May 1, 2014

Crowds flock to Lab of O, get to know the crow

crows tagged with antennae
Provided
Cornell ornithologists use wing tags and radio transmitters to learn more about crow behavior.

There are two types of people, as far as Kevin McGowan is concerned: those who love crows and those who hate them. After 26 years of studying American crows, McGowan has become an ardent ambassador for the crow-loving camp.

“They’re smart, they’re interesting – they’re people-like birds,” said McGowan, an extension support specialist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Two scientists shared tales of family values and treachery, stay-at-homes and travelers, dynasties and disease, with a standing-room-only crowd at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology April 21. In the talk, “To Know the Crow,” McGowan and his colleague Anne Clark of Binghamton University said crows are a whole lot like us underneath their feathery exterior – in fact, they’re intelligent, fun-loving, family-oriented party animals.

Crows are clever birds, with the capacity not only to use, but also to craft tools for specific purposes, McGowan said. He cited the example of a crow named Betty, and showed a video in which she bent a metal rod into a hook to retrieve a basket of food.

“Not only was she able to figure this out, but she’d never seen wire before,” McGowan said. “She had to understand that this material would bend, and there’s nothing in nature that does that.”

Crows are also able to spot McGowan in a crowd. The crows he and Clark have tagged, monitored and fed over the years have learned that they benefit from hanging around with peanut providers. On many occasions, McGowan has looked in his rearview mirror on the way to work and found that a crow is chasing him down the road.

“They follow us – they know our faces, our cars, our routines,” said McGowan.

With the help of the tags, McGowan and Clark distinguish their crows from one another. This has allowed them to track not only the movement of individual crows, but also their social interactions.

“They’re fun-loving party animals,” said McGowan. “They never do anything alone or quietly.”

“They’re a family unit,” said McGowan. “The young stay with their family for a long time.”

Young crows will typically stick around for at least a year after they’re fully grown to help their parents. Many of their family dynamics are similar to humans, such as preening behaviors; sometimes a young crow will beg to be preened, and other times they rebelliously dodge their parent’s attempts to preen them.

“It might be reminiscent of having your hair brushed five more times than you want before you go off to school,” Clark said.

This sort of family-oriented lifestyle, known as cooperative breeding, is rare not only among birds, but among animals in general. It is closely tied to intelligence and learning, McGowan said. Crows demonstrate a phenomenon called social learning: They can learn how to do something by simply watching another crow do it.

McGowan hopes that the more people learn about crows, the less sinister they will seem. A “murder of crows” is more likely a family gathering than a gang on the prowl for baby birds, he said.

“If you hate them because they eat baby birds, then you have to hate chipmunks,” McGowan added, noting that the cute and furry chipmunk is responsible for the murder of far more baby birds than the crow.

It just goes to show that you really can’t judge a creature by its cover, and the crow is worth getting to know, he added.

Andrea Alfano ’14 is a student writer at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.