Crows on campus

At UW Bothell, the crows rule the roost

Visitors to the UW Bothell campus include more than potential students and their parents, neighbors, supporters and other friends of the University.

On a daily basis, however, the most numerous visitors come from the crow family.

Campus crows a phenomenon
of nature

Outside of excellent and engaging academics, UW Bothell is perhaps most well-known for a nightly phenomenon of nature: As many as 16,000 crows fly in at dusk and land on various buildings and sports fields before roosting in the wetlands that comprise 58 acres of the campus.

More crows roost in the fall and winter than in the spring and summer, when many nest elsewhere to raise their young. Especially on the shortest days of the year, the crows alight as darkness descends.

Location, location, location

There are other crow roosts in the Puget Sound area — and far larger ones in other parts of the world — reports Douglas Wacker, an expert in animal behavior and assistant professor in UW Bothell’s School of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics.

UW Bothell became a roost around 2009, possibly because the trees in the restored campus wetlands reached the right size for nighttime protection. And, as the real estate agents say, Bothell is the perfect location for a commute to Seattle or other suburbs where the residents find their daily bread.

How to park, walk, watch

Visitors can have an experience reminiscent of Hitchcock’s infamous film, “The Birds.” You will see and hear crows close all around in the twilight. Arrive at least 30 minutes before sunset. If you’re new to campus, know that there is plenty of paid parking available in the evenings.

Walk to the center of campus, and you’ll find a good place to take in the scene at the overlook between the North Creek Events Center and the Activities & Recreation Center. You’ll watch crows stream in, circle and descend in a crescendo of caws on campus buildings and grounds. Don’t forget to bring your camera and perhaps binoculars for close-up views.

Research ready, set, go

Like the wetlands, the crows are a convenient yet challenging research opportunity for faculty and students. One project tries to answer the question, What might the crows be communicating in their noisy gatherings before they roost?

Wacker and colleague Shima Abadi, assistant professor of engineering and mathematics, had to go no farther than the roof of their building, Discovery Hall, to find dozens of cawing birds each evening.

Working with students in the School of STEM, they set up recording equipment to study crow vocalizations. A microphone array with GPS tracking is used to identify the location of each calling bird. That is matched with video showing the bird’s body position during the caw, typically a head-dipping motion. Then the researchers search for patterns in how other birds respond. Wacker suspects crows might be sharing information about the roost or food sources.

Crows are the most visible but not the only birds on campus. Ursula Valdez, a lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, leads natural history and ecology courses with students and in her research has identified more than 50 species of birds in the campus wetlands.

The American crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

The Seattle authority on crows is John Marzluff, a UW professor of environmental and forest sciences in the College of the Environment at the Seattle campus. He has co-written several books, including “Subirdia,” “Gifts of the Crow,” and “In the Company of Crows and Ravens.”

Marzluff is noted for research showing that crows remember the face of someone who has trapped them years later. Marzluff has said crows are like little flying monkeys.

Crow-curricular learning

In a sense, crows are fitting partners for a college campus. Numerous studies have shown that birds in the family Corvidae — crows ravens, jays — can be highly intelligent. They observe. They experiment to see what works, and they share their learning with others.

Learn more

Crow: Did you know?

  • Crows mate for life.
  • After fledglings leave the nest, parents care for them for several months.
  • Crows make many different sounds.  Although some calls are reasonably well-characterized, like the begging call, many of their vocalizations remain poorly understood.
  • Crows may be learning about danger at “funerals” where they surround a dead bird.
  • Often seen as omens, the black birds figure in Northwest Native art, Scandinavian legends, American poems and pop music.
  • Ravens are distinguished from crows by their larger size, larger bill and long wedge-shaped tail.