Crows: Watch Me Watch You
by JoLynn Taylor
Crows are some of the most interesting animals to watch, because we can observe them watching us back. They have good reason to keep a close eye on us. Crows are a commensal species, meaning they benefit from human civilization but without necessarily affecting us. They are among the three most intelligent bird species and their evolution is tied to ours.
Why They Watch Us
For all intents and purposes, we have created the birds crows have become. We have been observing each other since prehistoric times; their portraits appear on cave walls. They've watched us hunt mammoths, and cleaned up the meat scraps. They've watched our population grow, and have thrived on our agriculture and our wasteful habits. They've watched us wage wars, and became loathed as "Carrion Crows," defilers of corpses.
Crows have been persecuted so heavily over the centuries that it has shaped their behavior toward us. If you compare the actions of crows to their close relatives, the jays, you can see clearly that the larger crows are significantly more fearful of us than the small but intrepid jays, who will happily yell in our faces, dismantle our planters for nesting material in front of us, and perform almost any contortion to retrieve a peanut. On the other hand, all you have to do is look at a crow to send him flapping away.
Unlike jays, crows have been shot, poisoned, trapped, and even had their nests and communal roost sites burned and dynamited. If you think they are invincible because there are so many of them, consider that their larger cousin the raven was almost completely eradicated from Europe by human persecution. It makes sense that they watch us warily.
Why to Watch Them
Crows are fascinating to watch at any time of the year.
Anytime you see crows, look for that fearful behavior and compare it to other birds. If crows think you aren't paying any attention to them, you can get quite close. Then turn and look directly at them. Once they are aware you're focused on them they will take off quicklly.
Listen to crows vocalize to each other. They don't sing like other passerine songbirds, but rather have a vocabulary of calls and communications.
American Crows engage in a behavior called anting. A crow will position itself over an anthill and allow ants to scramble among its feathers, or it may pick up single ants or small groups and rub them into its feathers. Look for them squatting, half-spreading their wings, and shuffling in patches of dried leaves or dust. No one really knows why they do this. Perhaps molting irritates their skin, or perhaps it is just a part of their general health-care plan. Ants are known to manage aphids for their honeydew, and to eat other smaller insects, so perhaps the ants eat feather mites or the flat flies that bother the birds.