Montana Public Radio

As The Crow Flies: A Curious Look At A Clever Bird

Aug 14, 2015

Growing up in Kentucky, what I knew about crows was that my uncle had a big one tattooed across his chest. What struck me most when I moved western Montana was the murder upon murder of crows. Never in my eastern life have I seen so many crows as I do in this western place. Crows make a habit of lingering by the dumpster out back, in the tall evergreen out front, in the middle of the street. Even now, I can hear them cawing.

Like the big train whistle echoing through town and the constant din of cars and trucks, the guttural, coarse call of the American crow is a city sound. Living so far from my family in Kentucky, it is the crow—what might be the most quotidian and workaday bird in America—that reminds me of my home place.

 Where we humans like to live, in open places, in valleys, in largely non-wooded areas, is also where crows make their habitat. They’re an edge species, one that hangs on the fringe of forests, on farmland or pasture, in cemeteries, vacant lots, landfills, or highway turnarounds.

In what some might consider habitat wastelands, crows are scrappy foragers. They eat a vast and omnivorous diet of seeds, fruit, insects, Snickers bars, fish, half-eaten pizza, small rodents, carrion, or the new baby chicks you just ordered for your backyard chicken flock.

They go about collecting their smorgasbord using their sharp wit, which is more akin to that of a small primate than to other bird species. Crows have also been known to use tools to crack nuts and get at small insects in holes.

Crows  have big brains that weigh heavy on their lightweight, avian bones. This might explain why they walk funny, in their constant jut, or fly with so much flapping. Crows can play, and they talk. They might even talk so much that, to city folk, their caws begin to sound one and the same. However, listening more closely, giving crows the kind of attention we give other bird species, we can distinguish the crow’s broad range of calls.

There are short caws, quick bursts of that rough sound in twos, threes, and fours. Caw caw caw caw. This is used to call attention and communicate. And a crow needs to communicate.

During the spring and summer nesting season, crows live in families that roost together in mostly evergreen trees, although a deciduous one will do just fine. A mating pair will remain mostly monogamous throughout their lifetime, and will give birth to a number of clutches.

Crows take good care of their young, which stay in the family for two to four years before flying the nest. As such, older siblings have been observed to participate in the raising of the younger crows. Crows make what we know of as family, and like good families, they communicate a great deal. 

In contrast to the short calls, there are long calls. Long calls are singular, or repeated, but last longer, stretching out that throaty sound for a few more milliseconds. Caaaaaw. Both short and long caws make up the majority of crow speak. But there are also warning calls. Hunters, predators, or startling noises can all provoke a warning call. These calls are like the short calls, but quicker. Cawcawcawcaw. The familial version of the warning call is the mob call, which happens when a group of crows makes a big mess of noises. Long caws, short caws, warning caws, and then the crow’s rattle, which is a distinct, throaty clicking noise.

Last week, as I was riding my bike through town, a crow walked in its jutting gait on the shady side of a street. It made the rattle call, and I realized it was the first time I’d ever heard that particular call. I listened hard to that crow, and gave it a second glance that I don’t think we often give to such a lowly species. Another moved overhead, beating its wings through each meter of air, a hard worker for such a heavy flight. In its beak was a hunk of orange plastic, some human refuse, or for the crow, maybe a tool.

Crows may be common, but they might also be deserving of the kind of naturalist attention we give more wild and rare bird species.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Field Notes," 07/21/15. Listen weekly on the radio, Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m., or Fridays at 4:54 p.m., or via podcast.)