Bird of the Week: Crows!

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

Species: American Crow, or Corvus brachyrhynchos

Family: Corvidae (Corvids)

Star sign: Scorpio

Rating: 15/10

Ideal Date: Causing Problems on Purpose

In case you haven’t noticed, Reed College is home to a sizeable murder of crows. They’re impossible to miss; every day, dozens of noisy birds with glossy black feathers strut across the campus lawns as if they own the place, peering down judgmentally from rooftops and cawing at passersby before they fly north each evening en masse to roost off campus. This omnivorous, intelligent, and occasionally obnoxious creature is one of America’s most common birds and also one of its most interesting.

As the goth of the bird world, crows have a sinister reputation. They’re typically considered “Halloween Animals,” (yes, this is a technical designation), known in pop culture as friends of witches and harbingers of bad luck. They even starred in the classic 1963 horror film “The Birds.” This association is far from a modern phenomenon. Celtic and Welsh legend saw crows as death omens and associated them with divination. Going as far back as Gilgamesh, they’re also characterized as messengers; Norse myth had Hugin and Munin, Odin’s twin emissaries, and in Greek myth they were associated with Apollo, who cursed them to have black feathers when they delivered news of a lover’s betrayal. In Hindu belief, crows are neutral omens that embody the spirits of the dead, and many indigenous traditions see them as tricksters and agents of transformation.

There’s a lot to love about crows beyond their cultural significance. They’re some of the cleverest members of the animal kingdom. In fact, one 2014 study claimed that their intelligence is comparable to that of a seven-year-old child. They recognize and remember individual human faces, use teamwork to problem solve, create rudimentary tools, and mourn their dead. They engage in mobbing, a behavior wherein birds gang up on and harass a predator to drive them off, and on our very own campus, they’ve been spotted dive-bombing hawks over the sports fields. There are even videos of them starting catfights for their own amusement — seriously, look it up. It’s hilarious.

Crows are agents of chaos, completely aware of their own cunning, with a spooky reputation and a deep supply of courage. What’s not to love? Next time you spot one pecking at the ground for food, or flying overhead, or stirring up mischief, take a moment to appreciate what a stunning creature you’re dealing with.

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Gary Granger
Gary Granger
2 years ago

Thank you to Sabrina for writing about the birds at Reed, and especially my favorites! And, as commenters are want to do, I will offer a well-intentioned alternative opinion: crows do not "cause problems," rather humans find crows that are simply being crows to be annoying–which really is our problem, not theirs. As someone who has studied crows and other corvids for some time, I am both delighted that they are being highlighted, and annoyed (my problem) at the framing of them as "noisy" and "judgmental." The use of "murder" to describe was is actually a flock adds to the stereotyping that continues to lead to their persecution and killing. There are still contests to see how many crows can be killed in a day. This time of year there are an extra 15,000 or so crows in town, sleeping over the streets in downtown Portland each night, and going out to forage each day–including at Reed. Readers interested in this phenomenon can go to, or look me up and I’ll be all too happy to take a walk on campus and talk about crows.


P.S. I’m pretty sure that Huginn and Muninn were reputed to have been Ravens (Corvus corax), corvids to be sure, but much larger cousins to crows.

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