A Surprising Look at Crow Family Life

For most crows, it takes a village. A look at the surprisingly cooperative family life of crows.

No matter where you live, there’s a good chance there is a crow nearby. What you might not notice is the family drama going on all around you. Many crows, especially during nesting season, live in family groups.

Mated pairs share territories with their grown children. The older offspring in turn help their parents with raising each season’s new brood of young birds.

This type of family life may not happen among all crow species or in all places. For example, in North America, we know that American crows and Northwestern crows cooperatively breed, but there is no evidence yet that fish crows pursue this lifestyle.

Lawrence Kilham was among the first to describe cooperative nesting in American crows in the early 1980s. Kilham was an avocational ornithologist, starting his studies in middle age amidst a career as a virologist. His approach to studying bird behavior was intentionally simple – observe individual behavior as much as possible.

For his crow studies, he worked seven days a week from a lawn chair with a notebook and binoculars. He lucked into finding a tame population of crows in Florida that were regularly fed by the owner of a private ranch. He was able to sort out individual crows based on their behavior and plumage idiosyncrasies.

Using this approach, Kilham completed a series of studies on crows and ravens that are summarized in his book The American Crow and Common Raven. Ultimately Kilham published more than 90 scientific articles that yielded many new insights into bird behavior.

An intimate look at crow family life. Photo © MJ Kilpatrick
An intimate look at crow family life. Photo © MJ Kilpatrick

As observed by Kilham, the Florida ranch crows worked cooperatively on all parts of the nesting process.

Helpers would bring sticks and other nesting material to help the female build the nest. At one nest there were five helper crows busily bringing sticks “faster than the one female could handle them.” The project quickly became a disorganized mess.

Eventually, the female somehow communicated that it was time to halt stick deliveries. It took her an additional two weeks to finally complete the nest with the materials on hand.

Illustration of Kilham crows with sticks from The American Crow & Common Raven
Image from The American Crow & Common Raven

Kilham concluded, “There is a limit, conceivably, to the number of adult auxiliaries that can be of help rather than a hindrance.” In other words, too many cooks in the kitchen … Yes, crows have this problem, too.

Throughout the incubation period, the female spends 90% of her time incubating. She is fed by her mate and the rest of the helpers a few times per hour.

Kilham noted that the visit rate of helpers at hatching time was very high, but they weren’t bringing any food. He noted that “it seems that many of the visits were made out of curiosity” and ”the female moved aside each time a helper came, giving it a chance to look at the young.”

From then on the real work began for the family, with parents and “helper crows” making more than 20 visits per hour to feed the nestlings. The young birds continued to be fed exclusively by older crows for at least two weeks after they left the nest.

Subsequent long-term crow studies in New York led by Kevin McGowan of Cornell showed that pairs, like those that Kilham had studied in Florida, had year-round territories with young that stayed with their parents for up to six years. No crow bred on its own until it was at least two years old. The biggest crow family they recorded was 15 birds.

Why do crows stay at home to help rather than go out on their own?

Our greatest insights into this question come from a research team working in Europe with carrion crows. They have executed a series of studies focused on determining where and when it is beneficial to be a helper.

Carrion crow (Corvus corone). Photo © Geoff Whalan / Flickr through a Creative Commons license
Carrion crow (Corvus corone). Photo © Geoff Whalan / Flickr through a Creative Commons license

The team noted that in Switzerland cooperative breeding was rare, while in Spain it was common. To learn whether nature (genetics) or nurture (the environment) was driving cooperative nesting and family living, they experimented by moving Swiss crow eggs into Spanish crow nests.

The results? Nurture all the way.

The Swiss crows raised by Spanish parents adopted the local lifestyle of family living, while their brothers and sisters back in Switzerland left the home territory shortly after reaching independence.

The researchers presented two possible explanations for the difference between the two study sites.

The first hypothesis was that in Spain, there might not be enough territories to go around (in other words, it’s a tough job market), so the grown kids live at home for a while longer until something opens up.

Although the “tough job market” explanation is tempting, it turns out that Spain actually has more vacant territories available than Switzerland does.

The second hypothesis was that there may be a difference in food availability between the two sites that influences a territory’s capacity to support a family.

Ogata Korin crows and moon block print.
Ogata Korin crows and moon block print

This hypothesis was proven to be correct. A key behavioral difference between Switzerland and Spain is that Spanish crows stay on territories year-round, while in Switzerland (and in an Italian study site), crows abandon their territories after nesting season. This is probably because they need to go beyond the territory boundaries to meet their food needs during the colder parts of the year. Families are then prompted to split up and, by the next spring, last year’s offspring are no longer around to help.

Even in Spain, where year-round territoriality is common, food availability is an important factor in determining whether the young stay or go. Experiments that added extra food to some territories demonstrated that last year’s young are more likely to stick around if there is more food.

Sticking around does imply a tradeoff. Surely all young crows aspire to have a place of their own some day. But in the meantime, a good part of their genes are being passed on by helping to raise their younger brothers and sisters. We would expect that their experience as helpers might make these young crows more successful breeders once they do get out on their own.

Cooperative breeding is common enough for us to know that it is beneficial under certain situations. About 40% of the 116 species in the crow family (including jays, magpies and nutcrackers) are cooperative breeders. It’s estimated that across all bird species, only about 9% are cooperative breeders.

Whether you’re referring to a crow couple or a human couple, it’s safe to say, it takes a village.

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  1. Victoria Louise whur says:

    Crows are cute when they are baby’s

  2. Phyllis Ann Holton says:

    I live in a small country settlement where there is a family of crows I feed everyday. If they are not around when I go out I call good and loud for them and they come even though they may be way off in the distance. Sometimes I will even “caw” the gathering, come quickly one and it works. They are fascinating! One particular large bird ventures closest. I soak high quality dogfood or catfood overnight for them occasionally and also feed them peanuts in the shell, a clear favorite, and sometimes well cooked hamburg leftovers. It is amazing to watch them clean out a watermelon on a very hot day. I recently searched for and found a book on crows for my grandkids. I enjoy reading anything I can on these magnificent birds. I live in northern Nova Scotia. Some people say they migrate for the winter but does that mean they just go far enough to find a better food location? These crows seem to stay around but go to roost in late afternoon. There is a place where hundreds of them roost about five miles closer to town.

  3. Gary DiNezza says:

    Last year a crow was obviously dying on our neighbors front lawn. Not sure if the crow was injured or sick but the eyes seemed cloudy and semi-shut leading me to believe it was a sick bird. The crow was slightly leaning to one side and both wings were spread out somewhat. Most remarkable was the presence of several other crows (about 5 or 6) in the trees above the sick bird making a fuss whenever a human got near the sick crow. It was heart breaking. We cleared the area and in a few hours the crow died and a neighbor removed it. The other crows left the area. I know little about crows but, based on what I saw, I’m sure this was a family group protecting the sick bird.

  4. Kevin O'Shea says:

    Never in my 70 years have I ever seen such large numbers of crows flocking together as right now in Akron, Ohio. I estimate in the realm of 3 to 4 hundred!

  5. Dillin says:

    i like crows i want to learn more about them

  6. wendy robertson says:

    If a crow loses a partner, and it seems the partner is lost and not dead would the remaining partner call for its mate?

  7. Ellen Bowser says:

    We have crows in our back yard every year. This year we have a family of 7. I have noticed that one will stay mulling around the yard all day while the others are off doing whatever. I feel so bad for him. Why does he say behind?

  8. Maria Teixeira says:

    I am feeding a young crow I found somewhere…he was loudly begging for food….I took him home and he behaves like he knows me forever…he is soooo sweet! He loves to -talk- like a gremelin, jump on my back if I just bend to pick something…and he-s target is my head or my shoulder to sleep. Recently, there is a big one coming to my balcony, acting very aggressively. It keeps making loads of noise, it try to destroy my net like a peterossauros and my next door neighbour…it is scaring…Could be his mother despite the fact I found him far from here??

    1. Lisa Feldkamp says:

      Hi Maria, Thank you for the question! It seems likely that you picked up a fledgling – birds of this age are often on the ground begging for food loudly. Their parents (and extended family) are still caring for them, but may be away finding food at the moment you happen upon the young bird. It’s an awkward, but normal stage of bird life. It’s hard to say for sure whether the crow on your balcony is a family member. Here is more information from Portland Audubon: https://audubonportland.org/wcc/urban/crows

  9. N.K.E says:

    The pair of crows I have been feeding for about 2 years, had a chick last year. Their offspring is still with them every day. When I throw food out for them, if only one or 2 of them have seen it, they call to tell the other/s. They all seem very harmonious. They are still very cautious around me, even though I’m in a flat and am never near them on the grass. Often they can’t seem to get the courage to take the food, unless I’m out of sight, so the seagulls usually grab what I intended to give the crows. I love their calls and the way they walk!

  10. Ray Dillon says:

    Had a Fish crow as a pet onetime. It learned to say hello, Michael (one sons name) “hello Michael”and Oh wow. Used sticks as tools and his intelligence would amaze a person. If people were being recruited to be Crows few would pass the test. Two things to leave in the wild, a crow and a raccoon. Both be come a pain in the a-s after they get older. But the coon has a dangerous bite.