Brainy Birds: Amazing Crows and Ravens

No matter where you live, crows and ravens are your neighbors. You might want to watch them — carefully.

| December 2006/January 2007

  • crows and ravens - raven
    Crows and ravens have the largest brains, relative to body size, of any birds. Ravens like this one have the same brain/body size ratio as the chimpanzee.
    Photo by Tomvezo.com
  • crows and ravens - American crow
    The American crow is one of three varieties found in the U.S.
    Maslowski Productions
  • crows and ravens - common raven
    The common raven is making a comeback in North America.
    Tomvezo.com
  • crows and ravens - a murder of crows
    A “murder” in the light of a full moon: Though it’s not a commonly used term today, a group of crows is called a murder; the name came from their medieval reputation as harbingers of death.
    Maslowski Productions
  • crows and ravens - crow stealing a hat
    This raven pickpocket used its beak to open the snowmobile’s storage compartment and steal a ski cap. 
    Michael Quinton/Minden Pictures
  • crows and ravens - companions
    "One of the most difficult of all things to endure for a crow, a raven, a wolf or a human is to feel alone and separated from one’s own kind. A sense of belonging is one of the most universal of all feelings." — Lawrence Kilham 
    Jim Brandenburg/Minden Pictures
  • crows and ravens - crow and eagle
    Crows and ravens can be both sneaky and bold. Here, a crow takes an attitude with a bald eagle.
    Tom Pat Leeson

  • crows and ravens - raven
  • crows and ravens - American crow
  • crows and ravens - common raven
  • crows and ravens - a murder of crows
  • crows and ravens - crow stealing a hat
  • crows and ravens - companions
  • crows and ravens - crow and eagle

Let me introduce you to the Corvid family. Like all families, they have their faults. But I think you’ll like them anyway, once you get to know them. They’re sociable — if a bit loud, especially at gatherings. They’re smart and perceptive — though some might say cunning and deceptive. And they’re exceedingly resourceful — come to think of it, you might keep a close eye on your possessions. They’ve been known to steal — food, trinkets, baby animals.

Don’t worry. I’m speaking not of any human family, but of the bird family Corvidae, and particularly the crows and ravens in the clan Corvus. Like most members of that genus — which in North America also includes magpies, nutcrackers and jays — crows and ravens are sturdy, stout-beaked, long-legged birds with powerful wings. They also have something of an attitude, which can vary from aloof to in-your-face.

You can forgive them for their superior airs, though, when you consider their résumés. Crows and ravens are the stuff of legend; for centuries, they have been revered and reviled, fawned over and feared by humans. Shakespeare wrote them into his plays, Thoreau into his musings, Poe into his horror tales. Shrines have been built to them; songs sung; chants chanted. Oh — and one more thing: Crows and ravens are the eggheads of the bird world and thus the darlings of avian science. With the arguable exception of parrots, they’re the smartest winged species on the planet. They’ve even outperformed monkeys in some psychological tests. Truth be told, they’ve outsmarted many a human, too. The common insult “bird brain” doesn’t apply to these brainy birds.

They’re Everywhere

Some 40-plus species of crows and ravens inhabit the skies worldwide over virtually every terrain, from desert to tropics to tundra. In the contiguous United States, the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) is easily the most common. Three other crows claim American territory: The slightly smaller fish crow (C. ossifragus) ranges along the East Coast and through the Gulf states east of Texas; the Northwestern crow (C. caurinus) occupies the Pacific seacoast from upper British Columbia to the northwestern tip of Washington; and the Mexican or Tamaulipas crow (C. imparatus) calls southernmost Texas its northern home.



Geographically, the crow’s larger cousin, the common raven (C. corax), is more broadly distributed. Its overall range encompasses almost all of Canada and Alaska; most of the western United States; and New England and the Appalachian mountains. In reality, though, the common raven is less common across its range as a whole, except in higher elevations. Like hawks and eagles, ravens prefer high places from which to search for food.

Some crows in the southern hemisphere have white or gray markings, but all crows and ravens north of Mexico wear basic black. The plumage provides a passive solar overcoat, which absorbs the sun’s heat and helps the birds regulate their body temperature. Black also functions as surprisingly effective camouflage, not just at night for roosting birds, but also on sunny days when the dappled light amid leafy trees provides cover for shadowy crows on the move. Scientists say, too, that the birds’ iridescent ebony plumage helps them spot members of their own species from a distance, an important ability among social birds given to gathering in groups but not inclined to encountering enemy raptors.

leroyspriggs
5/11/2018 12:05:52 AM

they do indeed have long memories, maybe even tribal memories. About fifteen years ago the local ravens stole around 400 golf balls from my yard (personal driving range) most of which were painted day-glo orange so that I could spot them easier in the desert around my place in Nevada.They apparently thought they were eggs of some kind and took them aloft to drop them again hoping to break them. As a prospector I have literally found them everywhere at all distances and even on a mining claim I have over a hundred miles by highway, probably 60 as the crow flies. One day four of them were having some squabbling disagreement in my driveway and seeing my chance I grabbed a 12 guage and got two of them before they got off the ground.(shame on me). I know them better now and would not do it again! Any way. the remaining two circled around overhead squawking and continued that until the sun went down. Then- not a single crow or raven passed through my airspace for at least 10 years! God is my witness. They're finally back and they're welcome here. They sit on the telephone poles or pass close overhead and even land on my place, which they never did before. They jibber and squawk at me and I yak right back at them, mostly as close as I can imitate their yap. They have such a broad range of sounds and accents, and they do carry on. I'd love to speak their 'language'.


Gareth
5/30/2016 1:24:30 PM

Crows here in u.k too,ifeed along with other smaller birds daily.mainly they have chicken/turkey carcasses or any meat fat or left overs, they have got to know me now & pass the message on when I appear in morning, they are top of the pecking order but i have never seen them hurt any smaller birds,they even make magpies wait their turn..I hear if you vex them they don't forget eek ..fab birds ,Gareth UK.


Gareth
5/30/2016 1:17:50 PM

Crows here in u.k too,ifeed along with other smaller birds daily.mainly they have chicken/turkey carcasses or any meat fat or left overs, they have got to know me now & pass the message on when I appear in morning, they are top of the pecking order but i have never seen them hurt any smaller birds,they even make magpies wait their turn..I hear if you vex them they don't forget eek ..fab birds ,Gareth UK.







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