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

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.

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.


james
1/11/2016 9:04:10 AM

I have always enjoyed seeing crows & Ravens. Yes they can be a pain in the backside, but so can we humans. For home gardeners, the best defense is bird netting...I know of nothing else that will stop them from feasting on your wares as they grow. Coarse you can always feed them...that will help you to keep your garden in tact. :-)


briangriffin
9/18/2015 9:11:12 PM

I planted 1000 small pines on my property only to have the crows pull them up one by one and lay them on the ground next to the hole before moving to the next. I replanted them twice and only had 300 survive the ordeal.


shelley quiner
11/30/2012 12:17:34 PM

The differences between crows and ravens other than size is most pronounced with their tails.. But I beg to differ the crows tail is more like a fan when they are flying.. I think we have some smaller mexican ravens here in the Jemez mtns.. Kept thinking they were crows until I saw their tails.. My kids in CA have had smaller crows aroung their home a lot.. Crows are too noisey for me.. But I do love Corvids..


ailora blue
10/18/2012 2:48:06 AM

What a wonderful article, so informative and well written. I adore crows and ravens but I've never known how to tell them apart. Thank you! I can wait to watch them tomorrow to see who exactly I'm seeing.


elaine anhalt
2/11/2012 12:05:07 AM

Great article. People don't appreciate these amazing birds because they are so noisy. I LOVE THEM. I could watch them for hours when they are in the yard. They are such beautiful curious creatures & very communal. I recently saw a crow fly upside down..at first I thought it was a black plastic bag in the wind & then realized.. hey..that's a crow! My friends were asking my how much wine I had. (I made clear it was only coffee that morning) Thanks!


donnab
9/11/2008 3:02:51 PM

Ravens are indeed intelligent and a joy to watch. I often observed them raising their young at my desert home. The fledglings were so funny when they were learning to fly, to land and to eat. Thanks for your article. It reminds me of Konrand Lorenz's writings. http://birdsight.com






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