find.
- It’s true that not many animals are all black. But, black is not always seen as the color of death. It’s also been a symbol for water, cavalry, the origin of the universe, nightfall, the color that auspicious government agents wear, and many, many, sports teams, etc….
- Crows scavenge for only a small part of the diet. It’s true that you may see a crow eating dead animals or plants. But they mainly eat grains, berries, and trash. When they do scavenge, they often help to clean up road kill. Among animals that scavenge, crows are not the only or even main animal you’ll find scavenging – many animals scavenge from large carnivores like bears and lions, to small insects like beetles and ants. All kinds of dogs and wolves scavenge, but that is usually not what people think of first when they come across a puppy.
- It’s hard to argue with bad omens and luck and superstitions with logic, but let me just say that crows can bring lots of things.
Fiction: Crows are pests. They’re seen as dirty, troublesome, useless, and unwanted.
Facts: Crows use their intelligence for their survival. While some behaviors may cause problems for humans, or we may develop bad relationships with crows, they also have many helpful behaviors, and we can create positive relationships with them.
- Crows help and interact with humans in many positive ways, including giving gifts, killing insects, and cleaning up road kill. Crows are not physically affectionate with humans, but can develop friendship-like relationships with us.
- Crows do not spread disease. There are no health concerns associated with crows.
- Whether you like crows or not – they are protected under Title 232 WAC and The Migratory Bird Act of 1918. It’s illegal to harm a crow, destroy a nest, or keep crows as pets. To hunt them you must have a license, and you cannot kill them only because they seem like pests. They have to display a threat to crops or human health.
- To get the ball rolling, I highly recommend this TED talk about Crows. It includes a series of interesting ways that crows have adapted to living with humans, culminating in the presenter’s experiment: training crows to use a vending machine. Yes, really.
- So now when I say this, you’ll know I really mean it: Crows are one of the most intelligent animals in the world. Their intelligence can be compared to that of a 7 year old child, approximately.
- While they can recognize symbols – including cross walk lights! – they probably couldn’t learn to read.
- They seem to have an understanding of quantities and counting, but it’s difficult to test whether they can do math.
- They are fantastic problem solvers, capable of understanding analogies, and causal relationships.
- They have been known to use and make a variety of tools.
- Crows communicate and learn from each other.
- They’ve created new vocalizations based off of necessity – including a vocalization to warn that a human with a gun is nearby.
- They can imitate human speech, and create unique calls to identify one another (Marzluff discusses this further in his 2005 book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens)
- Crows have a wide range of vocalizations.
- They have a long memory, and we know that they share the information they’ve learned with other crows.
- Crows will almost never attack humans or other animals unless they or their young are threatened.
- Crows are social, and family oriented. They mate for life, and often travel & spend time in extended family groups. When a crow dies, the group gathers around the deceased to hold a funeral – but they’re a little different than what you think. The main purpose is to try to discover the cause of death (we have no way of knowing if they are also mourning).
So I didn’t really answer all of the questions I started with. If anything, I have new questions. And I was surprised by some of the things researchers haven’t unraveled yet. We don’t know for sure if crows migrate or not. They migrate locally to their roosts at nightfall, and occasionally leave their roosts to join new ones in other states. We don’t understand when or why they leave. We don’t know to what extent they can smell, or use their sense of smell. We don’t know if their family relationships come with love, or solidarity.
But I enjoyed my foray into the world of crows, and I hope you did too!
This blog post is written by guest contributor, Melissa Logan, who is a Circulation Lead at the Campus Library.