Have you ever seen a crow doing something strange and wondered what it means?
I’ve been studying crows for a long time and today I’d like to cover some of most common and revealing crow behaviors you’re likely to see in the field.
Crow behavior helps us understand crows through careful observation of their body language, vocalizations & actions.
We’ll start with the most common behaviors like feeding & mating/nesting before moving on to some fascinating highlights of crow intelligence.
Crow Behaviors Associated With Feeding & Foraging
Many of the most commonly seen crow behaviors have to do with finding, acquiring & eating food.
Crows are omnivores who have multiple unique strategies for acquiring food. Their methods include ground foraging, scavenging, hunting & even stealing from large predators like hawks & eagles.
I covered what crows eat in my article on crow diets, so this page will focus more on the specific behaviors used to acquire food.
Ground foraging is used to eat insects, grains, nuts and other small items. This is one of the most common ways that crows find food.
Look for crows spreading out on the ground, walking around and picking up small morsels of food.
Occasionally when they find something big, they may fly it up into a tree or form little clusters on the ground.
Ground foraging is a sign that crows are feeling relaxed and not engaged in a fight or flight situation (like predator evasion or territorial behavior).
When you see crows feeding on the ground, there is often a sentinel crow perched up in the tree watching for danger.
The most common calls associated with ground foraging are structured cawing sounds.
Listen to this audio for an example:
Structured vocalizations are a short burst of similar sounding caws, following by a period of silence, and another short burst of similar sounding caws.
Crows Sometimes Dunk Their Food In Water
Like most large animals, crows need to have a source of water in their diet.
But rather than drinking it directly, you’ll often see them dunking their food in lakes, streams, rivers, puddles to get it wet first.
This study suggests that dunking behavior helps crows ingest large items like bread by softening them in water.
Crows Scavenge & Steal Food From Other Animals
Crows are also excellent scavengers of everything from fish & dead carcasses to leftover pizza.
I routinely see crows stealing food from ravens, eagles, northern harriers, gulls & rival crows.
Groups of crows will tumble and dive bomb their targets in the sky during dramatic aerial chases.
It’s pretty amazing to watch and if you’d like to learn more about this behavior, you can read my article exploring why crows chase eagles.
When you see crows flying through the air and cawing like mad, this is very often what they’re doing.
Crow Mating Behaviors
Crows are some of the earliest birds to start building nests in cold climates.
Courtship & nesting can start as early as February in southern locations, and even in northern areas crows are typically well underway by March.
The whole process from courting on to fully independent juvenile crows typically lasts from late winter all the way through until the end of spring, or even early summer.
The most common indicator of courtship behavior is when crows start spending more time in smaller groups. This can be a couple or a small family of 3-5 crows.
When you see crows scuffling and dive bombing other crows in the sky, this is a good indicator they’re starting to choose mates.
Nest building is one of the most obvious mating-related behaviors that crows do during their entire nesting period.
As a result, this critical moment lasting a little more than a month is one of your best opportunities to find a crow’s nest.
Look for crows with sticks in their beaks flying over long distances. You may also see them harvesting sticks from dead branches in trees.
Crows travel long distances with nest materials, but if you’re persistent and strategic about how you follow their movements, you can track them to the nest.
Crows will often construct multiple nests in the tops of trees with close access to open space (like fields or forest edges), but will only use one nest to lay their eggs.
Mating & Laying Eggs
Crows become extremely quiet and sneaky when they’re ready to start mating & lay eggs.
Because crows are so quiet about their nesting, mating and laying of eggs is a very rarely seen behavior.
This phase is also very short. The female will only spend 4 or 5 days laying eggs immediately after the nest is built.
She lays one per day, and then focuses her attention on keeping the eggs warm.
Incubation (Sitting on the eggs/nestlings)
After the eggs are laid, there’s a period of about one month when the female crow will be sitting on her eggs to incubate them.
The eggs hatch about 10 days before the end of this month long period, and she continues keeping them warm during this time.
This is a very vulnerable moment for the crows, so they continue being extremely quiet.
The female will occasionally leave the nest to find food, and the male may also sometimes bring food to her.
Baby crows stay in their nest for a little over a month after hatching, and they need their parents to bring them food.
Look for crows gathering food in their beaks and carrying it back to the nest site. This is another moment when you may be able to locate a crow’s nest.
Both the mother and father bring food to the nestlings. In this phase of development, both the nestlings and adult crows start making more noise again.
Crow fledgling are fully grown and feathered crows, capable of flying but still 100% dependent on their parents for food.
Fledglings stay close to the nest for several days after their first flight, perched in small groups on tree branches.
After a few days they start actively following their parents around begging to be fed with loud and repetitive squawking sounds.
I once found a group of raven fledglings by following their crazy dinosaur-like sounds. Their loud begging vocalizations would reach a peak frenzy whenever the parents came into view.
This phase only last a couple weeks so you need to be quick in order to catch it.
For the rest of the summer, crows live in their small family groups.
Juvenile crows are fully independent, capable of foraging all their own food. But they still have lots to learn about what it means to be a crow.
It’s also common to see crow families joining up with larger social groups to mob predators and steal food from large aerial predators like eagles (as we already discussed in the above section on feeding behaviors).
Crow Territorial Behavior
Crows have fluid territories that aren’t defined locations, but rather focus around their nests & associated offspring.
Territorial behaviors include aggressively chasing, dive bombing and fighting with other crows.
I shared a great example of this behavior in the following video:
The main difference between territoriality and food stealing behaviors is that aggression is focused towards other crows.
I covered territorial behavior and crow fighting in more detail in my article on crow territorial behavior.
Crows Also Mob Predators To Avoid Losses
Throughout the year, it’s also very common to observe crows mobbing predators.
This behavior is similar to food stealing, but is used as a predator deterrence rather than to acquire food.
Crow predators include owls, cats & eagles, and they will frequently mob them.
This video shows intense mobbing in action for a barred owl:
Crow Behavior In 4 Seasons
Crow behavior changes a lot depending on the season you’re in.
Spring is a busy time when crows are nesting as we already discussed in the above section.
In summer they’re mostly doing maintenance behaviors and enjoying the summer abundance. Summer is also when crows molt their feathers.
In fall many individuals begin migrating to large social roosts where thousands of crows have yearly gatherings. I covered these communal roosts in my article exploring why crows gather in such large groups during winter.
I also made this video highlighting 3 common crow behaviors that can be seen in winter: including communal roosting, snow eating and sentinel behavior.
Crow Intelligence: How Smart Are Crows Really?
If it isn’t already clear from reading the above sections, crows are incredibly smart.
They’re some of the only birds who raise nests with multi-generational families.
They dunk their food in water so it’s easier to eat.
They’re capable of using basic tools and actively share information about opportunities to acquire large surpluses of food as well as the exact locations of predators.
And for crows it’s not just about raw problem solving skills. The real gift that crows have is social intelligence.
Crows have the ability to organize socially in meaningful, communicative patterns that gives them an edge over other highly intelligent species like ravens. They can even recognize human faces.
So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that crow populations are thriving.
As human populations have increased and had a dramatic impact on our environments, so too have the crows increased in number.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about crow behavior & the intelligence that drives it, but with a sharp eye & critical thinking there are so many amazing things to discover!