When Edgar Allen Poe had to find a bird annoying enough to drive a man insane, the choice was easy: a raven. Corvids—the avian family that includes ravens and crows—are notorious for causing mischief to humans and animals alike. They steal food, knock over trash cans, harass dogs, tailgate raptors, raid nests for eggs, and engage in all kinds of behaviors that have people wondering, “Why are these birds such jerks?”
Kaeli Swift, a corvid researcher and lecturer at the University of Washington, knows all about birds’ devious reputation. Of the behaviors she’s asked about most, her explanation usually boils down to, “they’re smart.”
Corvids are famous for their intelligence. Ravens can use tools to get food (and even use other crafty birds as tools), and plan ahead like apes and small children. Crows have demonstrated the ability to recognize individual human faces and harass people who have harmed them. In the process, both birds might come of looking a little … dickish.
Swift talked us through some of the rude corvid behavior she hears about most often, and explains why it happens.
Mobbing is perhaps the most noticeable of the bullying corvid behaviors. A hawk or owl will be hanging out in a tree, not bothering anyone, when a group of crows will come along and harass it—dive-bombing and screeching—until it’s forced to fly away. Jerks!
Swift says we should cut corvids a break on mobbing, though, given that lots of birds do it. “It’s simply a prey species responding to a predator,” she says. “We just notice it more with crows because they’re big and loud.” Even tiny birds like chickadees, titmice, and wrens are known to hound potential threats on the wing. And while the behavior can be seen all year round, corvids tend to get more wary and protective during the spring-to-summer breeding season.
But what about when crows harass a bird that isn’t a predator, like a fish-eating osprey? In those instances, Swift says the birds may just be responding to a species that fits the general frame of a predator—a “better safe than sorry” approach, she calls it. Mobbing may also serve a social purpose: one corvid showing off to others that it can handle danger.
Crows and ravens have a particular knack for stealing food away from other animals, often just by annoying them. Both groups are omnivorous, so they can adapt their wits to most any scenario involving dinner. For instance, a flock of ravens might swoop in when a pack of wolves is enjoying a fresh kill, even if the hunters aren’t into sharing. Instead of waiting around for the scraps, the birds have learned to sneak up behind feeding wolves and nip them on the tail. The mammal turns and gives chase, leaving the carcass open for other ravens to feast. This sort of parasitism can be a real problem for wolves: Swift says “the theft rate is so high that it actually determines pack size.” Jerks!
Crows and ravens also use their tail-pulling trick on a host of other animals, including domestic dogs. Pets that feed outside often serve as the best targets, like the poor sled dogs Swift first saw victimized in Alaska—but some corvids will pull the tails of dogs just minding their own business. In fact, Swift has observed so many other creatures, from cats to eagles to parakeets, getting goosed by a corvid, she’s started a #PullAllTheTails hashtag on Twitter to put the impish behavior on display in one place.
About half of the diet of an urban crow comes from human trash, Swift says, both in landfills and from the revolting pile at the end of your driveway. Believe it or not, nearly 40 more percent comes from bugs. Eggs make up just a small part of a crow’s meals, but Swift says she hears from an inordinate amount of people concerned with protecting their backyard nests from hungry corvids.
It’s another unfair bit of a corvid’s rotten reputation. “Lots of animals eat eggs,” Swift says, ”everything from deer to bunnies. Because crows are obvious and large, we notice them at nests instead of smaller animals that eat eggs more often, like snakes or squirrels.”
Crows and ravens use their big brains in all sorts of ways to outsmart other creatures to survive. How much longer do they deserve to carry around a badge for being the jerks of the bird world? Quoth the Raven: “nevermore.”