Crows have long suffered under the reputation of being "bad." Crows raid crops, frequently steal eggs and chicks from other bird nests, and have been known to steal shiny objects such as articles of jewelry from people. Yet, these vocal black birds are among the most intelligent. Crows are said to be able to count (to a point) and they are also known to be very discriminating in their abilities to identify specific objects.
Crows belong to the family Corvidae, which also includes ravens, magpies, and jays. Two species of crows breed in Massachusetts, the American crow and the fish crow.
The American crow is one of the most familiar birds in the Commonwealth. It is found in both urban and forested areas, in fields and pastures, and along coastal beaches. It’s a large black bird with long legs and a thick bill.
The fish crow is a less common but increasing bird in Massachusetts, where it is near the northernmost part of its range. Nearly identical to the American crow, a fish crow is a little smaller. The best way to distinguish the two is by their call (the fish crow’s is nasal-sounding uh-ugh is very different from the American’s caw).
During late March and April, breeding and nest building begins. Crows begin a number of nests, usually in the crotch of a tall tree, before completing the one that will be used.
Non-breeding young from the previous year, and possibly the year before, stay with the parents to become nest helpers. The number of helpers can vary from three to six. It is unclear whether or not they help feed the nestlings, but they have been observed aiding in nest building and feeding the incubating female.
In Massachusetts, the eggs are usually laid between early May and mid-June. On average, 3 to 6 eggs are laid followed by an 18 day incubation period. The young are fed by both parents during the four to five week nestling period and are foraging for food on their own two weeks after that.
Crows are almost completely omnivorous, meaning they eat a wide variety of food types including fruits, nuts, grains, insects, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, birds and their eggs and nestlings, garbage, and carrion (e.g., roadkills, dead fish, etc.). In residential areas, crows have learned to tear open trash bags placed on the curb prior to rubbish day and to "rototill" lawns in search of grubs.
Crows cache food, meaning they hide food away in niches, nooks, and crannies (such as knotholes in trees) to provide themselves with a ready food supply during food shortages. This behavior also points to the species intelligence, as they must have fairly well developed memories.
Crows and their relatives (especially ravens) possess one of the most highly varied vocal repertoires of any group of birds. They are capable of uttering far more than the "caw" call with which many people are most familiar.
This vocal range no doubt accounts or crows' impressive capacity for imitation. Captive birds, particularly, have been known to imitate many sounds including car horns, barking dogs, and human speech.
People are often concerned when noisy flocks of hundreds to thousands of crows gather to sleep at night in what’s known as a "roost." But there's no need to worry! Despite Alfred Hitchcock’s portrayal of crows in his movie The Birds, crows are not dangerous.
Other species that roost include European Starlings (late summer), House Sparrows (fall), Red-winged Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Common Grackles, and Chimney Swifts.
Roosts & Roosting Behaviors
During non-breeding season from November–March, large groups of American Crows can often be found roosting at night in a stand of trees (deciduous or coniferous). The places crows select for their nightly gatherings can be located anywhere—including within densely populated, residential, or industrial neighborhoods.
Crows will travel up to 50 miles to their night roost, which can contain anywhere from 100-10,000+ individuals. They may also gather in "staging areas" along the route before flying to the roost site just before sunset.
When in the vicinity of a night roost, anyone looking skyward an hour before sunset may see hundreds of crows arriving at the site from all directions. At morning's first light, the birds begin to nosily communicate with one another before dispersing to their respective foraging areas for the day.
In late February or March, these large roosts begin to break up and the mated pairs disperse to their home territories to begin nest-building. Unmated birds may continue to use the roost for several more weeks.
Evicting a Roost
Crows roosting in trees 50 or 60 feet high do not scare off easily. If a roost is causing problems, don’t bother with fake owls or odor repellents—crows are not intimidated by these nonthreatening statues and they don’t have a well-developed sense of smell.
Your best bet to ward of roosting crows is with loud noise. When crows or starlings first arrive at a roost location (usually starting an hour before sunset), a loud, persistent noise might persuade the birds to move on, especially if it is a new roost. Try banging on metal pots and pans or slapping two blocks of wood together.
There are companies that sell recordings of bird distress calls, which may frighten the birds when played. The theory is that when the call of an alarmed crow is played nearby, the crows flying in to roost will be frightened off. You will need to change the location of the recorder every few nights so the birds do not get used to it, and it must be played for several hours each evening when the birds begin arriving at the roost site. The success of these devices is questionable, and they are unlikely to discourage a large, long-established communal roost.
Crows & the Law
All birds are protected by federal laws under the "Migratory Bird Act of 1918," as well as by Massachusetts state laws. It is illegal to destroy, relocate, or possess birds, their nests, or their eggs.
Crows may only be hunted during hunting season with a license in specified areas. Many towns do prohibit hunting them and the state law does not allow hunting within 500 feet of a building except with permission. Contact the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife for regulations