How to befriend a crow
After Nicole Steinke’s older children go to school, the crows will play hide-and-seek. She feeds her family of birds twice daily from her apartment balcony in Alexandria. They’ll search for her while she walks through her neighborhood until there is no food left. One crow will find her and call the others. They’ll surround her making a lot of noise and making a lot of noise.
This, she says, can alarm others. She says, “People believe that death is imminent.” They are not omens. Waffles is the name of one of the crows. These crows are minor TikTok celebrities, thanks to CrowTok. CrowTok is a niche on the social media app that is extremely active and has seen a huge rise in popularity in the past two years. Steinke posts as @Tangobird. She has been feeding crows 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.
CrowTok isn’t just about birds, though. It often explores the relationships corvids (a family of birds that includes crows and magpies–have with humans. According to creators in the space, many of their most popular videos feature corvids bringing gifts to their human friends. This is possible, but not a guarantee. Some crows do not show appreciation by giving gifts. )
I was personally dragged into CrowTok in June through algorithmic pestering after these videos had been appearing for months on my For You page. I started following around a dozen crow accounts. I was attracted to the way the crows seemed focused on their human friends: visiting their yards and watching them fly alongside their cars. To see if my friends were interested in becoming crow people, I started to talk to them. The results were encouraging. One offered to accompany me to the park to make bird friends.
My new semi-obsession made it clear to me: Is there a special type of person who is more inclined to build a relationship with wild corvids? I remembered that in her 2019 book How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell writes about feeding her local corvids Crow and Crowson. I was reading the book about how to escape the attention economy and thought that maybe I would like to feed crows for meditation.
CrowTok creator Christie McManaman says that CrowTok is a way for people to observe and interact with their environment. McManaman has been feeding crows in 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. A family of crows now glides low on the road, following her car around her neighborhood. This habit, which was originally a desperate attempt to get McManaman one last treat, has been reinforced with some intentional training.
From there I watched more videos, and I went deeper down the crow rabbit hole. Crow behavior, I discovered, varies from one family to another and from one region to the next. CrowTok’s creators educate viewers about their relationships to crows and document the individual nature of these relationships.
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.
McGowan states that their social system is most similar to Western human civilization. McGowan says that American crows have “a family and a place that they defend, but also a neighborhood that is important to them.” This is similar to how humans interact with their communities outside of their closest relationships. But they are also cautious. McGowan says that Crows pay more attention to individuals than any other bird. This was initially done for their protection. American-dwelling crows, especially on the US East Coast were historically considered vermin. Their feeding is a relatively recent interest.
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 knew his face, his car and his routines. He says, “They chased me down the street, robberizing me.”
After a particularly motivated crow saw him from far away at Cornell’s campus, and flew over to shout at him, he decided that something had to change. He says, “I wanted the crows to be like me.” “And so I decided to start tossing peanuts at them”–initially, from a distance. Even birds who knew him were cautious about approaching him for food at first. It worked eventually. He says that a friend of his suggested that the crows had some cognitive dissonance. “Oh no, the tree-climbing man is the peanut guy. Because they know he might have something for them, the crows now follow his car and follow his walks. Steinke was happy for me to explain how I might feed some crows. First, you need to find them, she said. I already had the box checked: a neighbor had referred me to a family who lived down the street and used the tall trees in the alley behind our house. She suggested that you try to get them to the feeding area of your choice by giving them treats. I gave dry cat food.
As the weeks went by, I looked out my townhome’s back door onto our roof deck to see how my potential new friends were reacting. They didn’t show up. It rained for a week. I was annoyed that the crows didn’t seem to notice that I had a deadline.
“They do have preferences in food,” Steinke says. “If you have a lot of food, like a buffet for the birds, they will all be looking for something to eat.” Dotty prefers scrambled eggs. Steinke has seen almost every crow that loves raw hamburger. Steinke suggested that I offer peanuts, unsalted, or cashews to my customers. This would be a special treat.
The real problem I was having was not food. I was recommended crows by an algorithm that kept me interested. I made the mistake of trying to make my new interest into online content and pressure myself to speed-track my crow friendships. Odell’s connection with crows showed that patience and routine are key to making friends with them. The crows must learn that you are not a threat and that food is safe. They also need to be taught that food will always be available. Crows are known for giving gifts to their human friends. However, being a friend of corvids is a deeper responsibility.
McGowan has encouraged humans to feed crows since the 1970s. He warns that this practice can go wrong. “People get too involved in this.” It makes the crows annoying.” Crows can mob your neighborhood if they are starving. Human crow friends should be aware of how their actions affect their human neighbors, just as crows communicate with each other.
Steinke, for her part is already planning for what she knows will occur when she moves out of her apartment.
I might cry about it,” she said. “They will continue to visit the balcony looking for food for many years. Although they might not be as frequent, they will still check the balcony. She has a plan: her friends from her apartment complex are also trying out to make friends with the crows. They are working together to find a feeding spot nearby that can be shared by the building’s Crow Fan Club. I recently got rid the dry cat food and bought an unsalted peanuts bag and a platform feeder. I hope the crows will be able to see the block notice.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.