Crows

My observations of crows began around November, 2014.

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It started when my wife Dixie gave names to the three crows that were typically hanging around near our house, Heckel, Jeckel and Larry. This may have been around 2012. We enjoyed their company, although they were shy and very wild. We assumed they were a mated pair and their “teenager” from the previous season. Around that time, we re-watched a very good documentary on the PBS Nature series, “A Murder of Crows” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EpPCCwBKSgo), which originally aired in 2010. I researched the best treats to feed these wonderful birds, in order to start making friends, and read that raw peanuts in the shell were a healthy favorite food for them, with the advantage of being cheap, portable, biodegradable and easily flicked with the finger a good distance. They also make a pleasing clicking sound when they land, which helps the bird identify the treat. We confirmed this when we saw an elderly gentleman near the park where we sometimes play tennis. We noticed that he had a satchel on his shoulder, and sometimes he would surreptitiously pull a handful of peanuts from his bag and drop them in the street. Six or eight crows in the park were watching closely, would follow him when he approached and quickly descend on the small pile of peanuts.

I noticed in the autumn, when the black walnuts were ripe, that crows would drop them in the street hoping for a car to roll over them, because the shells were too hard for their beaks to crack open. As an experiment, I took a hammer to one of these walnuts, as a crow watched me from a tree. The crow never approached to investigate the crushed walnut. It didn’t trust me. The small pile was still there that afternoon, when a squirrel discovered it.

The first two crows to figure out that I’m offering treats were a mother and “teenage” offspring (I think.) Perhaps it was even two of the three original “Heckel and Jeckel,” or related. (A thought in retrospect – these may have been mates, not parent/youth; perhaps whom we later called Scruffy and Scruffette? The smaller crow might have been a female instead of juvenile, not yet sure I can reliably tell the difference. I think I can tell the males by a larger size and a slightly higher brow-ridge over the eyes.) I enjoy watching the shy juvenile still trying to get attention from mom, putting its head down asking for preening, stepping closer on the telephone wire, while mom steps away trying to assert her independence. The couple is more shy than the visiting small flock of competing crows. Later, when the crow-crowd figured out there was a good thing here, the two would stay and watch from a distance or fly away. The juvenile (or female mate?) rarely would go down to get a peanut, letting mom (dad?) do the work. The bigger bird is getting tired of it.

December 30, 2014: The blue-jays have caught on to the game and they have started trumping the crows in the peanut chase. We’ll see how that evolves. They are so bold they allow me to walk up to the tree they are in, place a peanut on a branch three feet away and stand there. The jay will fly down to get the nut and fly off quickly, not really afraid of me at all. Now they get to the nuts I throw in the street, faster than the crows, who remain distrustful. Already, the crows might be figuring out that they have to get to the gift faster, or it is stolen from them.

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Email to Simon in Victoria, Australia:
I think our various crows are somewhat similar around the world. I have seen stories about how the New Caledonian Crow (from the island near New Zealand) may be one of the smartest non-human animals on the planet. Ours are pure black (I think yours have white markings on the wings). Ours are large, but not as large as a raven, species name is Corvus brachyrhynchos.  Typically about 40-50cm tall. I love how completely individual they are, with the mind of a criminal. They are very cautious, utterly wild. I don’t pretend for a second that I am “taming them.” I imagine perhaps that I am slowly earning their trust, as a good sucker to steal food from. The blue-jays on the other hand – also very smart aggressive birds – behave like utter bullies, quicker and more risk-taking than the crows. In comparison, the crows seem sophisticated, like mafioso compared to the street-thug blue-jays. The jays would hit you over the head for the coins in your pocket, but the crows would con you into giving them the keys to your car. I feel that the peanut feeding is merely letting me get closer to them, to observe their social behavior a bit better. I have seen the parenting practices of mom and “teenager” and also the way they keep territories marked off by human details like the street and sidewalk. They differentiate the curb as a crossing zone into another space, while they feel safer out with the cars in the middle of the street. The lawn is a very risky place in their minds, the place where people stand and watch, or dogs roam. They go there to dig for grubs in the early morning when people aren’t around, but they prefer the street or the branches above. 

It’s an endless study. I’m enjoying it! – RR

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Feb 1, 2015

Blue Jays have become the intervening factor. They are bold enough to steal peanuts off of my shoe, or on a table right in front of me. The crows have noticed this as well, and they have learned to swoop in faster to get their target. Both species have been perfecting different flight patterns. The blue jays take fast dives in from tree branches right above me, but they steer away if a crow gets there first. The crows use a drop flutter, where they let gravity drop them down and use their wings to stop the fall, often about ten feet away from the peanut. Then they strut toward the target in a way that prevents competition. However, if there is anything threatening in the environment, the crow will fly over the target and return to a branch nearby, usually letting a jay swoop in to get the nut. The crows are cautious, more shy, willing to drop the target for safety.

To avoid the jays, I have taken to walking around the corner. The jays do not follow farther than a few houses. The bolder crows have learned to follow me all the way to the park. They get much better food around the corner, away from the jays. My only problem is passing cars and pedestrians. I don’t want to scare people about my crow-feeding and I don’t want a crow to get hit by a car.

Around January 26, I turned some sprinklers on in the back yard and I noticed the crows were drinking and bathing in the spray. They usually avoid the back yard, but my feeding has made them more bold. I flipped a few peanuts to the washing crows, and they found them. They know me and trust me more than they trust most humans, and they know our house now. A few days later I saw them poking around in the back yard, so I went out and tossed some peanuts. This is more common now. The boundary is getting softer. I don’t know if this is a good thing. It could be a problem when we start growing food, but for now I am very interested in the experiment. They do know our boundaries, and they prefer the public space. That is very interesting.

Today, two crows were in the magnolia tree, and I put a few peanuts on top of the fence as they watched. The first two nuts were taken by blue-jays, then a crow came down and ate the remains, watching me watching it. Fascinating development.

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Away on tour for two months in springtime, 2015. Curious if they’ll remember me upon return. Back around mid-May. It takes about a week, going on my daily walk, for the familiar crows to start checking for me again. By summertime, we have a regular routine of morning walks and various individuals showing up at their typical spots. Some follow me around town.

Starting in October or November, the groupings get larger. These are the juveniles, I think. They are not so bright, and a bit clumsy. Two groups catch on to me, one group hangs out in the empty lot on WG (a good spot to look for bugs) and the other group of about 20 birds convenes here at our house. That’s the group I record for use on my next album “What We Left Behind.” In fact, the low-status youth I call Mep is featured in the gap before the final song on the album, and at the very end of the album in a minute of near silence. You can hear the “mep” sound clearly.

By late winter, Roofus has shown some other crows that they can look into my office window from the roof in the morning, when I am doing email and sipping coffee. I can see their shadows walking along the roof, and hear them above my head. I’ll step outside and throw a few peanuts on the concrete patio by the back door. They drop down from the roof while I am still standing on the steps, and actually come toward me to grab additional gifts that I flick to them.

I have a bowl of water set out near the front walkway, and I find signs that they are using it to wash throughout the day. There are little white globs left in the water from their washing – I’m not sure if they are food particles, bits of fat from their craw, perhaps, or maybe mites that they washed off. They don’t look like bugs though. I haven’t analyzed them, I just rinse the bowl occasionally.

Also in this early spring, I start noticing a few gifts showing up. I was in the front washing out the bowl when I noticed (maybe Roofus?) dropping an object onto the garage roof. It’s a powder-blue bic lighter, the half-sized variety. A few hours later, the lighter is relocated over to the water bowl. Clearly it’s a gift. A week or two later, I find a part of a cooked lobster tail shell sitting in the bowl of water, which may have fallen out of a neighbors garbage and offered a bit of food for a bird. Perhaps the crow placed it in the water thinking it might soften? I remove the lobster shell and place it next to the bowl. It is gone an hour later. During April I also find a chicken thigh bone and a half of a corn tortilla shell sitting in the water. In the case of the tortilla, it seems clear that it is soaking there to soften. I remove it again, rinse the bowl, and place it by the side. It also disappears in a short time, certainly eaten. A piece of red plastic has also shown up nearby, a blue plastic button, and a gumdrop-shaped green glass marble.

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May 8, 2016

Many familiar individuals in the neighborhood now. During the winter, the juvenile mob would hang around in the front yard, and some of them much more bold than others. Able to identify individuals from their behavior. Belly has a habit of looking down underneath herself in an upside-down way. Roofus was the first to learn that he could ask for peanuts on the roof and catch them when I toss them up onto the roof. It’s a bit of a game I think. He would look into the dining room window while we sat there, from up above on the front door overhang.

Come early springtime, they start getting more aloof from each other and from us. They become more territorial, and I can see them chasing each other away sometimes. The same couple remains, waiting on the telephone wire above our driveway (Scruffy is the male, the other rarely seen this season, we call Scruffette, probably tending chicks nearby. Scruffy got his name because he used to have a “cowlick” feather on his left wing, that would often stick out in an unruly way. It might have been molting season.) Scruffy is always a bit shy, waits for me to go back through the gate before coming down. I’m rather sure these are the same individuals we started feeding in 2014. There are others that come by rarely, but they are not welcome in Scruffy’s territory. They stay mostly around the corner, where a pair of mockingbirds is ruthlessly attacking them all day long. If Scruffy is away, one of them sometimes comes around the corner to request a snack, but Scruffy will chase him away if the interloper lingers.

The one I call Belly has a mate and lives in pine trees at the edge of the creek, in a wooded area. She is very familiar with me, and when she notices me walking through the park, she’ll come up to a nearby branch and wait for her snack. Yesterday she actually met me on the railing of the bridge, at eye level just a few feet away. Her mate is a bit less familiar, but will follow me over to a quiet spot behind some dumpsters to join Belly for peanuts away from playing children. These two might have been in the same spot of the creek last year, with 2-3 young, when the creek was dry I would toss them peanuts from the bridge onto the creek bed below. They taught their young that I was OK, and perhaps their young were among the individuals who visited our house in winter. It seems clear, though, that our house is Scruffy’s territory, so they only come around at length in wintertime when everyone is more social.

As I go on my daily walk, I pass a pair of crows that know me on C-ave., and one of them often comes quite close and waits on a stop sign (or a nearby branch) so I call him StopSign. He and his mate probably live in the tall redwoods in the middle of the condo complex that dominates the block. Another familiar group of crows lives on the way downtown and meets me on WG, parallel to the expressway. They often show up from trees in the median strip of the expressway. I don’t call them – they know what I look like and they show up quietly with an understanding that I carry food. A few of these are the most daring. I have named one of them CarTop, because several times now, he has landed on the roof of a parked car right next to me as I walk past. The first time he did this, I made the mistake of stopping and looking directly at him. This is very rude in crow language. Direct eye contact is an act of aggression. He flies away if I do this. So I have learned to glance just long enough to notice him, then drop a peanut close to me as I keep walking. He’ll come right up to get it if I don’t change my pace. Now, he’ll often land on the ground just behind me, and I only know he’s there by the shadow and a slightly audible whoosh of his wings. If I stop to look, he gets a bit spooked. It’s all about body language, seeming to be uninterested. Other crows will follow me across the busy intersection and meet me in the trees by the train station, and some will follow me all the way down to the post office, knowing exactly who I am among hundreds of different pedestrians.

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May 18, 2016

As I’ll be traveling for a few days, I want to make sure I say hello to my various friends. On my walk, Belly and her mate are very quick to fly over to me as soon as they see me cross the bridge. They don’t seem at all bothered that Dixie is also walking with me. Belly flies up to an often-used branch above the bridge post, where she watches me place two peanuts on top, at my head-level. As soon as I step away she hops down to retrieve them. This is a rather common spot for us to meet. As expected, four crows follow me down WG and act bold like adolescents. CarTop is here too, and stays separate from the gang of four. This time he lands on the fence right next to me, puffs out his wings sideways to look bigger, drops his body down a bit and makes two low loud caws, clearly to get my attention. I have seen a certain crow in my large winter home grouping do this same maneuver and I wonder if it’s a dominant behavior. It certainly seems macho.

I make a faux-pas (crow-pas?) back at home with our shy Scruffy. I’m working in the studio and see a familiar shadow pass over the skylight. I figure I’ll go drop him a peanut. When I step outside I don’t see him up on the wire. It’s a very hot day, so it occurs to me he might be down at the bowl of water I keep filled for them. I peak my head over the fence, and see Scruffy just as he is cautiously stepping sideways to the water bowl. He looks up to see my face over the fence and his eyes widen in fear. He jumps into the air and flies up to his spot on the wire. By way of apology, I drop two peanuts under him on the driveway, and also two by the water bowl. He looks down at the ground, bowing his head more than he usually does when I drop him a snack, but then he flies away back to his roost in the tall redwoods. An hour later the peanuts are still untouched by the bowl. I felt rather sad that I had startled him so badly just before I have to leave for a few days. I find it fascinating that the one crow who spends the most time at our house and knows us the best, also maintains a very clear distance and stays more shy than the ones that know me as I pass on my walk. I can only imagine that it relates to a sense of territory, perhaps he knows that his territory overlaps with mine and he needs to respect those boundaries. I think he understands that we are different species, and he gets a benefit from my snacks. He even calls me to announce his arrival and request a snack; but he won’t get close.

That evening, about an hour before sunset, Scruffy re-appears with his mate, and announces his arrival with several loud caws. I step out to see them both up on the wire, close to each other side by side. I drop a few peanuts and go back inside. Scruffy retrieves two of them, leaving one for his mate, and flies away. She drops down a moment later and gets hers. Am I forgiven now?

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May 23, 2016

I was traveling for four days, and when I got back things have changed with our local crows. It’s fledge time. Scruffy and Scruffette are coming to our house more often, and together. Until this week, Scruffy was usually coming alone – I presume because Scruffette was tending the chicks. They call when they show up, to let me know they’re here. Yesterday (May 22) they had one of their fledglings with them. This is our first introduction. I’m calling him/her Scruffzilla, due to the demanding behavior. The parents are a bit more bold than they were last month. They wait across the street (not waiting exactly, but poking around in the gutter near a discarded drink cup – perhaps there’s some sugar water in the puddle next to it?) Scruffy also makes a rare appearance in our back yard this morning, just checking around for food sources. I don’t think he found anything. But yesterday, moments after I tossed a couple peanuts, baby Scruffzilla showed up on the phone wire and made begging sounds, while Scruffy placed shelled and broken peanuts into his/her beak. I heard the telltale “Reyh” baby-begging bark from the fledgling. It’s an upward pitched higher sound, nasal and almost cat-like, clearly a baby asking it’s parents to feed it. If my observations last year are an indication, this might continue all Summer into Autumn. Crow parents are hard-working and patient, with very demanding babies who grow almost to full size within only a couple months. In fact, even now. Scruffzilla is almost the same size as Scruffette, the mother. It’s hard to imagine a bird growing so quickly then taking another year to start acting like a young adult. The growth stages are different from ours, and terms like “baby”, “teenager” or “young adult” seem out of synch with this particular pace of development. Like many intelligent species, though, they develop physically much faster than they develop psychologically. The young might almost look adult, but they are clumsy and shy, afraid and inept, the word “dorky’ comes to mind. It makes one realize how many of these skills are learned and not innate.

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July 9, 2016

Watching a cute bit of play behavior with Scruffzilla. I came outside when Scruffy cawed (which he does to announce his arrival and desire for a treat.) Scruffy is up on the phone wire with one of the fledglings (‘Zilla 1 or 2) next to him. Scruffzilla is playing with a dry leaf up on the phone wire. He has it in his beak and it’s rather breezy. He places it under his claw to hold it down against the wire, then intentionally (?) lifts his claw and tries to catch the leaf as it lifts up in the breeze. He doesn’t quite catch the leaf and it flutters away. Then he makes some quiet gurgling and clucking sounds either to himself or to his father perched near him. These soft babblings are very different from the loud begging sound that Scruffzilla makes when a parent is nearby. He seems to be playing and talking to himself. There is a definite sense of curiosity and learning in his environment.

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January 17, 2017

For the last six months, the local crèche has become increasingly comfortable around our house. Dixie isn’t so happy about it, because they tear at any interesting fiber that protrudes from the ground, including tarpaper form the roof and garden cloth under the gravel pathways. One or two crows look into my office window in the morning, when I do email, hoping I’ll notice them and come outside with peanuts. I watched two courting crows in the group become increasingly close to each other, perched on the benches in our back yard while I filmed them from inside my office. Now he preens her neck feathers after she snuggles up close to him and bows her head down. I posted some edits of their courtship on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eL0LTjnVGOM with a bit of music from my album Open Window. My challenge at this point is to figure out how to keep them friendly while shifting their expectation away from a free-for-all.

I am a bit worried that they get too aggressive with each other, competing over the treats. They make a game of catching peanuts in mid-air, but if they miss one, there is a scrabble between them to fetch it. I don’t want anyone to get hurt. Also I notice one individual with a disease on her legs. I call her Whitefoot. I think she has an infestation of microscopic spider mites (called scabies if a human gets it) and it probably itches horribly. It is also contagious, if that’s what it is. I feel a sympathy towards her and I want her to get something to eat. I see the other birds shunning her to a certain extent. I want to make sure her infection doesn’t spread to the others in this close proximity, but I wonder if she gets better nutrition maybe she’ll be able to fight off the infestation. It’s tough being wild, without doctors or medicines… and I don’t think catching her for a vet visit is an option. In the meantime I am going through large quantities of peanuts to give treats to over 20 crows – sometimes a pound per day.

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April 10, 2017

Since last writing, the crows have gone scarce and shy. It’s nesting season. Scruffy and last year’s Scruffzilla do know where to find a good snack, though.

I made some katsu stock with smoked pork neck bones two nights ago, and yesterday I started putting the scrapings of smoked pork icky bits into a dish by the water bowl, with raw peanuts as an offering. The pork was gone in minutes. (They wait on the phone lines until I go inside, and they can tell if I am watching in the window. During nesting season the Scruffy family gets very wary.)

This morning I found a bright pink plastic fragment on the patio. I assume it’s a thank-you note. I think they like smoked pork bits. Also I think I saw the tree where they are nesting. This is a first after 4 years of knowing them. They are a successful family of city crows that keeps their privacy – even from human friends – because they are smart and trust no human, even me.

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April 22, 2017

Interesting crow day today. Many of my friends were more bold today, walking right up to me to request a peanut. Yet they seemed very feisty and territorial with each other. I must assume it’s nest related.

This morning I stepped outside to check the mailbox, and the corner crow flew up onto our lawn and began walking right towards me as I was filling their water dish. Suddenly Scruffzilla (the yearling who has mostly been owning our peanuts) swooped down to chase the corner crow away from me, as if our lawn was off-limits to a different family. After an intense moment of acrobatics, corner crow hid under the branches of our gangly elm tree, on the low fence. I gently walked to that area, and he came up towards me along the fence line, very calm and trusting. I dropped some peanuts and went inside.

Along my walk, similar things were happening. Aerial acrobatics of families chasing single crows away from their territories, and the single crows acting much more friendly and bold towards me than they did last month. Is it out of hunger? I hear nestlings begging in the distance, so I know everyone is working hard to feed gaping squawking mouths. Is this a battle over resources or territory? I am so happy to have this glimpse into their complex social lives.

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April 28, 2017

I have seen our crows explore their environment here in many adventurous ways. They are very curious, and seem interested in man-made objects as puzzles. Sometimes they just do odd things, testing materials, or themselves. Yesterday our most friendly crow “Scruffzilla” came and landed on Dixie’s bicycle seat just outside my studio door, while we were chatting inside. Dixie heard a noise and stepped outside to see big black wings flying away. She noticed holes pecked into the bag she uses to cover her seat from rain and sun. Scruffzilla was investigating this odd contraption of bag and metal. I think it’s a form of play, or experimenting with their world.

Over at the creek, Belly and her family are very cute. I can walk over there and wait on the bridge. If I don’t see anyone show up in a minute or two, I whistle a certain call. Usually she shows up very close to me, and waits for me to leave a peanut on the bridge rail. She is quite bold and willing to approach me as I stand on the bridge, or in a shaded area nearby. Two days ago, I saw her down on the creek bank, and whistled. Instead of flying toward me, she flew downstream. I waited for a minute, thinking maybe I startled her, then began to walk away. In a flurry arrived three happy crows, the Belly family as far as I can guess. She didn’t fly away from me, after all, she was just calling the family for a little snack. (Belly might be a yearling or two, and these might be siblings and a father?) I walked back to the bridge, left a smattering of peanuts here and there for them, and retreated to the shaded area. They knew exactly what to do, and Belly even came up to the spot she knows above the shaded area to ask for another treat. Friends.

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June 7, 2017

Scruffy and Scruffette showed up today with the whole family (that I know of) – Scruffzilla my buddy, born in 2016, with his fluffy black head-puff of youth, svelte shy Mom and smart Dad slightly aloof as always; and they introduced me to the brash and sassy Scruffzilla ’17#1 (no name yet, I barely met him/her.) Beak filled with some berry, trying to squawk “werrk, wraaaack, blrwraaack!” which translates to “I don’t know what to do, just put food in my mouth, now!” Mom, Dad, and older brother were introducing the fledging brat into the ways of friendly (but potentially dangerous) humans and their peanuts. Lesson #1 resulted in some confusion about whose peanut was which, and Scruffzilla managed to show how to crack a shell, give a pea and take the rest. I am glad to see a new generation of friends in training.

Meanwhile, on my walk, the juvenile crèche seems to be growing this week, as over a dozen crows started following me in a not-subtle way on a certain side street. This is sooner than last year, so I am guessing the yearlings are getting off duty a bit earlier this time, or the word spread more quickly that there’s a sucker human in a straw hat walking a daily route with peanuts. The problem with the big crowd of crows following me, is that I get more cautious about feeding such a rabble in public. I try not to call attention to this relationship. When they group up like this, I only feed the ones that land right next to me, which of course reinforces the bravado. I might try to stop treating the larger groups outright, just to avoid a scene.

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June 22, 2017

Hot weather this week, slightly cooler yesterday so I was able to take my usual three mile walk. The return trip follows a public trail along the creek, a riparian corridor between freeway and apartments. Several of the crow families know me here, and they’ll show up in certain places where I look for them and give them a treat. I paused at a spot I call “squirrel city” with deep coverage of live oak. I heard crow babies begging from a large camphor tree in the distance, maybe 100m. I gave my whistle and waited. First an adult flew a few branches toward me, then another adult, then the babies, working their way toward me as a group in several stages. Five crows congregated in line on an oak branch over the creek, 10m away facing me. Mom and dad were introducing their three fledglings to me. I glanced up then looked down at my feet, as a polite way of showing I am not a threat. Now that we were formally introduced, I quietly placed a peanut onto each of a half-dozen fence posts running along the trail, and walked away. From a distance I saw an adult take a peanut and show the fledglings how to crack and eat it. They began calling for food, still a bit young to do it themselves. The babies received a formal lesson in cautious human interaction. These small moments give me great joy.

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July 25, 2017

Today I was on my walk, and I paused for a man to pass me while walking his dog on the same street. He saw the crows following. He looked fascinated. I said “Sorry, I’m only pausing so your dog doesn’t scare them. They follow me around.” As an explanation, I tossed a peanut and there was “Stop Sign” the crow trusting enough to grab it, dog on leash in sight. Dog-walker smiled said “Nice!” and moved on. His path was parallel to mine, and we found ourselves on the same streets for a while. He watched as my little ragtag community of molting black feathers followed, asking for treats. Waiting for the light at a major cross street, with six crows on the wires overhead also awaiting the red light (so they could follow me to the train station) I joked to him, “If you ever feel paranoid, like eyes are watching you from the sky, you can know that it’s actually true. They really do watch us.”

Also, an addendum to the previous post of June 22. The crow family with three babies at “squirrel city” has come to my whistle two more times since that first time a month ago. Today I only saw one watch-crow up in a distant tree, so I whistled. After a minute of silence, a different crow flew over to the nearby oak. No-one else showed up so I placed only one peanut on the fence post, and walked away. Moments later, two more crows flew in a circle over the spot I abandoned. I assume they were disappointed. I’ll be back.

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Addendum 1:

Crow language

Slowly I am becoming more familiar with their body language and different sounds they make. I’ll try to start a dictionary here.

Normal Caw – 2-4 times, even midrange pitch
“I’m here, just letting you know.” Made to each other to map their location, and made at me to let me know they would like a snack, or to let the others know the peanut guy is here. If they are talking to me, it’s often just “caw caw”, if they are broadcasting in the neighborhood, it’s a bit louder and often three caws with a rest between 2 & 3 “caw caw… caw.”

Warning Caw, staccato with varying pitches, more random, urgent
“Danger in the area” – a cat or Cooper’s hawk, usually. There might be a long string – 6 or 10, sometimes with a screech tossed in for emphasis. You can really tell they are upset, and the severity of the threat is often conveyed in urgent tone and greater variation.

Deep Macho Caw, wings widened
It seems dominant and confident: “Here I am and I’m in charge” perhaps? The pitch is lower than usual, the sound sustains a bit longer and has a bit more rasp in the voice. The context always seems to be around other crows (I’m there as well of course, an extra variable.) Most uniquely, the call is accompanied by a specific body language, neck feathers puffed out, wings held partially out in a sort of forward cowl, like a person putting their hands on their hips, and the body is tilted down and a bit forwards. It really looks like a macho display of dominance. I would see the same crow do this to its adolescent mob during wintertime feedings on our front lawn, although it did not seem to act specifically more aggressive, such as stealing peanuts from the others, for example. The gesture seemed to be a part of the excitement that would build up when they realized they could come closer and get a reward.

Rattle, or “woodpecker tapping”
Like a fast percussive roll on a woodblock. Seems to represent a cross-species message, perhaps telling another crow that an interesting non-crow is around. I sometimes hear them make this sound at me if I am chatting with a neighbor while they are waiting for a snack. I was walking down our street with Dixie one day and made our signature whistle to one of our familiar crows who was high up in a nearby tree, and it rattled back to me. I’m not sure if they’re directing it at me or each other, maybe pointing out that I wasn’t alone, but with another human. It seems friendly.

Quick short rattle ’tack tack tack”, more urgent
Similar to the above woodpecker rattle, but shorter, fewer ticks. I heard this twice while multiple crows were chasing a Cooper’s hawk with acrobatic flying through some tree branches nearby. It seemed as if they were indicating their location to each other while quickly navigating, still maybe related to another species, just a guess. They were being aggressive to the hawk, but collaborating together, so it’s hard to know the intention.

Gurgle-rattle
A more guttural version of the rattle, seems quite friendly. I have heard parents make this sound to their young nearby. It’s a rather quiet sound. The very first crow I started to feed (might have been Scruffy or Scruffy’s parent) once made this sound to me when I was behind our gate and s/he was up on the wire, after I tried to make a caw sound as an experiment. She looked down at me and gurgle-tapped. Maybe just curious?

Mrrr-gurgle
A sort of quieter watery caw, a bit of an “r” sound mixed in like saying “were” with a scratchy gargle. Made intimately between two crows standing next to each other, probably mates. Typical situation, a pair of crows standing together high on top of a streetlight down the block, one of them makes the sound to the other and then its mate follows up by preening its partner’s back neck feathers.

Khhh, single snare drum tap
Scolding. This was a sound of surprise, when I accidentally startled a familiar downtown crow that was scavenging for scraps on the curb. I tossed it a peanut, which landed a bit too close and startled the bird. It hopped off the curb in surprise, onto the gutter of the street, then looked up at me in annoyance and made this interesting snare drum-like percussive exhalation, “Khhhh” – a hiss with sharp attack. He was obviously scolding, telling me not to surprise him like that. He did recognize me I think, and he hopped back up onto the curb to crack and eat the peanut on the spot (so he wasn’t that angry.)

Honk
An angry sound of submissive annoyance, a nasal honk-quack that you might imagine coming from a goose or mallard duck. Some of our crows live in close proximity to a nesting pair of mockingbirds, and the mockingbirds are constantly harassing them, making daring threatening swoops that indicate a definite threat of violence. This isn’t a game. The crow has it’s beak partway open and makes these honks in angry exasperation, when one of the mockingbirds makes an especially close swoop.

Mep
Submissive sound from the underling of the juvenile group during the big social winter gathering. Only one bird made this sound consistently in the large group, and it was always the one getting pushed out of the way by the more dominant ones (the same bird all the time, I think.) It’s a helpless sort of sound a baby would make, high pitched, single bark, short duration, with a slight downward pitch inflection. It would repeat the sound every 10-30 seconds irregularly, like it was begging. I have heard the same sound from one of the submissive birds in another group (the WG crows) so I think it might be a standard sound for the bottom of the pecking order, or perhaps for the least mature of them.

Reyh
Baby begging. It’s late May and I hear this up in tall trees. The fledglings are getting big and they are hungry. They are saying this to their parents, who have an urgent back-and-forth flight to try to get the requested protein into their fast-growing spoiled brats. The babies are flying now, and sometimes they follow the parents to the source of food. Clumsy and shy, they won’t go down to get the food with mom or dad, but sit on the perch and demand more food. A high nasal sound, short duration, downward pitch inflection, like a New Yorker saying “Ray” while shutting their nostrils with a falsetto tilt.

Cluck-Gurgle (soft and quiet)
Fledgling making soft noises with parent nearby, either talking to himself or to parent. It seems like quiet intimate conversation. At times the sounds resemble the contented quiet clucks of a domestic hen, although a bit of a watery sound intermingled. This might simply be a juvenile variation on the “mrr-gurgle” mentioned above.

Croak or quork
Probably a raven, not a crow. A bit like the honk, but lower, frog-like. I have seen a single raven on a tall tree branch, making this semi-quiet low nasal bark or croak, seemingly to another raven close by but not in view. They can repeat this sound over and over again, single croaks with gaps of maybe 5 to 20 seconds in between. I have not gotten a sense yet of what it could be referring to or communicating.

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Speaking of crow sounds, I have also recorded a local crow mimicking human sounds. In these two videos, you can hear the same crow trying to copy “hello” and also mimic the sound of human laughter.

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Addendum 2:

Corvid Collections – gifts brought to our yard:

blue Bic lighter
red lobster shell
blue plastic button
red plastic fragment
chicken bone
tortilla shell
green glass gumdrop-shaped marble
7-11 coffee cup (empty, with lid on)
empty Chicken McNuggets box
empty Keurig pod
white plastic single serving jelly container
pink plastic fragment, cylindrical

(So many empty containers. Are they saying “Feed us more?”)

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