For the Birds Radio Program: Noisy Baby Crows

Original Air Date: June 2, 1997

This is a banner year for baby crows. How do they negotiate the challenges of life in the north land?

Duration: 3′45″


This has been a banner year for baby crows. It seems like everywhere I go I see or hear them. They’re at that brief but awkward age of innocence where they don’t understand all the dangers of their world—I have to drive slowly and carefully through Lakeside early in the morning to avoid squashing them. Crows are almost full sized when they leave the nest, and quickly achieve the size and proportions of adults, though their blue eyes, red mouth linings, nasal baby voices, and sheer stupidity will betray their youth for weeks more.

A family of crows lives in my yard, and so I have a built-in alarm clock that relentlessly rouses me sometime between 4:30 and 5 every day, with no merciful snooze alarm allowing me a nine­ minute reprieve before the next jarring caws. Baby crows build up a powerful appetite overnight, and demand food and attention the moment they awaken. Adult crows often have a cranky, irritable quality to their caws, while baby crows sound just plain whiny.

Crows are a lot like humans, adults totally enamored of their new little nestlings and patiently attending to their every need, at least for a while. But little by little, as the babies fledge and grow bigger and more competent and evolve into adolescents, the adults occasionally begin to lose patience with them, and start taking their time rather than jumping the instant the babies want something. Some birds, from tiny songbirds to ducks and hawks, apparently forget their family members from year to year–perhaps a merciful lapse of memory that keeps them from noticing how many loved ones don’t return each year. But crows do recognize and remember family and friends, and are highly suspicious of strangers. If a familiar crow is injured, its family and friends seem to rally around it, encouraging and sometimes even feeding it. But an unfamiliar crow is fair game to be ridiculed and taunted, and if it has a physical injury or deformity, resident crows may even attack it, just like xenophobic humans.

Also like humans, crows have a wide variety of vocalizations. Hard as it may be to believe, crows are true songbirds, with the same complex muscles that produce ethereal songs in thrushes and wrens. What they lack in quality, crows make up for in sheer quantity of vocalizations, making hundreds of different sounds, and people can’t even begin to translate them. We know that some sounds are associated with mobbing predators, others with courtship, others with begging for food, and they even have some calls specifically associated with greeting one another, but we are nowhere close to understanding all the calls well enough to be able to translate them with corresponding human words. Perhaps their experiences of life are so utterly different from our own that there simply are no human words that can express a crow’s thoughts. Or perhaps someday someone will be able to write a dictionary clearly and simply translating their vocalizations. Meanwhile, at four thirty a.m. I’ll do my best to think about translations of crow vocalizations rather than the naughty thoughts about what I’d like to do to birds when they won’t let me sleep.