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Something to crow about in October: Are these birds spooky or just wicked-smart?

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications
Photos by Kaeli Swift, University of Washington's School of Environmental & Forest Sciences

Crows are awesome birds—and they are also awesomely misunderstood. What better time then, during October’s “spooky season”, to set the record straight!

Crows are social and family-oriented birds that are extremely protective of each other—especially their offspring. If you've been swooped or scolded by one during nesting season, you know exactly what we mean! They communicate using various caws, scolds, croaks, comb-calls, whistles and clicks. But despite their obvious intelligence, crows and other birds in the Corvidae family (which also includes ravens, jays, magpies, rooks) have gotten a bad rap! In some cultures, crows and ravens have long been associated with negative concepts including bad luck, evil spirits and omens of death. The fact that a group of crows is called a “murder” doesn’t really help their reputation either.

But what does the science say? Dr. Kaeli Swift is a postdoctoral researcher at University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences—and she's an expert on all things related to crows. So we decided to ask her several questions to help us learn whether crows and ravens are really wicked, or just wicked-smart!

Woodland Park Zoo: Why are crows and ravens often seen in a negative or “spooky” light?

Kaeli Swift: There are a couple reasons, but first it's important to remember that what crows and ravens represent can differ depending on where you are in the world. Crows and ravens being “spooky” may be a common thing in Europe and North America, but that’s not necessarily the case in other parts of the world where they symbolize wealth, fate, love, luck or ambition. And even within North America, perceptions of corvids can be wholly different depending on someone’s cultural heritage.

But back to the original question: Why does the Eurocentric view make them out to be so spooky? During the Middle Ages when war, disease and death were ravaging Europe, crows and ravens did pretty well for themselves scavenging dead bodies. The masks commonly worn by plague doctors likewise played with their iconography. 

Plague doctors in the Middle Ages wore beaked masks that they believed would protect them from the disease. Image: Dv8stees, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Although these birds’ ties to death weren't always seen in a negative light (some see an omen of death as a helpful opportunity to make peace with God), their later incorporation in media shifted the interpretation from simply warning of death to being harbingers of death. And that shift has stuck with them today.

WPZ: What do you think the biggest misconception is about crows (or ravens) and what are a couple things people might not know about them that could help them to see these birds in a different way?

KS: The biggest misconception is that crows are at the top of the food chain and have no natural predators. I hear this all the time. Cities like Seattle have done a lot of work to clean up and improve urban habitats and as a result we have robust populations of raptors like eagles, red-tailed hawks, Cooper's hawks and owls. These birds represent important sources of natural predation for crows, and their presence in our neighborhoods is a great indication of a healthy ecosystem.

Beyond that, one thing people should know about crows is that they live a long time! The pair you see outside your home might be there for 10+ years. Getting to know your local pair is not just getting to know crows, but the chance to really know a particular wild animal and its life history.

Another thing people should know is that they are really smart! Crows can do amazing things like solve complex problems, plan ahead, play, recognize individual human faces, pull pranks, and for some species found elsewhere in the world, use tools!

WPZ: Why did you decide to study crows? What do you love about them?

KS: I decided to study crows because I am really interested in the connection between their rich social lives and their intelligence. I also just love birds! Crows offer the best of both these worlds. They are richly social, and despite how distantly related they are to our closest primate ancestors, they share a remarkable number of cognitive traits with us. They are also cheeky and funny, and annoying and so much fun to watch.

WPZ: Final question: Which of these is a better "fit" for crows—Trick or Treat … or both?

KS: Definitely BOTH! That they sometimes play tricks AND sometimes bring people treats is probably the most compelling argument for why crows do, in fact, make great Halloween avatars. It's not that they're scary, it's that they really know how to have a good time.

WPZ: THANKS so much, Kaeli!

Do you want to know more about these amazing birds? In addition to being a scientist, educator, and researcher, Kaeli is also a gifted writer and science communicator. Her Corvid Research website is a gateway to all the magic of crows, ravens and other Corvids! It includes blogs, links to peer-reviewed research, a Q & A section, and lots of cool content—like this fun illustration made in conjunction with artist Rosemary Mosco of Bird and Moon Comics (science and nature cartoons) that demonstrates how to tell the difference between crows and ravens! 

Check out Kaeli’s body of work here