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American Crow

Corvus brachyrhynchos ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CORVIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

American Crows are familiar over much of the continent: large, intelligent, all-black birds with hoarse, cawing voices. They are common sights in treetops, fields, and roadsides, and in habitats ranging from open woods and empty beaches to town centers. They usually feed on the ground and eat almost anything – typically earthworms, insects and other small animals, seeds, and fruit but also garbage, carrion, and chicks they rob from nests. Their flight style is unique, a patient, methodical flapping that is rarely broken up with glides.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
15.7–20.9 in
40–53 cm
Wingspan
33.5–39.4 in
85–100 cm
Weight
11.1–21.9 oz
316–620 g
Relative Size
Nearly twice the size of a Blue Jay; about two-thirds the size of a Common Raven
Other Names
  • Corneille d'Amérique (French)
  • Cuervo americano (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • American Crows congregate in large numbers in winter to sleep in communal roosts. These roosts can be of a few hundred up to two million crows. Some roosts have been forming in the same general area for well over 100 years. In the last few decades some of these roosts have moved into urban areas where the noise and mess cause conflicts with people.
  • Young American Crows do not breed until they are at least two years old, and most do not breed until they are four or more. In most populations the young help their parents raise young for a few years. Families may include up to 15 individuals and contain young from five different years.
  • In some areas, the American Crow has a double life. It maintains a territory year round in which the entire extended family lives and forages together. But during much of the year, individual crows leave the home territory to join large flocks at dumps and agricultural fields, and to sleep in large roosts in winter. Family members go together to the flocks, but do not stay together in the crowd. A crow may spend part of the day at home with its family in town and the rest with a flock feeding on waste grain out in the country.
  • Despite its tendency to eat roadkill, the American Crow is not specialized to be a scavenger, and carrion is only a very small part of its diet. Though their bills are large, crows can’t break through the skin of even a gray squirrel. They must wait for something else to open a carcass or for the carcass to decompose and become tender enough to eat.
  • Crows are crafty foragers that sometimes follow adult birds to find where their nests are hidden. They sometimes steal food from other animals. A group of crows was seen distracting a river otter to steal its fish, and another group followed Common Mergansers to catch minnows the ducks were chasing into the shallows. They also sometimes follow songbirds as they arrive from a long migration flight and capture the exhausted birds. Crows also catch fish, eat from outdoor dog dishes, and take fruit from trees.
  • Crows sometimes make and use tools. Examples include a captive crow using a cup to carry water over to a bowl of dry mash; shaping a piece of wood and then sticking it into a hole in a fence post in search of food; and breaking off pieces of pine cone to drop on tree climbers near a nest.
  • The oldest recorded wild American Crow was 16 years old. A captive crow that died in New York lived to be 59 years old.

Habitat


Open Woodland

American Crows are highly adaptable and will live in any open place that offers a few trees to perch in and a reliable source of food. Regularly uses both natural and human created habitats, including farmland, pasture, landfills, city parks, golf courses, cemeteries, yards, vacant lots, highway turnarounds, feedlots, and the shores of rivers, streams, and marshes. Crows tend to avoid unbroken expanses of forest, but do show up at forest campgrounds and travel into forests along roads and rivers. Avoids deserts.

Food


Omnivore

American Crows eat a vast array of foods, including grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, berries, and many kinds of small animals such as earthworms and mice. They eat many insects, including some crop pests, and also eat aquatic animals such as fish, young turtles, crayfish, mussels, and clams. A frequent nest predator, the American Crow eats the eggs and nestlings of many species including sparrows, robins, jays, terns, loons, and eiders. Also eats carrion and garbage.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–9 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
1.4–1.9 in
3.6–4.7 cm
Egg Width
1–1.2 in
2.6–3.1 cm
Incubation Period
16–18 days
Nestling Period
20–40 days
Egg Description
Pale bluish-green to olive green with blotches of brown and gray toward the large end.
Condition at Hatching
Naked except for sparse tufts of grayish down, eyes closed, clumsy.
Nest Description

Both members of a breeding pair help build the nest. Young birds from the previous year sometimes help as well. The nest is made largely of medium-sized twigs with an inner cup lined with pine needles, weeds, soft bark, or animal hair. Nest size is quite variable, typically 6-19 inches across, with an inner cup about 6-14 inches across and 4-15 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Tree

Crows typically hide their nests in a crotch near the trunk of a tree or on a horizontal branch, generally towards the top third or quarter of the tree. They prefer to nest in evergreens, but will nest in deciduous trees when evergreens are less available.

American Crow Nest Image 1
© Kevin J. McGowan

American Crow Nest Image 2
© Kevin J. McGowan

Behavior


Ground Forager

American Crows are highly social birds, more often seen in groups than alone. In addition to roosting and foraging in numbers, crows often stay together in year-round family groups that consist of the breeding pair and offspring from the past two years. The whole family cooperates to raise young. Winter roosts of American Crows sometimes number in the hundreds of thousands. Often admired for their intelligence, American Crows can work together, devise solutions to problems, and recognize unusual sources of food. Some people regard this resourcefulness and sociality as an annoyance when it leads to large flocks around dumpsters, landfills, and roosting sites; others are fascinated by it. American Crows work together to harass or drive off predators, a behavior known as mobbing.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

American Crows are numerous and their populations slightly increased from 1966-2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, although West Nile Virus has been responsible for a recent decline. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 27 million, with 88 percent spending part of the year in the U.S. and 37 percent in Canada. They rate a 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and they are not on the 2012 Watch List. The American Crow is extremely susceptible to West Nile virus, which was introduced into North America in 1999. Virtually all crows that contract West Nile die within one week, and few seem able to survive. No other North American bird has died at the same rate from the disease, and the loss of crows in some areas has been severe.

Credits

Range Map Help

American Crow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short-distance migrant or resident. Most of the crows that breed in Canada winter in the United States, and no crows regularly winter in Mexico.

Backyard Tips

Crows don’t regularly visit feeders, but you can attract them to your backyard if you offer a mix of trees, open space, and food. Peanuts left in an open place are a good attractant. Crows are also attracted by compost, garbage, or pet food that the birds can feed on.

Find This Bird

American Crows are fairly common and conspicuous throughout most of the lower 48 states outside the southwestern deserts. You can find American Crows by looking around open areas near patches of woods, or in human modified landscapes like city parks, garbage dumps, campgrounds, manicured lawns, athletic fields, cemeteries and parking lots. Listen for their loud cawing.

Get Involved

You can help scientists learn more about this species by participating in the Celebrate Urban Birds! project.

Report your sightings of crows to eBird. Continentwide data are useful in understanding seasonal changes in the distribution and numbers of crows, as well as impacts from West Nile virus.

You Might Also Like

The crow research page of Dr. Kevin McGowan, a biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Up Close with Crows: An interview with Kevin McGowan

Caller ID for Crows: Sound analysis shows subtle differences in the alarm calls of individual crows

Keeping Company: Crows, sociable and intelligent, are the focus of several studies at the Lab

West Nile Virus Disrupts the Family Lives of Crows: A deadly disease alters crows’ complex societies.

American Crow: Consummate opportunist (Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center)

Counting Crows: Story in BirdScope

Inbreeding in the American Crow: Story in BirdScope

Watching Your Neighborhood Crows: Story in BirdScope

All About Birds Blog, To Know the Crow: Insights and Stories From a Quarter-Century of Crow Study [Video], April 2014.