Depending on where you live, there’s a good chance that you see a crow nearly every day. Fortunately, they’re one of the most fascinating birds on the planet. Corvids, the bird family that includes ravens, crows, and magpies, are incredibly intelligent — and it seems like every time we learn something new about them, it raises even more interesting questions.
Do crows really recognize human friends? Why do thousands of birds swarm certain neighborhoods? And what’s up with crow funerals? Read on for the answers to these and other questions about one of the most intriguing birds around.
Crows Recognize Faces — and Keep Both Friendships and Generations-Long Grudges
Have crows ever acted weird around you? It’s possible they remember your face, and that could be a good thing — or a very bad thing.
In 2008, a University of Washington research team led by John M. Marzluff published a study on crow behavior, risking their very eyeballs to do so. Wearing what they called “dangerous” masks (made of rubber and meant to resemble cavemen), the researchers captured and banded a group of crows — something the birds didn’t like too much.
While the crows acted normally to maskless or differently-masked researchers, the crows would scold (with loud, harsh calls) anyone wearing the dangerous mask, even when it was worn upside-down. As time went on and word spread among the flock, more and more crows would join in with the behavior. Over the course of several years, researchers walked around the UW campus wearing the bad mask, and, to this day, still get scolded and dive-bombed by birds more than a decade later, even though the crows from the study have likely died. Research has shown that the crows reacted to these threats and stored them in their memories in bird versions of the amygdala, a process much like that of humans.
This research confirmed what crow pros had always suspected: That crows don’t just recognize humans, but have deeply held opinions about individual people. Kevin McGowan, a researcher at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, says that crows he has captured and banded are often still mad at him, while birds that have gotten many snacks from him follow him around. Plenty of non-scientists have shared the stories of their own corvid friendships, too, both in modern times and throughout history.
Crows Have Excellent Collaborative Communication Skills
As evidenced by the growing number of vengeful birds in the mask experiment, crows have excellent communication skills — and can go into far greater detail than just “this is bad.”
In the 1980s, researcher Lawrence Kilham studied a group of crows living on a ranch in Florida. (The technical term for a group of crows is a “murder,” by the way.) In one of his observations, five crows were helping a mother crow build a nest by bringing her sticks. After an excessive, messy pile of sticks accumulated, the mama crow was able to communicate that the deliveries were no longer helpful. She spent the next two weeks finishing up the nest with materials from the pile.
After decades of crow study, Cornell’s Kevin McGowan has even learned to understand some of what they’re saying through the timing, spacing, timbre, and energy of their calls — at least, some of the simpler stuff, such as “a hawk is approaching,” “the hawk is getting closer,” or “help me harass this owl.” He says that music is a better comparison than spoken word.
Crows Have Funerals (Kind Of)
There are many ways you can make enemies with a crow, but one of the quickest is to be seen with a dead one. When faced with a dead member of their own species, many wild animals will avoid the area. Crows, on the other hand, will mob the body in large, loud gatherings — then silently depart.
While crows do have tight social bonds, the funerals may be more about information-sharing. What happened here? How can we avoid danger? Who are we ganging up on over this?
In 2015, University of Washington researchers found that when crows see a human in the proximity of a dead crow just once, they can continue associating that person with the death for up to six weeks. Humans, however, are not public enemy number No. 1. When researchers presented a hawk near a taxidermied crow, the mobbing intensified.
They also found that, while threat assessment is a key part of these gatherings, crows don’t do the same thing for just any species of dead bird — this ritual is reserved for their own.
Crows Might Be as Smart as Great Apes
Clearly, crows are very intelligent, but just how smart are they? In addition to their dynamite communication, threat assessment, and memory skills, crows demonstrate self-awareness, capacity for learning, and problem-solving abilities that may approach those of great apes.
New Caledonian crows — who live on the islands of New Caledonia in the South Pacific — are especially well-known for being adept with tools. In one experiment, a crow figured out how to use water displacement to get access to food. In another, the same species of crow fashioned a hook out of a piece of wire to dig out a treat — and in yet another, they used a small stick to push a long stick into the right position for reaching food.
In 2018, University of Auckland researchers decided to see if crows could remember templates and replicate them. First, the researchers fashioned a small, snack-dispensing mock vending machine that accepted a specific size of paper. The crows, presented with pre-cut paper, would learn which one operated the machine. Later, presented with one larger sheet of cardstock, the crows would tear the paper to roughly the same size from scratch.
Caledonian or not, crows have a sophisticated understanding of cause and effect. BBC Earth observed one crow in Japan who learned to open nuts by dropping them into traffic. When he discovered it was difficult to retrieve them, he started dropping them at pedestrian crossings so he could harvest the insides without getting run over.
Crows Have Close-Knit Family Relationships
American and Northwestern crows are known for close family bonds. Pairs of birds mate for life, and older crow offspring will pitch in raising the younger ones. During the egg incubation period, the mama crow has food delivered a few times an hour by her mate and other family helpers. Cornell researcher Kevin McGowan has witnessed crow families of up to 15 birds at one time.
It gets sweeter: At hatching time, other crows start visiting just out of curiosity about the new baby. Researcher Lawrence Kilham observed mother crows greeting these visitors by moving slightly to the side to give them a peek. In crow families, adults can stick around their parents’ territory for a while, sometimes for several years. Even once they do move out, they may come back every so often, sometimes to help with nest-building.
While mating and hatching season are both big deals in crow family life, learning-to-fly season is up there, too. Many young birds of other species don’t see their parents again after getting pushed out of the nest for the first time, but crows keep a close eye on their juveniles while they’re running around on the ground — and occasionally, an unsuspecting human will get a little too close and get dive-bombed.
Tens of Thousands of Crows Roost Together
Crows have large families, but, in the fall and winter, they have even bigger roosting communities. This is why on chilly afternoons, you may see thousands of crows swarming around one place. Smaller groups of crows come to these giant roosts from miles around. Roosts even host international guests; some crows from Canadian forests will winter in Seattle for the warmer city environment. More than 15,000 crows sometimes roost in downtown Portland alone, and 16,000 crows roost on the University of Washington, Bothell, campus near Seattle. In the Fort Cobb area of Oklahoma, the roost population exceeded 2 million in 1970.
Crows Love to Play
Crows and other corvids are incredibly playful. They’ve been caught on camera sledding down snowy roofs using plastic lids and playing fetch with dogs. Sometimes they provoke a fight between two cats, becoming enthusiastic spectators when the violence starts. A crow once locked a science writer in a cage. A pair of magpies, also in the crow family, repeatedly pranked a zookeeper’s flock of chickens. Corvids also hide objects that are unrelated to food.
Researchers have documented several kinds of play, or activity without a clear goal, in crows, from doing cool flight tricks to spending extra time in the water. Researchers are still exploring why — some of it could be for learning or just good old-fashioned stress relief.
Crows Might Live for Up to 60 Years
A crow named Tata was allegedly 59 years old when he died at his home in Bearsville, New York, in 2006. While his age is nearly impossible to verify, ornithologists haven’t exactly cast doubt on it; the Cornell Ornithology Lab cites him as the longest-lived crow. Tata’s longevity comes from being a pet, since crows in captivity aren’t exposed to the same dangers as a crow in the wild would.Edgar, a crow in captivity at the Saginaw Children's Zoo in Saginaw, Michigan, died in 2020 at about age 26. The oldest observed crow in the wild was 17 years and 5 months old.
One thing’s for sure: U.S. Presidents are the stuff of legends. However, just because personal tales about the leaders are passed down from generation to generation doesn't mean the stories are rooted in truth. In fact, many of the stories are so outlandish that it’s amazing people believed them in the first place.
From flammable teeth to ridiculous bathtub debacles, we take a look at the eight of the oddest presidential myths out there — and set the record straight.
Myth: George Washington Had Wooden Teeth
Cherry tree aside, one of the most chewable facts is that the nation’s first President had a mouth full of wooden teeth. While it seems like an odd story to be linked to the founding father, a deeper dig gets to the root of the issue. Washington did indeed have terrible teeth, so much so that he had multiple dentures made. Those mouthpieces were made out of ivory, gold, lead, and even human teeth, but never any wood. Wood was not used by dentists at the time, because not only could wooden dentures cause splinters, but wood is also susceptible to expanding and contracting due to moisture — not ideal for something that lives in your mouth.
Myth: Thomas Jefferson Signed the Constitution
It seems incomprehensible that a big-name founding father like Thomas Jefferson missed out on signing the U.S. Constitution, but he never inked the deal. He was actually absent during the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787, as he was across the Atlantic Ocean in Paris, France, as the U.S.’s envoy.
Myth: Abraham Lincoln Wrote the Gettysburg Address on an Envelope
There’s no doubt that the 16th President was a brilliant orator. But the idea that he haphazardly scribbled one of the most important speeches in American history on the back of an envelope during a train ride sounds a little far-fetched. In reality, Abraham Lincoln toiled away at different versions of the Gettysburg Address, which he gave on November 19, 1863. Not just that, it was anything but a solo project. He collaborated with several associates on it — and there are even five original copies of the speech, not one of them on an envelope.
Myth: William Howard Taft Got Stuck in a Bathtub
One of the stranger presidential myths might be chalked up to potty humor. Somehow, 27th President William Howard Taft became associated with an embarrassing incident around getting stuck in a bathtub. While it’s true that he was larger in stature, weighing in at 350 pounds, he never had to be rescued from a tub.
That said, there is a reason he’s associated with baths. During his presidency, a super-sized porcelain tub that was 7 feet long, 41 inches wide, and a ton in weight was installed in the White House. It was so massive that four grown men could fit inside. In another bath incident after his presidency, he filled a tub at a hotel in Cape May, New Jersey, a little too high and when he stepped into it, it overflowed to the point that the guests in the dining room below got a bit of a shower.
Myth: The Teddy Bear Got Its Name After Theodore Roosevelt Saved a Real Bear
Theodore Roosevelt had long been a hunter, but didn’t exactly show off his best skills on a bear hunt in November 1902. Everyone else in the group had had a fruitful hunt, so to help Roosevelt, the guide tracked a 235-pound bear to a watering hole, clubbed it, and tied it to a tree so the President could claim it. As the story goes, Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear.
The incident made its way to the Washington Post, which published a satirical cartoon about the President sparing the bear. New York City store owners Morris and Rose Mitchom saw the cartoon, were inspired by the President's act of heroism, and created stuffed animals in his honor, appropriately naming them “Teddy’s bear.”
The problem? Roosevelt didn’t shoot the bear, but he didn’t save it either. He saw that it had been mauled by dogs so savagely already that he asked for the bear to be killed with a hunting knife. Given the dark nature of this true tale, it makes sense that the details are often ignored when talking about this beloved childhood toy.
Myth: John F. Kennedy Won the Election Because of the TV Debates Against Richard Nixon
The televised broadcast of a 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon is often said to have clinched the victory for JFK, who many found to be more photogenic and charismatic. But when you truly look at the election numbers, it didn’t really have that big of an effect on the results. The candidates were pretty much neck-and-neck throughout the campaign, even appearing to be tied in the polls before and after the four debates. Kennedy seemed to have a slight boost after the first one on September 26, but then Nixon hit it out of the park on the others, especially with his foreign policy take during the final one. In the end, Kennedy won the election by a mere 119,000 votes.
Kennedy and Nixon’s September 1960 debate is often credited as the first televised presidential debate, but that is also a myth. In 1956, a televised debate aired during the run-off between Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. However, neither of them attended, and sent surrogates in their place. Eisenhower sent Maine senior senator Margaret Chase Smith, while Democrats went with Eleanor Roosevelt, and it aired on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Myth: Zachary Taylor Was Poisoned
Just over a year and four months into his term, 12th President Zachary Taylor fell ill and died while in office. For years, many thought that he may have been the first President to be assassinated, since it was rumored that he was poisoned. Despite his death in July 1850, it wasn’t until 1991 that Kentucky scientists definitively concluded there was no arsenic in his blood. Another story, that he died of eating cherries in iced milk, unfortunately may have more truth to it. After leaving the Washington Monument dedication in 1850, he had that combo as a snack and likely came down with severe gastroenteritis — an inflammation of the digestive system — dying five days later.
Myth: Gerald Ford Was a Total Klutz
Throughout Gerald Ford’s presidency, many joked that his Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller, was only a banana peel away from the presidency, since the 38th President was so often caught being clumsy. He tumbled down ski slopes, slipped in the rain, and fell coming out of Air Force One, so much so that he was spoofed by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. But in actuality, Ford was quite an athlete in his younger days. He was a football star at the University of Michigan, where he earned his letter for three years. He even tackled future Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwander in 1934. During his White House years, he also swam and skied regularly, and played tennis and golf, so perhaps all that falling was just to add to his relatability.