‘Caw’-ling Your Attention: New Parents in the City!

Next time you get dive-bombed by a crow, just remember it comes from a place of love.

By Kevin Mack, Animal Control Officer and naturalist.

With the arrival of spring, crows have been busy building nests on their breeding territories. Odds are very good that your neighborhood lies within one or more of these territories and you may have even noticed the local crows collecting twigs as they were working on their annual construction projects. Crows are extremely social birds and mated pairs often have “helper birds” that aid in the construction of the nest and raising of the young. These are typically their own offspring from a prior year.

Once construction of the nest is complete, the female of the breeding pair will typically lay 3-5 eggs which she will then incubate for about 18 days until they hatch. After the eggs hatch, the young crows will spend about 30 days in the nest growing quickly, thanks to a steady stream of food being delivered by both parents and any helper birds that are present. Throughout the nesting phase, crows stay relatively quiet. Their eggs and young are extremely vulnerable in the nest and the adults prefer not to draw any attention to them. Once the young enter the fledgling stage and make their first clumsy forays from the nest however, the adult crows become anything but silent.

At the Seattle Animal Shelter, we can always tell when the crows begin to fledge in Seattle. For us the event is not heralded by the cawing of crows but rather by the ringing of phones. We receive call after call from concerned residents who are being cawed at and dive-bombed by crows who have seemingly lost their senses. Many callers (cawlers?) feel like they are caught in a real life version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and some ask, with complete sincerity, whether or not birds can contract rabies. Fortunately, the crows are neither the villains in a horror movie nor suffering from rabies. They are simply being responsible, hyper-vigilant parents trying to ensure that no harm comes to their babies.

Growing Pains

When fledgling crows first leave the nest they are uncoordinated and inexperienced. They may spend a week or more on the ground making short, clumsy flights as they build up their pectoral muscles and finish growing in their flight feathers. They are roughly the same size as adult birds at this stage, so they are often mistaken for injured adults by people who are unfamiliar with their natural history.

Out of the nest, fledgling crows are conspicuous, naive and extremely vulnerable. Their parents are well aware of this vulnerability and they respond to the slightest hint of danger with an explosion of caws and intimidating dive-bombs. If you are the focus of this frantic defense behavior, it can be unnerving, especially if you don’t understand why it is happening. The crows are not aggressive birds that target you out of spite, they are frantic parents trying desperately to drive off what they perceive as a real threat to the life of their young.

If you find yourself being harried by an upset crow or two, remember that they are simply reacting out of concern for their young just as you would if you felt your child was threatened. As the fledglings mature, the parents will gradually relax, and by midsummer the dive-bombing behavior will subside. In the meantime, keep an eye out for those awkward youngsters in your yard and neighborhood and, if you see them, try to give them space, both for their parents’ peace of mind and for your own.

How Can I Tell If It’s A Fledgling?

Even though they are similar in size, there are several characteristics that distinguish fledgling crows from the adults. First, young crows have a blue iris whereas older birds have a dark brown iris. Second, fledgling crows have fleshy pink protuberances at the base of their beaks known as “gape flanges”. The inside of their beak is also visibly bright pink or red. Older birds lack gape flanges and the inside of their beak is black. Fledglings who are still growing in their flight feathers will also have noticeably shorter tail and wing feathers than adults, although this may not be readily noticeable if you don’t see them sitting next to an adult. The two photos below illustrate the differences in eye color, gape flanges, and tail/wing feather length between fledglings and adults.

Fledgling crow vs adult crow

Fledgling crows look very similar to adults, but it’s easy to spot the difference once you know what to look for.