The American Crow

The American Crow. Photo by Arlene Koziol

The American Crow. Photo by Arlene Koziol


American Crows, known for their abundance from farm fields to urban areas, might surprise some with their intelligence. In fact, the birds of their genus Corvus are some of the smartest in the animal kingdom. It's easy to anthropomorphize crows and make them more or less align with our values. But crows objectively score close to primates on cognition tests.

Given a pitcher of water that is one third full, crows will grab pebbles and place them in the pitcher to raise the water to a drinkable level. Notoriously difficult to study, crows in the wild recognize researchers and will evade capture through this facial recognition.  

Unbelievable stories about crows appear fascinatingly commonplace. In Washington, an eight year old girl accidentally dropped food on her way to school each day. Crows discovered this food and in return dropped “gifts” in her backyard.  Crows do present gifts to other crows, and famously cache and hide food, but it is unclear whether these crows were offering presents to the child.

The use of tools has long been suggested to separate humans from the “beasts.” However, crows fashion all sorts of tools within their environments. In Japan, a group of the birds dropped nuts in the street. Passing cars subsequently cracked the nuts and the crows could access the meat. Using a straight wire, crows will bend the wire so that it hooks to retrieve a reward concealed in an otherwise inaccessible tube

In terms of cognition, crows reportedly exhibit analogical thinking. In test studies, crows presented with three cups covered with paper were able to determine the pairs and receive a treat. The paper atop the cups would read “A, B, A” and the crows would choose the two “A's.” Researchers extended this further by labeling the paper “AA, AB, CC” and the crows would select the two cups with paired letters.

Esther Woolfson's book Corvus A Life with Birds, details her unlikely bonds with these crows, rooks, magpies, and ravens. She asks of corvid intelligence, “How do I know? I haven't done any tests that might prove it, but then I haven't on most people either (or, in fact, on anyone at all), but this doesn't prevent me from forming opinions on the nature or capacity of their intelligence.” Woolfson's life with corvids delves into her intimate portrayals of the personality and quirks of these birds.

Back in the Wisconsin wild, crows nest early, with eggs laid near the end of March. Crows around Madison had a high reported nesting success, around 75% according to the first breeding bird atlas. The birds in the city will frequently nest in older neighborhoods with large deciduous trees. A murder of crows might be a familiar sight in Madison parks, and crows often overwinter in large urban roosts numbering in the thousands.

Part of the nest success can be attributed to young from the previous season helping to raise the new brood. These families can include young from five different years and number over 15 individuals. Uniquely, crows will switch between foraging and living with extended family and large social groups that congregate in the countryside or near dumps.

You can find crows almost anywhere at Faville Grove Sanctuary. The next time you observe crows, realize that, in all likelihood, you are also being observed.

By Drew Harry, Faville Grove Land Steward