A Time For Crow-mance

By Doug Pifer

March is the month when crows “fly funny.”

I’ve had a fascination for crows since high-school days when I kept one as a pet. Part of this fascination, I guess, is because crows act so much like people—smart, social, and resourceful. Every time I watch a crow I learn something.

My wife and I are both experienced birdwatchers, and while we seldom go out just to watch birds anymore, we keep an eye out for them while working outside or driving in the car. And every year in March one of us says, “What’s that? Oh, it’s just a crow.”

Male and female crows look pretty much alike, but males in March look comparatively bigger. Their movements and wing beats become slower and more exaggerated, to the point where they resemble other species. They sometimes soar like hawks, or set their wings slightly upwards and glide like vultures.

In a small gathering of crows in late winter, one or two males will compete with each other to impress a female by stunt flying. They suddenly take off in crazy zigzags, twisting and turning, swooping and diving, occasionally making low growling noises.

I first saw a crow “strut” one March day when a wild crow swooped down into my parents’ yard and landed directly in front of my pet crow. The wild crow opened up his wings and tail to make himself look bigger, and then dipped his head until his bill touched the ground in front of him. My pet seemed oblivious, so the wild bird repeated his performance and then flew away.

This was my first clue that my bird might be a female, and that this was her first suitor.

I’ve watched crows display in the wild many times since then, usually among a gathering of crows at the tail end of winter. While displaying, a crow often makes a rattling yell that’s louder and very different from other crow sounds. The performer also makes a series of un-crow like cooing calls in rhythm with his nodding head.

Now is also the best time to see a pair of crows perched close together on the same branch. One of them will lower its head to allow the other to run its bill through its head and neck feathers. Ornithologists call this mutual preening or allopreening, a pair-bonding behavior seen in many different kinds of birds.

My pet crow used to sidle up to me on a low branch of a tree or other perch and lower her head while I ruffled her neck feathers with one finger. Or she would sometimes reach up very carefully and pick a few strands of my hair or eyebrows and run them gently through her bill. Once she even “preened” my eyelashes! While doing this, my crow made a very soft, high pitched warbling or purring sound.

No doubt these same sounds are exchanged between crows in the wild—the corvine version of “whispering sweet nothings.”