American Crows

American Crow in grain field.
American Crow in grain field. Photo:Jack Dingle, PGC Photo/Public Domain.

American Crows always fascinate me. It’s their intelligence and the confident way they strut as they walk. To many peoples they symbolize transformation and change. I look into their dark eyes and wish I could hold a conversation with them. I wonder what wise things they would say. 

Who are the Crows?

American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are the most widespread of the crows. It is the species of crow I see most often here in Philadelphia. I live on the edge of the city with lawns, wooded areas, and plenty of open spaces. This is just the type of habitats crows like. They socialize in small flocks in open habitats.

There are two main species of crows in North America, the American and the Fish Crow. (Corvus ossifragus). The Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) and the Tamaulipas Crow (Corvus imparatus) from Mexico are not as frequent in the U.S. and Canada. . The other crows are visitors from Eurasia. 

The Fish Crow is common more in the south and along the east coast usually near water. The Fish Crow looks very similar to the American Crow, but is a bit smaller and the voice is different. Fish Crows has a higher-pitched single or double cah similar to a young crow’s begging call. 

Flying crows (both American and Fish) have square or slightly rounded tail tips. Ravens tails are wedge-shaped in flight. 

I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell them apart. I ‘m sure I’ve seen Fish Crows and thought it the American. 

The Crow Family

Crows and Ravens are all classified in the genus Corvus. They makeup half of the family Corvidae worldwide. All of the members of the family in North America have all-black plumage. There are members of the family with gray or white markings in the rest of the world. There is at least one specie of Corvidae in most habitats in North America.

Differences between American Crows and Ravens

Ravens (Corvus corax) are much larger than crows, with a heavier bill, and a wedge-shaped tail.  Instead of the open habitats of crows, ravens are common in forests, mountains, canyons, deserts and the coast. The Chihuahuan Raven is common in arid areas. 

American Crow in flight.
American Crow in flight.

What are their Characteristics?

American Crows weight about one pound, are 17.5 inches long and have a wingspan of about 39’ from wing tip to wing tip. The American Crow has a large head, broad wings and a short,  rounded or blunt tail. They fly with smooth wingbeats and they glide with wings slightly raised. Ravens fly with their wings flat. 

A Year Round Resident 

American Crows live in their territories year round. They are certainly in my neighborhood  all year. I see them in groups and flocks. Sometimes two or more walking along the ground of perched in trees. Their family groups range in size from 2 – 10 birds. The family groups are made up of birds of various ages. Many times they include the parents and young from previous years that help raise the current brood.  

How Do They Live?

American Crows create nests that amounts to a bulky bowl made of twigs lined with leaves, moss, or other materials. The nest is usually hidden in the fork of a tree. Generally a crow’s nest is located between 25 and 75 feet above the ground. Sometimes the nest is on the ground.

American Crows gathering for night time roost
American Crows gathering for night time roost.

When they are not nesting and raising youth, crows gather in large communal roosts. These roosts gather in large trees and number thousands of individuals. The nesting season for American Crows in February through June. They raise one brood of 4 to 6 greenish eggs spotted with brown. The female is the main incubator. The eggs take 16 to 18 days to hatch. Between 28 to 35 days old, the young fledge. Fledge is when a young birds develops wing feathers which are large enough for flight. Young crows stay with their parents for up to four years. 

What Do They Eat? 

Crows success is due to their extremely diverse diet.They are omnivorous ground feeders. They eat small animals including fish, bird eggs and nestlings, snails, small reptiles, insects, worms, dead animals, snails, and other invertebrates.  They eat plant foods such as grains, seeds, and fruits.  Also food waste thrown out by human is on the menu. 

If you want to attract crows, particularly if you want to study these fascinating birds, put out bread scraps or corn on the ground. They’ll eat suet from a feeder if they can reach it. They will eat the fruit from shrubs, particularly the fruit the falls to the ground. 

All members of the Corvid genus store extra food. The bury it in the ground or hide it in trees. Crows will drop a nut onto a hard surface such as a road to break open the shell. See Storing Food for the Winter (How to Hoard)  

Where are They Found?

Crows live year round in small groups in the the lower forty-eight section of the US. Canada is the breeding territory for many crows. And a few areas of the southwest along the Mexican border are winter grounds probably for the individuals who spend the summer breeding in Canada.

Flock of Crows
Flock of crows

Behavior to Watch

During the winter, crows congregate in large flocks. They forage as large flocks at abundant food sources such as a grain fields,  gleaning the leftover seeds. Crows gather together at night to roost in large numbers. 

Perhaps the large groups make it easier for the birds to watch for the one of their most dangerous predator, the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) 

Early one June morning, just after 9 am I heard the husky, piercing scream of a Red-tailed hawk and the American crows went crazy. The crows nesting in the Locust tree out back, began to “caw-caw-caw”, frantically until the hawk left the area. The crows were nesting high in the trees raising their young. 

Crows, like Blue Jays will mob a predator.  By mobbing a predator they will make loud, noisy calls and dive at the predator. I saw a neighbor’s cat mobbed by Blue Jays diving and striking the cat along its’ back. 

American Crow perched in a tree
American Crow perched in a tree.

As I write this in late autumn, I hear the caw of a American Crow nearby. I see it perch on the tip of a branch high in the Sycamore tree that towers over the rooftops of the house the next street over. As the Sun sinks lower in the the late afternoon sky, I watch a crow walk across the roofs of the house across from my window. I have always liked crows. There is something special about them. 

Other Crows in North America

Northwestern Crow (Corvus caurinus) is common in coastal areas along the Pacific coast from Alaska to British Columbia. 

Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix) is a rare visitor from Europe spotted in New York and New Jersey. This crow has a pale gray neck and breast. 

House Crow (Corvus splendens) is. Rare visitor form Asian that is smaller than the American crow with gray neck. Cheeks, and breast. 

 

Works Consulted

Burton, Robert, and Stephen W. Kress. Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher: Birdfeeders & Bird Gardens. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press, 1999.

Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Second edition. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014., p. 384-385.

Sibley, David, Chris Elphick, and John B. Dunning. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Stokes, Donald W., and Lillian Q. Stokes. Stokes Field Guide to Birds. Eastern Region. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.

 

Related posts and Information

Starling Murmurations: How to Find One and When to Watch (with video)

A Murder of Crows: What does it mean?

Native American Crow Mythology http://www.native-languages.org/legends-crow.htm

 

2 comments

  1. Thank you, Donna, for a nicely-written take on a common bird that offers a lot, and especially for including your personal experiences.

    • Hi Steve – thanks for your kind words. I do love crows. It’s raining this morning in our area, I wonder where they are hiding out?

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