About me

I’m Kaeli Swift, a PhD student at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington.  I have been passionate about animal behavior all my life, but what started as an early love affair with wolves has turned into a fierce ardor for corvids.  Specifically, my area of research is the thanatology of crows.

thanaCrows, like a number of other animals that includes some primates, elephants, dolphins and other corvids, appear to perform ritualistic funeral behaviors once they discover a dead member of their own species.  These behaviors can include: touching, communal gathering, vocalizing or decreased play.  For people who live or work closely with animals it’s tempting to anthropomorphize these behaviors based on our opinions of how smart or emotional the animals we care about are.  But as a scientist my job is to separate my personal feelings about animals, and use research techniques that allow me to objectively ask questions about animal behavior.  By conducting field experiments and employing brain scanning techniques developed by our team, I hope to gain insight into the purpose of crow funerals.  Perhaps they play a utilitarian purpose of learning about danger or social opportunities, or perhaps they are akin to the grieving process we experience as humans.  The brain scanning technique we use will allow use to peer into the brain of a living, thinking crow, without ever having to euthanize the animal.

Studies that provide bridges from humans to other animals are critical to fostering a culture that respects and protects the natural world, and this is one of the reasons I most enjoy working with crows.   No matter their feelings for them, nearly everyone has a story about crows, even those people who otherwise feel quite separated from nature.  The fact that they are conspicuous and thrive in all kinds of human dominated environments, means that crows are a uniquely accessible animal, and offer a wealth of opportunities to connect people of all interests and backgrounds to science.  It’s my hope that our research will provide a more compassionate lens with which to understand crows, and contribute to a growing movement of corvid enthusiasts.  Feel free to ask questions or share your own stories in the comment section!

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152 responses to “About me

  1. Thanks for this wonderful blog — I just stumbled upon it as well as your research on crow “funerals.” I had witnessed what I think was a funeral experience late Autumn 2013 and had made the following notes:

    Walking my dog at dusk, we watched wave of wave of 100-300 crows each heading East towards the full moon to their roosting places in the city (Sacramento, CA). I estimated over two thousand total individuals flying at an elevation of about 20-25 meters. Fewer than one bird out of each wave would vocalize in flight, so it was pretty quiet. All of a sudden a single crow fell out of one of the flocks and dropped like a rock to the ground about 100 meters from us. This flock immediately wheeled around and began circling but not decreasing their elevation. I stood still, watching, thinking that I might be about to witness a “crow funeral” event. First, one or two crows began cawing as they circled, and soon all joined in until it seemed that the entire group of about a hundred individuals were all calling at once! This went on for maybe 30 seconds, and then they stopped cawing and circling but turned to continue heading East. I was about to investigate the fate of the bird on the ground but saw some small movement, then it jumped and flew up to join its fellows!

    • What a strange experience! I wonder what caused it to fall?

      • Karl Styrsky

        Ha! I mean “caw”! Was hoping you might know. Earlier this year I witness similar circling and cacophony of vocalizing behavior when a pulchritude* of crows had encountered a fallen comrade. The first crow making the discovery had called out in a more protracted “aaahh, aaahh, aaahh” then their usual, shorter calls. Crows — strange and wonderful.

        * I refuse to refer to a murder of these fine creatures.

  2. MLA

    Hello,
    I am writing from Morocco.
    I read an article published in the NY Times about your research on crows and the way they behave when confronted to death.
    As I am not a scientist, I was more intrigued by the connection that came to my mind between your article and one of the verses of the holy Quran:
    (Al MAidah -the table- verse 31):
    “Then Allah sent a crow searching in the ground to show him how to hide the disgrace of his brother. He said, “O woe to me! Have I failed to be like this crow and hide the body of my brother?” And he became of the regretful.”
    Maybe not the perfect translation but it still interesting to contemplate…

    • MLA, thank you for sharing this with me. Would you mind providing an interpretation of this passage? Sounds almost like the crow was demonstrating to Allah how to bury the dead (which would be very interesting because there’s a similar story with Adam and Eve) but maybe I missed the intent. I am planning to write a post on the symbology of cries through time and across cultures and would love to include this passage!

  3. Read the fascinating article in the Seattle Times about your crow study. I just wanted to relay a dead crow situation that my wife and I witnessed a number of years ago. We were playing golf at the small par 3 Jefferson Park golf course on Beacon Hill. On the second tee, a number of crows were about a hundred yards out foraging in the grass. My wife teed off and hit a “worm burner” which struck one of the crows squarely in the head. It made one quick attempt to fly and then dropped to the turf dead. As we walked toward where the crow lay, the other crows all began taking turns pulling on the dead crow and seemingly trying to revive it. All the while they were making lots of threatening caws. My wife and continued to play 8 more holes of golf and for the entire round about 10 crows followed us around the course continuing to make lots of noise. A very strange incident that I will always remember.

  4. J D

    I guess I missed something. My chickens do the same thing when I kill one for dinner. Our goats have a fit if they loose track of one sibling. Would like to see some more controls on the study. What do the Crows do when one holds out a dead rat, or a sandwich.

    • J D, click on the publications page to read the publication in full and get all the juicy details on controls (alas the popular press doesn’t generally devote much attention to this aspect of our study). The quick answer is when people appeared with dead pigeons or with just food the response was much different than if they appeared with a crow. Likewise pigeons did not demonstrate a similar behavior when encountering dead pigeons. As for your chickens and goats, it may very well be that attention to dead conspecifics is much more common than we know so far! But I’m certain that they do not do what our crows did if for no other reason than they are simply incapable of some of the behaviors due to captivity (and natural history).

  5. Assem Issa

    Dear Dr. Kaeli,

    My name is assem issa & I am from Egypt. I read your research about crows. It is very interesting. I have some questions.

    1) do the crows bury their dead?
    2) Is there any animal who bury their dead by digging in the ground, and burying the descent like human beings?

    I am very passionate to know the answer.

    I will be waiting your kind reply

    Best regards,

    • Hi Assem, although we’ve heard of a few anecdotal accounts of crows placing objects on the body (like sticks) those are very rare and I’ve never heard of or seen crows place other crows in holes and then cover them with dirt. When you think about it, this behavior would be impossible for most animals because they simply lack the capability of digging a hole big enough to fit a conspecific. Some animals dig holes to put other kinds of dead animals in for eating later (a behavior called caching) but to my knowledge there is no other animal besides humans that dig holes for their own dead. The only thing that comes close is some species of ants, which have special chambers in their colonies where they stack their dead. Why do you ask?

  6. Great blog and a worthy subject. I must ask about how crows deceive. They seem to hide a cache and deceive others about hiding… surely there are plenty of studies on Corvid deceit. I mention it as a theory on why crows conduct trials and carry out death sentences — could it be that while crows will allow petty theft on their food – they require deep trust cooperation in keeping a look-out for danger. I have heard the vocal racket when a raccoon is in the vicinity. Crows must keep a special lookout for owls and hawks – could it be that a crow learning deception might misunderstand the lesson of how to deceive fellow crows, and then on lookout, deliberately fail to warn of danger? The group cannot allow such risky mistakes.
    Seems plausible and possible, I have no idea how to test for that, or how to observe it. (seems like a common trait in humans)

  7. bedz

    where is the part you neglected to copy and paste about mutation due to radiation!

    • H Bedz, I suppose one answer might be ‘nowhere’ since all of this is original content. That being said, your query is not an unreasonable one. This is something we had to address when initially applying for permission to conduct this semi-invasive (meaning non-surgical) procedure. The answer is that there’s no evidence to suggest that the radiation exposure is sufficiently dangerous to the birds (or other animals, including people) to preclude its use as a investigative technique. In fact, it’s about 3x lower than the mSv level associated with an increased carcinogen risk. But there’s no denying that it is an increased radiation exposure any way you shake it and, for you, that may simply be unacceptable.

      • Marilyn Fawcett

        As we all ingest significant radiation from bananas, I guess we are all at some small risk🙂 That’s life.
        I really miss my crows who visited on a daily basis from April – October here in High River Ab. It has been an awesome experience for myself and my 3 yr. old granddaughter to interact so much with these beauties! They called for breakfast every morning and no other birds were really allowed to visit til the crows were done, even though they have their own feeding platform they still like to come and sit on the umbrella over my deck and rule the roost for a while. They would actually follow my dog, my granddaughter and myself home from our walks and as soon as we got near home they would race ahead to meet us there for snacks, they especially loved the high grade dog food pellets I have for Bryn who has cancer. Cawing loudly, no scolding tho, just to remind us what they were there for. Such fun. They would especially vocalize with my granddaughter (who called them her ‘spirits’ lol – after watching Clan of the Cave Bear) anyway she was always cawing at them and they always responded to her, sometimes with a sort of purring (don’t know what else to call it) One day we found a dead fledgling who had almost been mummified because it was flattened by trucks. Really gruesome but Rain was fascinated, as the features were easily discernible despite being flat. The poor mother stayed in the the home tree for months scolding anyone who came close, maybe because she had other fledglings still in the nest. I didn’t observe any other crows attending a ‘funeral’ there.

        Was amazed at their flocking behavior before they finally left for the winter in October because then I would get dozens of crows daily and my own little family of crows allowed that. I was surprised, but I guess they knew they were getting ready to migrate (where??) and they all wanted to stock up and it was kind of a communal getting ready. We have a small wood directly behind my place and they would all flock there soundlessly, more and more as the days got shorter. It was a strange sight and awe inspiring. Then suddenly they were gone. Completely. I found an earring back placed right at my patio door when they were gone, could they have possibly have left it there?

        I miss them, but I still have blue jays and magpies who now think this is their place lol, and all the little chickadees, sparrows and other little birds. The magpies don’t call me to feed them, they just line up on the lattice or swoop by my patio doors so I can’t miss them. They love the dog food too and will take that before they come back for the peanuts etc. My dog is not dead keen on my sharing of his food🙂 but he is getting used to it.

        Sorry to ramble and thanks so much for this wonderful sight and all the hard work you’ve done with these marvelous, incredibly clever birds. They have brought joy and fascination to our lives. Hope they return next year.

        Marilyn

  8. kim

    in these last days before Christmas break, a difficult (perhaps emotionally disturbed) student went beyond the realm of “prank” when he placed a dead raven (or crow?) in my treasure box here at school, in my class room. Some students overheard him boasting about it at lunch, and shared the info with me. So I looked in the box, and there it was: about the size of a large cat, black feather glinting like scales on a fish. Question: is this just vile, or perhaps even a blessing in disguise? Ravens hold power and have knowledge, so do I when I teach, so does this school….what’s your take? share your thoughts….

    • Hi Kim, what a strange story. Without knowing this student I can’t really say what his intentions were, though if I had to wager a guess I would not think he did it for any reason other to get a rise out of yourself and your students. Aside from whatever help you and your administration decide is in the best interests of this student given this behavior, I might suggest you turn this act on its head and treat it as a teachable moment. Rather than being disgusted with the animal (which you already do not seem to be) you could use it to discuss the symbology of corvids in different cultures, the meaning of dead crows to other crows, or why such a specimen might be valuable to scientists (what can dead animals teach us?). The most optimistic scenario I can imagine is that this student is feeling alone in his delight in the macabre and would benefit from learning that there are whole careers dedicated to dealing in the dead (scientists, morticians, museum curation, etc.) Good luck!

  9. Cay Murphy

    I have been feeding crows for nine years now, I give them dog food and nuts and about 2 dozen shows up for feeding every day. Put yesterday I noticed that over half were missing from the feeding. Today only four showed up. So On my walk I looked for the crows that are always about town. Not one single crow is in the air, on the ground and have not shown up at my house or in the tall firs by my property where many roost or spend time. I am really concerned and wonder if someone has shot them or poisoned them. But I could not find one body when looking for them . Help! I am concerned for their safety and worry if they are OK. My neighbor is a hunter and trapped three raccoon in the fir trees on his property, shot them with a high powered pellet gun and then skinned them. He bragged about this horror to me. I heard a bunch of shouting from him and his friends yesterday and someone yelled, let me try. I so concerned he killed all the crows I have befriended . I know he climbs those trees and used to destroy the babies in the nest , but they stop laying in his trees. Is their any laws that protect crows in Washington state.

    • Hi Cay, I’m sorry to hear about your vanishing crows. Crows are protected federally under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act but they can be hunted if you have the right licensing (they are regulated like any game bird). Not a lot of crow hunters in WA far as I know (further south and on the east coast these hunts are a much bigger part of the culture). If they were poisoned that’s a violation under any circumstance. To see any charges or citations you’d need evidence of some kind though. It’s also possible that as the breeding season approaches the territorial pair are working harder to keep others away. Whereas during the winter when boundaries are more lax, now I’m starting to see resources defended more fiercely. Something optimistic to consider anyway. Good luck Cay!

  10. Stan Brooks

    Just discovered your blog and want to thank you so much. I’ve always loved crows, but they were just background. But the more I read about them the more I want to know. I live in a small apartment that is near extensive greenbelts in Burien WA, and I have begun leaving shelled unsalted peanuts out on the railing on both my walkway and back outside patio and am already seeing some crow, jay, and squirrel involvement. Thanks for educating us about these amazing wild creatures that we co-exist with.

  11. Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon everyday. It will always be useful to read articles from other writers and practice something from other websites.

  12. Jack Schaffer

    I was pleased to read your post: Do crows reduce other songbirds? I was researching the question after a crow took up residence in the neighborhood. Last year I installed a 50 gallon Rubbermaid tank filled with water as part of my landscaping. The intent was to provide a watering hole for the birds in the area (Kingman, AZ – high desert). The problem is that the resident crow has begun using it as a place to bring and eat the small birds that it catches. In the last week since the crow’s arrival I have found three freshly eaten, smaller bird corpses floating in the tank or on at its edge. While I haven’t actually seen the crow in the act nothing else as easily accounts for the findings. My initial worry was feral cats in the area but that problem never arose. Unfortunately the crow seems worse.

    Any ideas on how I might resolve the problem short of leaving the tank empty or simply removing it completely?

    • That’s a tough one. Crows moisten their food in water, that’s just what they do. I’ve never come across a good solution once they start using a birdbath other than to clean it regularly (which is already something birdbath owners should be doing). I saw an awesome DIY birdbath using a shallow tray and a sub pump. This may not be as attractive to the crows because the water is so shallow. You could give that a try. Other than that I’m afraid I don’t have a great solution for you! Good luck http://www.homestoriesatoz.com/outdoor/diy-bird-bath.html

    • Andy from Beaverton

      I’ve never seen any of the crows I have befriended ever take another bird, but I keep my crows well fed. The closest thing to an attack was on a squirrel yesterday. The squirrels love walnuts as if they were Gollum’s ring and the crows regularly see about a dozen of the local squirrels taking walnuts directly from my hands. Crows also love walnuts, especially when you open a crack in the shell for them. I think one of the crows wanted that nut really bad and became jealous.
      I’ve only known crows to take weak or sick birds and that’s why they are good to keep around. I’m not sure how efficient they are with a bird kill. If the dead birds are European starlings or Eurasian collared doves, that’s a good thing, since they are both invasive species. My resident Coopers hawks will strip a Eurasian collared dove of all it’s body feathers, eat every everything (including every bone) and carry the wings back to the nest. Maybe you need a security camera to record events at the bath?
      Maybe you could work on feeding the crow only food that he likes and other birds ignore? My resident crows LOVE chicken. Nuts in the shell make for great entertainment. The other food that I give them is a moist dense bagel, rolled up into tight marble size pieces. It’s best for the crow to see you delivering the food. If you toss them food, never toss it directly at them, but in front of them. Over time, you can get a friend for life. My crows know who I am, what bike I ride and what car and truck I might be in. I even have a verbal relationship with several, where their communications have become incredibly complex (clicks, rattles, whining and beak snaps). Sometimes the conversations back and forth can last five to ten minutes.
      I have a shallow birdbath that may be 20″ at the rim and 2″ to 3″ deep. Every bird in the neighborhood uses it including the crows. I even have video of the hawk in the bath that gets out for two juvenile crows, that in turn get out for a squirrel. It is very important as Kaeli says to keep the water clean. When you create the right environment, your yard can be more entertaining than anything on television.

      • I will add that while crows are very adept at taking down smaller birds (I have seen it, it’s kind of amazing), they do not do it regularly. Breeding season is a little different because suburban yards become flush with nests and fledglings that make for easy prey (crow kids included). Might be some other predator but finding it in the water bath makes me think crow too. I think giving Andy’s suggestions a go is a worthwhile endeavor for sure though!

  13. Bridget

    I am happy to have found your very informative and interesting blog. I just wanted to share a crow story. Here in Buffalo, as in any other city, we have the occasional rat co-existing with us in our neighborhoods. Since it is spring, I can count of finding a couple of young rats around the yard, caught and killed by my excellent Feline ratter, named Seamus. The juvenile rats are usually half eaten and pretty unpleasant to dispose of. Imagine my delight when I observed today a number of crows coming down into my back yard and taking away the little gnawed on corpses! Yea! My husband is out of town and he wasn’t here to clean up the yard and maybe the extra day or two, sitting in the elements, created a scent or some other signal which the crows picked up on. In any case, I was happy to see the crows fed and my yard emptied of rats! Thanks again and keep up the excellent work.

  14. Michael Cotta

    Hi Kaeli,

    Not sure if you’ve seen this, but it’s pretty cool!
    http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/my-bionic-pet-video-injured-crow-gets-a-new-acrylic-beak/8772/

  15. Hi Kaeli –

    The beak on one of the crows that comes out for peanuts from me is stuck in an open position. Are corvids susceptible to gapeworm? I’m wondering what the prognosis may be for this individual.

    • Hi Karl, to be honest I had never heard of gapeworm until your comment. I don’t have any experience with wildlife rehab so I’m afraid I’m ignorant of what are probably common diseases for vets or rehabbers. That being said I looked it up and it does look like gapeworm affects corvids. I also imagine it could be caused by wet pox since that’s also a respiratory disease. I would take your inquiry to a rehab facility, however, since they are going to be more experienced with this kind of stuff than me!

      • Thx for the reply! It’s kind of a sad thing to see, but this crow seems to get around and pick up the nuts OK. I did a bit more research and see one site that says the birds may often recover. I’ll keep watching …

  16. Cindy starr

    My interest In crows is overwhelming.
    I work outside in the same neighborhoods and see the same crows everyday. They recognize me and my truck and will come up to a foot of me to let me know they are there to get food. People stare as they go by that the birds are so close and calm. I would love to work with them when I retire.

  17. Jason

    Cool. Ended up here from a NatGeo article. Been feeding crows at UW for a few years now. I wear a strong visual marker to make it easy on them. Makes walking across campus interesting.

  18. Teeka Ferguson

    Hi,

    Just reaching out, looking for direction. Our neighbourhood has beloved, one-legged crow. She has always been strong, but lately when she comes to feed she appears a little off balance, with ruffled feathers. I’m wondering if she is sick… Do you know anyone who could help me to help her? If so, please send me contacts or forward this message on. I would be so appreciative of the opportunity to help this bird continue a long healthy life.

    • Teeka, I’m sorry to hear it appears like your crow is unwell. A situation like this is difficult to find help for because most rehab facilities are stressed this time of year and are challenged to take in animals with esoteric injuries, but you can give it a shot. As a warning; most facilities will put down animals in house if it’s clear they are untreatable. On the other hand, I warn against allowing a self trained rehabber to try and work on her since there are too many ways that can go wrong and end up hurting the bird more. My advice is to let her be and know that if she does die it is so much better that she did so in the presence of her family than with human caretakers. It’s very,very difficult to lose animals we have grown to care for. My condolences for the sadness and stress this is bringing. Best wishes for her recovery.

      • Teeka

        Thank you for your compassionate reply. I would she rather be with her family if she were to die. She’s been bringing her young to our deck to eat– very sweet. Thank you.❤️

  19. Tushar

    Hi, I hav been experiencing few accidents which r not normal I guess, a crow is swooping down over my head, very very close, just to get my attention, after that he sits on near window or building n continue make sounds,it feels like he’s trying to contact me, trying to tell me something. It’s not happening first time, I come once or twice a month to my hometown n whenever I go to terrace or backyard same thing happens, I almost saw him looking at me more than once. No one in d area feed crows so it’s not bout feeding him, also he bears a white mark on his back, I hav observed closely n its d same one every single time, plz can u explain this….

    • How are you so certain no one is feeding them? Have you asked all your neighbors? Their kids? People passing through the area on the way to work or as apart of their daily routine? Alternatively, maybe you just look like some he/she knows. Or…who knows! Crows are complex animals and sometimes they do strange things

  20. Madelyn Brown

    I have been feeding crows for several years now. They come every evening, perched in my trees waiting for peanuts, meal worms etc. Every season they would bring there offspring. This last week while gardening a crow flew into my yard landing on the table where I always have water and where I usually leave food, just not today. He looked sick, rumpled feathers, eyes partially closed. He tried drinking but appeared not to be able to. I went and got some hamburger meat and put it out for him. He picked it up but didn’t eat it. Just kept trying to drink. No other crows with him either. He finally flew away. I assumed this was one of my regular family crows and was very sad. The next day when I came home I found him on my back steps dead. I was heartbroken. I like to think he came seeking help or just to say goodbye. I buried him in my garden.

  21. Andy from Beaverton

    Kaeli,
    Unfortunately, it looks like Avian flu has hit the flock of crows that I feed. I have two adults crows infected, one much worse than the other. I’m not sure if any babies have it. A couple of babies have some underdeveloped neck feathers that don’t appear normal. Besides bleaching my water sources, what else can I do to help protect the flock? I would hate to stop feeding them since I have invested eight years into this group of rural crows and they will now regularly walk up within ten feet of me. Besides calls, they also respond to several hand signals that I make.
    On a separate note, can crows regrow their tail feathers? I had a crow this year missing all the tail feathers. My guess is it got tangled up with a red tail hawk. Also, I have a crow that appears to have a large patch of white feathers within the center of both wings.

  22. Isn’t it West Nile Virus that’s the big risk? dead crow reporting: .
    “Public Health – Seattle and King County tracks the death of crows, ravens and jays as early indicators of West Nile virus. If you find a recently dead, intact bird, report it to Public Health by calling (206) 205-4394 or report it online at the Public Health – Seattle and King County website.”
    https://fortress.wa.gov/doh/eh/portal/ehs/odbrs/

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