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Humans and technology

How to befriend a crow

I watched a bunch of crows on TikTok and now I'm trying to connect with some local birds.

October 31, 2022
woman petting a crow at a kitchen table
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The crows play hide-and-seek with Nicole Steinke after her older kids head to school. She feeds a family of the birds from her apartment balcony in Alexandria, Virginia, twice daily (usually peanuts, but walnuts and cashews are valued treats). Once there’s no food left, they’ll look for her as she walks around her neighborhood. When one crow finds her, it will call to the others, and they’ll surround her and make a bunch of noise.

This, she notes, can alarm bystanders. “People think that death is coming,” she says. “They’re a bad omen, all that—kind of the same as a black cat.”

They are not omens. One of the crows is named Waffles. They are, however, minor TikTok celebrities thanks to CrowTok, a small but extremely active niche on the social video app that has exploded in popularity over the past two years.

Steinke, who posts as @Tangobird, has been feeding crows on and off since childhood. Right now, she’s the treat-giver for a family of about six, including Waffles; Doc and Dotty; and their baby DocTok, named by Steinke’s 187,000 TikTok followers.

@tangobird

CrowTok isn’t just about birds, though. It also often explores the relationships that corvids—a family of birds including crows, magpies, and ravens—develop with human beings. Creators within the space tell me that many of their most viral videos feature corvids bringing gifts for their human friends. (This, I am told, is a possibility but not a given. Not all crows show their appreciation with gifts.)

“I have followers that follow for the bird noises, for their cats. I have fellow bird people who do wild bird watching. I have people my teenage daughter’s age that like the presents,” Steinke tells me. “Once you get past the stigma, it’s hard not to be interested in them.”

I was personally pulled into CrowTok back in June via algorithmic pestering, after these videos had been appearing on my For You page for months. I began following about a half-dozen crow accounts. I was drawn in by the ways in which the crows seemed to focus on their human friends: visiting their yards, watching them, flying alongside their cars. I began talking to my friends to see if they, too, were potential crow people. The results were promising. One offered to go immediately to the park with me to find some bird friends.

My new semi-obsession made me wonder: Is there a type of person who is particularly inclined to building a relationship with a wild corvid? I remembered that in her 2019 book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell writes about feeding her local corvids Crow and Crowson. The book is about escaping the clutches of the attention economy, and it occurred to me that maybe I wanted to feed crows as a meditative practice.

Echoing this idea, CrowTok creator Christie McManaman tells me, “Crows are incredibly aware of their surroundings and have a way of observing us that I find so comforting.” McManaman feeds a series of crows around Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her account, @crowdsofcrows, has nearly 125,000 followers. Her practice began in 2016, when she spotted a crow waiting daily outside the house of one of her clients. Now, a family of crows has learned to glide low along the road, following closely behind her car as she drives around her neighborhood. The habit, which began as a last-ditch effort to get one last treat from McManaman, has now been reinforced by some intentional training.

@crowdsofcrows

From there I watched more videos, and I went deeper down the crow rabbit hole. Crow behavior, I learned, varies family to family and region to region. As the humans behind CrowTok educate viewers about their relationships with crows, they also document how individual these relationships can be.

There are about 50 species of corvids around the world, and they behave differently from each other. They’re not the only intelligent birds around, but in general, corvids are smart in a way that resonates deeply with humans, because they’re good at some of the things that we are good at, says Kevin McGowan, a Cornell ornithologist who has been studying crows for 35 years.

A 2020 study published in Science found that crows can think about their own thoughts. Crows can recognize individual human faces, associate them with friendliness or danger, and pass that knowledge along to their pals.

“Their social system is the most like Western human civilization of any animal that I know of,” McGowan says. American crows “have a family and a space that they defend, but they also have a neighborhood that they pay attention to.” And crows will interact with larger groups of crows that they don’t know as well, sort of the way how humans will engage with their communities beyond their closest relationships.

But they’re also cautious. “Crows have been paying attention to individual people more than perhaps any other bird,” McGowan adds. At first, this was mostly for their own protection. Historically, particularly on the US East Coast, American-dwelling crows were shot as vermin. Human interest in feeding them is relatively new. 

The crows hated McGowan when he first started studying them in the 1990s, he says, because he was climbing up in the trees to peer into their nests. They learned his face, his car, his routines. “They chased my car down the street, mobbing me,” he says.

After a particularly motivated crow spotted him from far away on Cornell’s campus and flew over to yell at him, he decided something needed to change. “I wanted to make the crows like me,” he says. “And so I decided that I would start tossing peanuts to them”—initially from a distance. Even the birds who knew him were extremely wary of approaching him for food at first. But eventually it worked. “I had a friend who said that the crows must have had some kind of cognitive dissonance, like ‘Oh no, the tree-climbing guy is the peanut guy,’” he says. Now the crows follow his car and stalk his walks, because they know he might have a treat for them. 

When we talked, Steinke was happy to outline for me how I might go about feeding some crows. First, she said, you have to find them. That box was already checked for me: a neighbor had clued me in to a family that lived down the block and frequented the tall trees growing in the alley behind my house. Then, she said, try to get them to approach the feeding location of your choice by leaving some treats. I put out dry cat food.

As weeks passed, I peered out the back door of my townhome onto our roof deck, watching how my possible new friends reacted. They didn’t come. Then it rained for a week. I was irritated that the crows seemed not to care that I had a story deadline.

“They do have preferences in food,” Steinke says. “If you put out a pile of different foods, like a little buffet for the crows, they’re all going to kind of home in on something.” Dotty likes scrambled eggs best. Pretty much every crow Steinke has met will go wild for raw hamburger. Steinke suggested I start to offer peanuts, unsalted—maybe cashews, which would be a delicacy.

The real problem I was encountering, though, may not have been food at all. Crows were recommended to me through an algorithm designed to keep me engaged. And I had made the mistake of deciding to turn my new interest into online content, pressuring myself to fast-track my crow friendships. But, as Odell’s connection to crows suggested, the real keys to befriending them are things that are the opposite of what gets views: patience and routine.

The crows need to learn you’re not a threat, that the food is safe, and that it will be there every day. Crows go viral for bringing their human friends gifts. But the reality of being a friend to corvids reflects a deeper responsibility.

McGowan has been encouraging humans to feed crows for decades. But he cautions that there are ways for this practice to go wrong: “What happens is that people get too into this. And it makes the crows a nuisance.” Leaving out too much food can lead crows to mob your neighborhood constantly. Just as the crows talk to each other, human crow friends need to be aware of how their habits affect their human neighbors.

For her part, Steinke is already preparing for what she knows will happen when she eventually moves away from her apartment.

“I might cry talking about it,” she says. “They will continue to come to the balcony looking for food for years. They might not come as often, but they will always check.” She has a plan for this: other friends in her apartment complex are also trying to befriend the crows now. They’re working out a nearby feeding spot that can be collectively maintained by the building’s crow fan club.

I recently got rid of the dry cat food and bought a platform feeder and a bag of unsalted peanuts. I hope the crows in the tree down the block notice.

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