Since crows are such common and obvious birds, it can be surprisingly easy to gain insight about their lives just by watching for simple, repetitive behaviors.
One of the most informative behaviors to explore is how they choose and maintain their territories.
So how does crow territorial behavior work?
The most obvious sign of territorial behavior from crows is when they defend their nest from rival crows or nearby ravens.
If an enemy crow comes too close to a nest, you’ll see intense chasing behavior accompanied by loud, scolding vocalizations as they chase invaders across the sky.
While intense displays of territorial behavior are most common during the spring nesting season, it also shows up in a variety of ways during all four seasons.
Let’s look at some key points to know if you really want to understand territorial crow behavior:
Crow Territories In The 4 Seasons
The first thing to realize is that crow territories are constantly changing throughout the year.
So just because you see a particular behavior during spring, doesn’t mean it will always look the same in other seasons.
It also means the more you can know about how crow territories work in each different season, the easier it will be to recognize the actual behaviors associated the territorial activity.
Let’s look at the 4 seasons…
Crows In Winter
Crows actually don’t tend to be very territorial during winter… mostly because they’re not currently raising families.
Defending a territory from intruders takes energy, and energy is simply more scarce during winter. Food sources are much more spread out and overall less abundant.
With no need to protect family, and great benefits to staying connected with a larger colony for warmth & safety, it simply doesn’t make sense to defend territory at this time of year.
The one exception to this rule would be in the case of food fights and flock hierarchies (We’ll cover these behaviors later in the article).
You can easily identify when crows are in their winter habits by watching what they do at sunrise and sunset.
During winter, crows typically sleep in large group roosts, then go off to explore in different directions during the day.
In the early morning, you can look up and see large groups of crows way up above the canopy height as they fan out into the landscape.
Depending on how many crows live in your area, this daily commute could include hundreds or even thousands of crows.
Then in the evening, you’ll see them flying back to the colony, often cawing repeatedly as they move.
Crows In Spring
As winter comes to a close, spring territories start to become more defined.
This typically happens well before the official start of spring. I will often see the first signs of crows setting up their territories in February, while there’s still snow on the ground.
The first thing you’ll notice is crows start to spend more and more time anchored to a small plot of land.
This can be a bit tricky to identify at first, because you might think it’s a different family of crows each day.
But after a few days or weeks, you’ll start to notice the same flight patterns are repeating over and over again.
You might notice crows flying back and forth from the same direction repeatedly, or carrying sticks and nesting materials.
If you can follow their movements far enough, you might even be able to find the nest, and that will almost certainly provide some great examples of classic territorial behavior from crows.
This is the time of year when crow battles are at their most intense. And it’s possible to hear this behavior from VERY long distances.
Nesting territories tend to be quite small, but they are strictly defended.
Crows In Summer
Summer is a time of abundance for crows.
The key feature of summer is raising fledglings and juveniles to become successful adult crows.
Crows are still quite territorial at this time of year, but it shows up in a very different way.
Since fledglings spend a lot of time on the ground, you’ll notice that rather than being noisy and provocative, the adults can get VERY quiet about where the young are being kept.
At this time of year, when crows leave their core territory, they can still be quite noisy. They will still chase away predators and rival crows who come too close.
But inside the feeding zone, you can observe them hanging out on the ground for long periods of time, and being perfectly quiet.
This summer I got to know a family of crows who made their territory right in my residential neighbourhood.
I started noticing around July, the constant presence of fledgling crows hanging out on front lawns doing not much of anything.
People often think these crows are sick or injured, but it’s actually a perfectly normal behavior at this time of year.
As summer progressed, their core “hangout zone” gradually shifted a little bit, but not much.
When the fledglings were on the ground, they were often completely silent.
Until eventually in mid September, the fledglings finally joined the family group and things got a lot more active in the neighbourhood.
Crows In Fall
It’s very obvious in fall when the crow habits change again.
You’ll begin to notice in the evenings, just like in winter, the crows start flying to their group roost every night.
When you’re tracking crow behavior, simply ask yourself: What’s happening in this season with crow territories?
With practice, you can become very skilled at identifying the exact day or week when significant shifts in activity & behavior are taking place.
Protecting Food & Other Resources
Territorial behavior is not always about protecting the nest & younglings.
Another common example of territorial behavior happens when crows discover particularly valuable food resources like fish or meat.
Food fights amongst groups of crows can look almost exactly like nest defence, but if you watch carefully you can often see food in the mouth of the lead crow.
It’s pretty common around rivers & lakes where crows steal from eagles or ospreys, and also in cities where there are lots of opportunities for scavenging.
If you watch the whole sequence, you can see how the food gets held or stolen by rival crows.
Sometimes they’ll even drop the food and lose track of where it fell.
Which Birds Trigger Territorial Responses From Crows?
Compared to most songbirds, crows are actually a lot less territorial than many other species.
Most songbirds are not direct competitors with crows over nest sites or food resources, so from the perspective of territory, crows really only need to be concerned about other crows and nearby ravens.
I’ve noticed they’re quite happy sharing territory with other songbirds like robins, sparrows, chickadees & finches.
During the nesting season, these birds might even be considered a beneficial food source to have around, as a target for nest robbing activities.
So what about ravens?
It’s tough to say whether the response for ravens is truly territorial, or more for alarm purposes.
In my experience I think it can actually be both depending on the situation.
There are times when ravens could certainly be in competition for nest sites.
But it’s also true that ravens could pose a direct threat to nestling crows & eggs.
For both these reasons, crows will aggressively attack ravens, and in some cases, this is probably for territorial purposes.
The best way to recognize signs of territorial behavior from crows is by knowing the vocalizations associated with territorial activity.
Territorial vocalizations are incredibly common, and the sound really stands out on a landscape, even to people who might have very little experience with birds.
I get emails every week from people who encountered a group of crows almost manically freaking out and causing a huge racket.
Here’s an example of what you’re listening for:
The key thing to notice in this recording is:
- These caws repeat almost non-stop throughout the entire time.
- Then a few minutes into the sequence, the calls are being made by multiple crows all vocalizing at the same time.
These are two very important features to listen for when you’re trying to identify territorial vocalizations from other types of crow calls.
When crows are relaxed, they tend to vocalize in short, calm bursts interspersed with periods of silence & listening. It’s usually just one bird making some basic caws, while the others are feeding nearby, or slowly roaming the landscape.
So if you just hear a few caws from a single crow followed by short periods of silence… it’s probably not that big of a deal.
But when there are territorial calls happening nearby, you’ll notice the vocalizations become louder, more variable/intense, and very often will come from multiple birds.
If you hear intense caws from multiple crows simultaneously… that’s much more likely to be an actual event.
It will definitely stand out as a significant noise if you’re close to the centre of this behavior, and the sound characteristics can be easily identified from very long distances.
Typically when people hear this sound, they immediately wonder: Why are these crows freaking out so much?
The answer is that it could be for a variety of reasons.
I want to point out that the audio recording above was confirmed as being an alarm response to a Great Horned Owl.
Alarm calls are not the same as territorial calls because they’re made in response to predators & direct danger like hawks, eagles, owls, cats, etc.
Yet for the purpose of identifying territorial calls from crows, the qualities of sound are very similar.
The big question to ask when you hear this sound, is whether these are territorial vocalizations, or alarm vocalizations?
But in order to tell the difference, we really need to look at the body language…
Territorial Body Language
Territory body language is easiest to identify as chasing behavior.
If you see crows chasing through the sky, way up above the canopy height, cawing as they go, there’s a good chance what you’re observing is territorial chasing.
Observe the group as they fly and see if you can identify the bird at the very front being chased… Is it a crow or something else?
Crows will also chase eagles, ospreys, ravens & hawks, so it’s important to tell the difference between territorial chasing vs actual alarm situations.
Very often, the only obvious difference between alarm calls & territorial calls is the target of this chasing behavior.
By watching the trajectory of their flight, and imagining how that path relates to the landscape below, you can gauge how far the crows are chasing before they turn back.
You’ll also notice a variety of other associated behaviors. It’s possible to see crows dive bombing each other, or even to lock talons and tumble towards the ground.
Once the invading crow leave the airspace, the chasers will turn back towards home.
In the case of food fights, the chase will continue until somebody wins the prize.
On a more subtle level, anytime you observe the presence of relaxed crow activity in the same place day after day… this is a good sign that you’re observing a core territory for that crow.
Animals communicate a lot just by occupying their space with a feeling of security, comfort & alertness.
With practice, you’ll get better at reading the overall emotional state associated with dominance & ownership in crows.
Amongst family groups, even squabbles over flock hierarchy could also be considered a type of territorial behavior.
This is fairly easy to spot at bird feeders or anytime you see groups of crows feeding closely together. You’ll notice that some crows show signs of being more dominant than others in the pecking order.
Just look for how much space they give each other, and what happens when a less dominant crow gets too close.
All you have to do is get out there and keep watching those crows!
With practice, you’ll get very fast and sharp at knowing what crows are saying every time you step foot outside.
And if you’d like to continue going deep into the amazing world of crows, try the full Crow language home study course!
Today I saw a murder of crows send a red tailed hawk on it‘s way. It made me so happy as all of my chickens were huddled on the porch for safety. 😀
Brian Mertins says
Haha, that’s a great story. I love seeing all these complex interactions between multiple species including crows. Thanks for sharing!
Vanessa Schoettle says
We live on a farm in Ohio. I watched a crow attempt to chase away a hawk who was sitting on a pole. He did not succeed. Then, he flew to the woods. Less than a moment later, he returned with a partner and THEN, they were able to chase away the hawk. This made me smile.
Brian Mertins says
Haha, thanks for sharing Vanessa! Social intelligence is definitely one of the crow’s strengths. Great example!
Tom Morga says
Today we saw 10 to 12 crows in the top of a tree in the parkway two streets over from our house. They were all in the top of the tree as if they were having a discussion as to which territories each wanted to claim. The emotion was mostly calm and individuals would come and go but there was a good deal of crowing. It lasted about a half hour. We searched around the area to see if it were a concern for a fledgling, but the group of crows stayed in the top of the tree and there were no crows on or near the ground. Also, there were no ravens or hawks in the area and the crows stayed in the tree and were not showing any signs of concerns of this nature. We are fairly familiar with the crow families along our street and their territorial behavior against hawks and ravens, especially when they have active nests. However, at this time the young have all fledged. We’re very aware of the fall activities of the crows for surrounding neighborhood grouping up and flying to their roosting site during the fall and winter seasons. This was as if the crows, having finished raising their young, were starting to spread out into the areas they want to inhabit during the summer and further through the year. It almost appeared as though this was a initial meeting to determine who will have what area. Is that possibly a reasonable explanation for what we were observing this morning?
Brian Mertins says
What kind of tree was this? Could you actually see into the center of where they were all gathered? I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility of something hiding in there. Things like owls & raccoons can be incredibly hard to spot when they’re hunkered down next to the trunk.
When you see things like this, the best thing is simply to keep gathering more info. Try to get a different angle and see into the center of their activity. Check whether they’re all facing the same direction, or looking around all different ways.
Pay attention for the exact moment when they disperse and notice how that occurs. Do they all fly off at the same time going the same direction? Or do they move out more slowly? Do they make noise at the end? Or is it silence? These are all important clues to help you interpret what they’re talking about during that 30 minutes of crowing.
Thanks for sharing, I hope that helps!
I have a fox family in my neighborhood. 4 babies & mother. The crows dive bomb them all . All the time. Crows come within 2 feet of them. Foxes just lie down & don’t bother with them . Is that usual?
Brian Mertins says
What constitutes “usual” behavior is always relative to the particular dynamics of your local environment.
It’s all about the balance of energy… Crows need to decide whether it’s worth the energy to dive bomb the foxes, and the foxes need to decide whether it’s worth the energy to retreat, ignore or fight back.
It does tell you there must be some benefit to the Crows in doing this. Like for example – maybe they have fledglings or a food source nearby. Could you investigate this?
…And same thing for the foxes. The fact that they just lie down and wait it out tells you something very different than if they were to fight back or run away.
In a different context you might observe different reactions, so the only way to know “usual” is to keep watching and observe how often this happens, and under what circumstances.
Thanks for the question!