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Crows on Campus

Crows on UW Bothell CampusPhoto Taken by Joshua Trujillo. See more photos and an article on UW Bothell crows on Seattlepi.com

From fall to late spring, more than 10,000 crows call the UW Bothell campus home.

While no one on the UW Bothell campus at dusk could miss the swooping, perching, and cawing of the crows overhead, many do not realize how intelligent and interesting these animals actually are. In many ways, “crows are very similar to humans,” says Professor John Marzluff, from the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. Like many of us, crows love brewed coffee and a taste of beer now and then.

Why do crows roost on the UW Bothell campus?

Marzluff says the UW Bothell campus is an ideal environment for crows to roost.

“They like to be in large numbers for safety,” Marzluff says. “They don’t typically roost out in big exposed areas that would make them vulnerable to a Great Horned Owl, their main predator.”

Instead at night, they like to drop down into the thick vegetation in the restoration area located on campus. They use the willow as a kind of cage. If anything taps on the side it reverberates through the branches and the crows all flush out. “It’s a really good early warning system,” he says. “They’re not coming in to eat or drink at the site here, it’s all about safety for the night.”

He says the crows also use the big population of birds in the roost to serve social purposes. Some might be searching for a mate, while others might be looking for a new place to eat and will follow their peers the next day to various feeding sites ranging from Snohomish Valley to downtown Seattle. “They may be just getting together and shooting the breeze,” he says. “We really don’t know how structured the birds are in the group.”

Crows are mischievous, smart and funny

Marzluff says there are countless examples of crows, ravens, and magpies around the world doing smart, funny, and mischievous things.

Take “Hitchcock” a raven in the North Cascades who was stealing windshield wipers from people’s cars at the Newhalem Creek Campground. “We took advantage of this bird’s intelligence to try to condition it not to do this,” he says. They caught Hitchcock with a net and restrained him while they banded his leg for tracking purposes. “We held him on the car on the windshield wiper while we banded him, so he had about ten minutes of terror right there on the windshield wiper,” he says.

The hope was that the bird would associate fear with the wipers. Marzluff says Hitchcock’s bad behavior definitely declined after that, but the park also started handing out PVC piping for people to put over their windshield wipers. “He’s been a model citizen since then,” says Marzluff.

Other stories showed birds mimicking human voices, using tools, playing in the snow, and giving gifts to humans who fed them. The following video features crows at play,  sledding down the roof of a home:

“Birdbrain” – the ultimate compliment

Marzluff says crows are especially intelligent animals thanks to their large brains for their body size. They have brains that are similar to humans, with discrete areas serving different functions. “They have the same machinery in their brain as we do,” he says. “There’s no reason to think it doesn’t work the same way.”

In one research project on the UW Seattle campus, researchers wore masks with faces and either ignored crows or caught and restrained seven of them. The mask that was used to catch the crows subsequently elicited a strong scolding and mobbing response not only from the crows that were caught, but from others as well. “What has been surprising is how long lasting the effect is,” says Marzluff. “Six years after the birds were caught, about 60-70 percent of the birds we encountered scolded that face.”

On a typical walk, a person wearing the dangerous face would encounter 15 to 20 birds scolding. “We only caught seven birds and hardly any of those 15 to 20 birds that are scolding are those seven that we initially caught,” he says. “They’ve learned from one another that that’s a dangerous face.” He noted that the birds did not scold other faces.

Crows on UW Bothell CampusMarzluff relates the story of a couple in Sweden who also experienced the birds’ facial recognition capabilities. The woman in the couple had fed some magpies, which are closely related birds, in her backyard. “Then she started to notice weird things were happening around her house,” he says. “The doorbell would ring and nobody was there.” She would come out, look around, see the birds, and throw them some food.

“She kept doing that and the birds kept ringing the doorbell and finally one day she saw them,” he says. Her husband did not like the birds hanging around the house so he went outside and pretended to throw something at them to scare them away. “From that day on they started crapping on his car,” says Marzluff. “He had to wash the window of his car every day, only on the driver’s side and only his car, never his wife’s.”

Marzluff attributes the birds’ intelligence not only to the size and complexity of their brains, but also to their ability to learn from each other’s experiences, and to the fact that they are long-lived creatures. Some of the birds in the roost at UW Bothell are 30 to 40 years old, he says, which means they have had a lot of time to learn survival skills.

After presenting his research on crow brains, Chancellor Kenyon Chan noted that the term, “bird brain,” is considered to be derogatory. Marzluff quickly responded, “It’s a compliment!” If you want to keep your car windshield clean, you’d agree.

By Stacey Schultz

Crows

Learn More

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View the video on YouTube

A Murder of Crows: What’s All the Cawing About” by UW professor John Marzluff.
March 15, 2012.

Crows react to threats in human-like way” by Sandra Hines.
September 10, 2012.
View the full article

Crows 101

  • More than 10,000 crows roost on the campus each evening from September to April.
  • Some of the birds in the roost at UW Bothell are 30 to 40 years old.
  • Crows use tools, mimic human voices and give gifts.
  • Crows use at least 250 different calls.
  • Ravens are distinguished from crows by their larger size, larger bill and long wedge-shaped tail. About Crows