There are about 50 species of corvids around the world, and they all behave in different ways. They’re not the only smart birds, but in general, crows are smart in a way that resonates deeply with humans because they’re good at some of the things we’re good at, says Kevin McGowan, a Cornell ornithologist who has studied crows for 35 years.
A 2020 study published in Science found that crows can think their own thoughts. Crows can recognize individual human faces, associate them with friendliness or danger, and pass this knowledge on to their friends.
“Their social system is the most similar to Western human civilization of any animal I know,” says McGowan. American crows “have a family and a space that they protect, but they also have a neighborhood that they pay attention to.” And crows will interact with large groups of crows they also don’t know, much like humans will interact with their communities outside of their immediate relationships.
But they are also cautious. “Crows pay more attention to individuals than perhaps any other bird,” McGowan adds. At first it was mostly for self-defense. Historically, especially on the East Coast of the United States, American crows have been shot as pests. Human interest in feeding them is relatively new.
Crows hated McGowan when he first began studying them in the 1990s, he says, because he would climb trees to peer into their nests. They learned his face, his car, his routine. “They chased my car down the street, knocking me over,” he says.
After a particularly motivated crow spotted him from afar on the Cornell campus and flew in to scream at him, he decided something needed to change. “I wanted the crows to like me,” he says. “And so I decided that I would start throwing peanuts at them” – at first from a distance. Even the birds that knew him were very cautious at first approaching him for food. But it worked in the end. “I had a friend who said the crows must have had some sort of cognitive dissonance, like, ‘Oh no, the guy climbing the trees is a peanut,'” he says. Crows now follow his car and haunt his walks because they know he can treat them.
As we talked, Steinke happily told me how I could feed the crows. First, she said, you have to find them. That field had already been checked for me: a neighbor tipped me off to a family who lived on the block and frequented the tall trees that grew in the alley behind my house. Then, she says, try to get them to come closer to your chosen feeding spot by leaving treats. I put out dry food for cats.
Weeks passed and I looked out from the back passage of my townhouse onto the roof, watching the reactions of my potential new friends. They didn’t come. Then it rained for a week. What annoyed me was that the crows didn’t seem to care that I had a story deadline.