At the bottom of our garden we have a big tree full of assorted crows: rooks and jackdaws mainly. We love to hear them chattering and squabbling. And we think of them as the guardians of our smaller garden birds as they almost always sound the alarm and chase off unwelcome predators. But not everyone loves the crow family. Why do crows get such a bad rap and is it deserved?
Crows In The UK
The Crow or Corvid Corvidae family worldwide is made up of around 40 species, with eight species breeding in the UK. Crows have been classed as nuisance birds, blamed for destroying crops and predating smaller, endangered songbirds. Reviled and associated with death in folklore. On the other hand, they are some of our most intelligent and long-lived birds, highly sociable birds with fascinating behaviours.
We tend to think of the crow family as big black birds and difficult to tell apart. In reality, each member of the family has distinctive features which make them quite easy to identify.
The Carrion Crow Corvus Corone
The carrion crow or common crow, like most humans, eats dead animals and has been reviled and feared for this behaviour for centuries.
Back in the days when executed criminals were left hanging from the scaffold crows would gather around the corpses and became associated with death. From seeing crows around a dead body to holding them responsible for the death doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination. Which is how a group of crows came to be known as a “murder”.
But though they can be fierce in defence of a nest or territory carrion crows don’t tend to murder anything much. They are not great hunters. Rather they are opportunistic feeders and will also eat invertebrates, seeds berries and eggs.
The crow is an essential part of the ecosystem. Unlike humans, nature plans for the tidy disposal and recycling of everything she produces. The carrion crow plays a key role in this: tidying away corpses which if left to rot could spread disease and infection.
When a crow dies, others have been observed to attend a “funeral” with dozens of birds gathering around the corpse. The assembled crows don’t touch the dead body, rather it’s thought that they are learning about dangers and threats, and they will rarely return to a site where another crow has died.
Physically, the carrion crow is pure black and with a wingspan of around 3 feet, it’s a sizeable bird, though by no means the biggest of the crow family.
The carrion crow is highly intelligent and adaptable and can be found in most parts of mainland Britain other than the Scottish Highlands.
Though crows, in general, are sociable the carrion crow tends to live alone or in breeding pairs. They mate for life and a pair will often defend the same breeding territory year after year.
The Hooded Crow Corvus Cornix
Until quite recently the hooded crow was thought to be the same species as the carrion crow. The two have now been separately classified. Though they sometimes interbreed they are quite different in appearance and behaviour.
A similar size to the carrion crow the hooded crow is easy to identify from its pale grey body with black head and wings and tail.
Hooded crows are more gregarious than their carrion crow cousins and will often feed and roost in flocks.
I’ve never seen one in the flesh as their range in the UK is restricted to North West Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man.
Like all crows, they are intelligent, adaptable and resourceful. In Finland hooded crows have been observed reeling in unattended fishing lines and stealing the catch!
The Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax
With its bright red legs and beak, the chough is easy to identify. It is by far the rarest member of the crow family in the UK.
The chough is the coast dwelling member of the crow family. Though curiously they have no interest in fish or seafood.
Instead, they feed almost exclusively on ground-dwelling invertebrates found in poor, rough soil.
Ideal conditions for choughs are found in the UK’s wild Atlantic coasts, especially in areas where livestock are allowed to lightly graze clifftop pastures, keeping vegetation short and making foraging easy for choughs.
The chough is present in west Wales, western Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is most strongly identified with Cornwall though, In Welsh, the bird is called the “Brân Gernyw” the crow of Cornwall. The chough appears on the Cornish coat of arms, and in legend, it is said to have been present at the death of King Authur, which is where it got its red legs and beak.
Despite its popularity in the country the chough became extinct as a breeding bird in Cornwall in the second half of the 20th century, due to a combination of persecution and changing farming practices.
After nearly 30 years of absence, a pair nested successfully in the Lizard Peninsular in Cornwall in 2002. Since then more than 88 chough chicks have successfully fledged in Cornwall and conservations are working with farmers to encourage chough-friendly land management practices to ensure the future of the Cornish crow in its home county.
The Jackdaw Corvus Monedula
The jackdaw is a relatively small crow, easily identified by the grey sheen of its back, shading to silver on the back of the head, and distinctive white eyes.
They also have the coarse bristly hairs over the nostrils, one of the few features common to all crows, which you can see clearly in this picture.
Highly intelligent and adaptable Jackdaws have learned to thrive in both urban and rural landscapes. They are opportunistic feeders and though the diet is mainly made up of seeds, grains and fruits they will also eat carrion and may steal eggs.
Jackdaws are one of the most sociable of the crow family birds. They roost and feed in noisy, squabbling flocks and may often be joined by rooks or crows.
They form strong, lifelong pair bonds and where a partner of the opposite sex isn’t available both in the wild and in captivity, they may form same-sex pairs or even an occasional menage a trois.
The Rook Corvus frugilegus
Some people think all members of the crow family are very similar, but we’re seeing that each is quite distinct.
The rook is no exception, with iridescent glossy black plumage, a bare white face a fearsome-looking white bill he certainly stands out from the crowd.
And in crowds is how you will usually find rooks. There’s an old saying that crows in a crowd are actually rooks and it’s very true. Although they form monogamous pairs they feed, roost and breed in flocks, preferring tall trees as homes for their rookeries.
Rooks are a successful bird with over a million breeding pairs in the UK. They favour open farmland and parks for feeding and tend to avoid city centres.
Because of their tendency to feed in flocks, they are often blamed for crop destruction and the traditional scarecrow might have been more accurately named a “scare-rook”. Although they do eat grain rooks are generally more interested in invertebrates and might be thanked for pest control as much as blamed for crop destruction.
The Jay Garrulus glandarius
In the crow family, the Jay undoubtedly wins the prize for the prettiest bird on the block. Abandoning the black and grey plumage favoured by other crows the Jay is a riot of colour: sporting blues, browns creams and even pink.
Though they are relatively common across most of the UK you are much less likely to spot a Jay than other members of the crow family. They are a woodland bird and much more timid around humans than other corvids.
Like all corvid species, Jay’s enjoy a varied diet including seeds fruits and other small birds and mammals.
But as a woodland bird Jays favour nuts and especially acorns. They are an important distributor of oak trees, caching up to 5000 acorns each autumn, many of which will be forgotten and have the chance to grow into a new tree.
The Magpie Pica Pica
With its unmistakable black and white colouring, the magpie might be the most recognisable of all the British crows.
Like many of the crows, humans have a love-hate relationship with magpies and the birds are the subject of much superstition.
Before the 19th-century farmers loved the magpie for its ability to control rodents and other pests. Then in the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were heavily persecuted by gamekeepers because of their tendency to prey on game bird chicks and eggs.
Although it is still legal to trap magpies under certain circumstances persecution decreased greatly in the second half of the 20th century to the point where magpie numbers in the UK quadrupled, at just the time when many small bird species were in drastic decline.
Although they are omnivorous eating invertebrates, seeds and fruit and carrion magpies will eat the chicks and eggs of other birds in the springtime.
This has led to speculation as to whether the now successful magpies could be to blame for the decline in our songbird population.
The RSPB commissioned research by the British Trust for Ornithology which showed no link between magpies and declining songbird populations. Magpies are not to blame for the decine in our songbird population.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the study concluded that it was loss of food and habitat that was to blame for population decline, rather than wholly natural predation from another bird species.
The Raven Corvus Corax
The Raven, corvus corax is a positively huge bird, the biggest of genus Corvus and nearly double the size of a carrion crow with a wingspan of up to 5 feet.
Though ravens are most common in the west of the country our most famous group still resides at the Tower of London. No one knows when ravens first took up residence there, but legend has it that if there are not at least six ravens at the Tower at all times the country will perish. Today we have seven, the regulation six plus a spare.
Ravens feature in myth and legend around the world, most often as harbingers of doom and death. A group of ravens is even called an unkindness.
But this seems to be a completely unwarranted description. True ravens are great hunters and fierce in defence of their territories. But they are also one of the very few animals who have been shown to exhibit that most human of characteristics: empathy, tuning in to the emotions of other birds.
Evidence of the raven’s intelligence doesn’t stop there. They are known as superb mimics, often outstripping parrots in their ability to imitate human voices and other sounds. But they have also been shown to practice non-verbal communication, using their beaks and claws to make gestures to other birds. This is another trait thought to require a very high level of intelligence.
Ravens live for 10 to 15 years in the wild (ravens at the Tower have lived to over 40). Before they pair up for life in breeding couples gangs of “unmarried” teenagers roam around together, often in the company of other teenage crows, and have been observed in behaviour that looks very much like play.
How could you not love a bird like this?
Thanks For Reading
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about the crow family as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about them.
Taking a closer look at these birds really does show that you should never judge a book by its cover. They may not be the prettiest birds on the block, but once you know the crows better there’s a lot to love!
Do you have crow stories or questions? We would love to hear them. Leave us a comment below.