Seattle’s crows: a Q+A with UW professor John Marzluff

A Seattle crow perches on a branch. | Photo by Samantha Burton

Seattle has a lot of crows — like a lot. And while it may be easy to write them off as just another bird on the street, crows actually have an intelligence level that’s closer to a primate. So, how do these brilliant brains affect our city? 

To find out, I hopped on the phone with University of Washington professor and researcher John M. Marzluff. He’s the guy behind much of what we understand about crows, including research that showed crows can recognize faces. He’s pretty much an ornithological rockstar.

Here’s what he said about our fine-feathered friends.

Why are there so many crows in Seattle?

It’s kind of a perfect storm for them here. They were probably [historically] mostly a coastal or an Eastern Washington species. Between the fragmentation of our forest here […] and our expanding human population, we made a lot of great places for them. They have trees to nest in, lawns that had lots of worms and other invertebrates for them to eat, and lots of our refuse for them to scavenge. 

Do they try to stick more to their natural diet or do they eat more human food? 

My guess is that it’s really seasonal and at this time of year, they’re going to be eating a lot of human sorts of things — and that would include agricultural even. You know, foraging on pumpkins that are rotting in the fields. Big flocks will go and eat those. Others will scavenge from Dicks Drive-In or whatever the best food item is that day or from whatever dumpsters are the fullest or open. 

Others I think really have a penchant for begging from people. We have several on campus that I see whenever I walk around that are just waiting for a student to drop something. 

They have pretty unique, individualistic strategies.

John Marzluff and colleague Matthias Loretto tag ravens in Yellowstone National Park
John Marzluff (left) and colleague Matthias Loretto (right) tag ravens (alive) in Yellowstone National Park. | Photo by Andrius Pasukonis

You mentioned a few times now that crows have very individualistic habits. Do you mind explaining what that means?

We’re discovering with lots of birds that they do have some personality. Some of them might be quite shy around people; others will be quite bold. Most of the ones in Seattle are really bold and will come up to within a few feet of you. They’ll rarely let you touch them, like you can catch a pigeon. You can’t really catch a crow by hand. They know their boundaries, but they’ll push it. That’s not something you see when you get out of the city. But even within the city, there are some birds that are more bold than others. 

I’ve read a few articles that say crows tend to live in the same area. Is it possible when we’re walking down the street that we see the same crow from yesterday?

Yeah, almost certainly. If you’re near a really rich food source, like a dumpster or something, then it may not be the same bird. But if you’re just walking in your neighborhood — or especially if you see a pair of birds that’s a territorial pair — you’re going to see those birds over and over again. 

So, do they have routines then?

Yes, they do. Especially the mated pairs, they’re more predictable. The young birds that don’t have a territory yet probably get up and go find food. The adults will need to do the same thing, but they’ll go to some place they’ve been before or find something they’ve stashed. 

Then there’s a lot of time for the adults to preen each other. The mates will clean the areas the other can’t get to with their beaks. Then they probably have quite a bit of downtime. They can defend their space, make sure there’s no intruders, go and mob an owl or some other predator. Then they eat and go to roost together about an hour before sunset.

What should Seattleites know about them?

Well, one: they live a long time […] You could probably see the same bird for the next, close to 20 years. Some of the students I work with, the birds may be older than they are.

And the strong male/female bond is neat. A lot of birds are like that, but there’s not many that work together on a day-to-day basis like a mated crow pair do. 

They’re smart. Their brains are as big as the brain of a small monkey — and bigger in many cases. Relative to their body size, they’re more like having a monkey in your neighborhood than a bird. 

You mention that they eat a lot of pests like mice and rats. Is that a way they could be considered a benefit to the city?

Yeah, they certainly do that. They are scavengers and perform a sanitation role in the city for sure. But, they’re more of a plus and minus, I would say. For me, they’re an overall plus — I enjoy watching them. But they do provide a cultural entertainment for people. There’s lots of songs, statues, and bands that take them for their totem. They do stimulate our culture a lot. 

So, they perform those kinds of cultural and ecological services. But they are a challenge: they’re noisy, they get in your garbage and spread it around — they can spread diseases from things they eat. But most things in our ecosystem are both pluses and minuses.

Your team is responsible for that research that shows that crows can recognize faces. Can you tell me about that?

I’m still involved with the research. We’ve been doing it now… I think this is year 16 coming up. We continually test our birds on campus once or twice a year to see if they still remember the mask that I wore when we captured them — and so far, they still do. So unfortunately, that doesn’t end because they keep remembering it — or learning it. When new crows see us, they‘ll see the other crows making those nasty calls and diving at us and they seem to learn and trust at that point that we’re a bad thing even though we’re not doing anything but walking around.

I’ll continue to do it at least until the last bird that I know I actually captured wearing that mask is alive. There’s one bird of seven still on campus that I caught with that mask. Once that bird’s dead, I’ll know that the ones that remain didn’t have a personal experience with that mask and is just social knowledge.

What other bits of information have you learned about crows that have blown you away over the years?

We learned that crows use the exact same part of the brain that humans use when assessing if someone is dangerous. We think of ourselves as being so different, but really when you start looking at how a big-brained crow functions, it’s really similar to how we function. I never even thought we’d be able to look at that, but we were able to because of the facilities and colleagues at the University. Seattle’s a neat place from that standpoint for scientists. If you have an interest that’s beyond what you do, you can probably find somebody who’s doing things like that and would be glad to help. 

More information

For more information about crows or John Marzluff’s research, click here. Or if you want to get a little more hands-on, Marzluff and his wife also created the app Crow Scientist, which allows users to track, identify, and learn about crow behavior.