Beware of Crows
My interest in birds, up until the events of last weekend, was basically limited to trying to determine if a bird I saw in the wild was the same as the mascot of a baseball team. (“Oh, do you think that’s an oriole? Could that one be a blue jay?”)
- A large black bird on the patch of dirt within 2 feet from the door.
- A loud “CAW!” that came from another direction.
I staggered forward, scooped my phone from the ground, and started running. I made a hard left turn to get out to the nearby street, made another left at the street, and kept running as fast as I could. All the while, the large bird followed, CAW-ing the whole way. I sprinted past two passersby, whose facial expressions betrayed their bemusement at my predicament.
At the end of the street, I stopped short, turned around and doubled back. The crow may or may not have followed me at this point. I leaped up the stairs and back into my apartment, thankfully picking the right key to open the door quickly.
Since then, I have felt as if the local crow population is monitoring me more closely. This is, in part, due to my new sensitivity to them; I basically paid the local crows no mind prior to the attack, so I have no baseline of crow behavior for comparison. Even as I first relayed the story, these were “blackbirds,” not specifically crows.
So, what actually happened? The Audubon Society of Portland provides the relevant information that I did not have at the time:
Fledgling crows can be found learning to fly during the months of May, June and July. People are frequently concerned that the crow they have seen on the ground is injured rather than simply a youngster learning to fly.One easy way to tell if a crow is a juvenile is to look at the color of the bird’s eyes Young crows have blue/grey eyes, while adults have black eyes. Another easy way to tell if a crow is a fledgling is to look to see if other crows are hanging out nearby.If there are other crows nearby, they are likely the parents. Size of the bird is NOT a good indicator of age since fledgling crows are frequently close to the size of their parents when they leave the nest.
Everything about the story makes much more sense with this context. The narrative, then, changes. There were two crows in the area. The one on the ground was the fledgling crow. He was on the ground, learning to fly. The one above (probably on my roof above the door) was its parent. From the parent’s “perspective,” the story is a bit different. (I’m going to anthromorphize the parent crow, but the logic is too solid not to do so.)
We picked this area because it was quiet, relative to the local streets. Plenty of shade, some space for the fledgling to walk around, some high places so I could survey the landscape. I’d have enough time to warn off anyone who threatened my kid.
Then the building that I was on all of a sudden opened up. A large hominid exited! These damn buildings; exits everywhere! The perimeter had been breached! I screamed a warning, and it ignored me. It even approached my kid! That was not acceptable, so I escalated to attack mode. The predator went down easy; a real paper tiger. I smacked him in the back of the head and chased him off.
The true abnormality of this story is that the normally proactive response of the adult crow was short-circuited by my breach of the crow’s perimeter. I had put myself between the protective parent crow and the vulnerable fledgling crow. This was not acceptable.
Worth noting is that since the incident, I have not seen any crows in my “backyard” area. My suspicion is that the crow no longer sees the area as safe for fledglings and has moved elsewhere. But that will only be true until I am next attacked. Why? Crows remember faces and respond accordingly. The National Wildlife Foundation describes an experiment conducted at the University of Washington.
In 2006, crow behavior that had been an inconvenience was put to the test with an experiment in which researchers netted and banded sets of crows at various sites on campus and around Seattle while wearing rubber human masks.A few days later the researchers walked through the same areas wearing assorted masks and recording how the birds responded. At each site the crows ignored all but the particular mask that had been worn during the banding, which they greeted with loud scolding cries and the formation of small mobs. The effects were the same regardless of what clothing the researchers wore or who wore which mask. “The interesting part was that not a whole lot mattered except the face,” Marzluff says.… the most interesting aspect of the Seattle study may be the degree to which campus crows have clung to their memory. Today, close to seven years after the study began, the birds continue to harangue the banding mask even though they see it only twice a year for a few hours at a time. Even more remarkable, the percentage of birds joining the ruckus has roughly doubled since the experiment began, even though most have never been banded and likely didn’t witness the original traumatic event. Some are young birds born in years since.
It seems that the crow’s calls on later viewings of the threatening human essentially provided information to fellow crows. In other words, if crow A had a run-in with Steve, and then sees Steve again, it will likely sound the alarm and call other crows over, who will also add Steve to their memory bank. It is akin to a virus.
Currently, I’m sailing in what feel like uncharted waters. I don’t suspect there’s a ton of information around surrounding the type of crow attack I experienced–how often does a crow attack escalate so fast?–so I don’t necessarily think there’s a playbook to follow in terms of future expectations of attacks (though if anyone has any more useful information, I would love to hear it!). My one consolation is that I am not certain that the crow got a good look at my face. I was wearing a baseball cap, and the whole thing happened so quickly that it may never have fully identified me and stored me as a threat. But I’ll know more in the coming weeks, as I water plants, or take out the trash and recycling, or walk to the store.
So if you see a big crow walking on the ground in May, June, or July, just move away from it. There are others nearby, and they are on hair-trigger alert.