Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Crow Funeral June 12, 2011

[Note: This post contains pictures of a dead bird. I never like when an animal dies, but I do like to use the opportunity to look more closely at the beautiful details an animal otherwise seen from a distance.]

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This morning I awoke early, around 6:30, and just couldn’t go back to sleep. Now, I love sleeping, and usually spend Sundays sleeping until the afternoon, so this is a rare event for me. On impulse, I decided to walk downtown to a coffee shop. I set off, without headphones or music, just enjoying the sleepy streets and early bird songs.

I spent about an hour reading a book and drinking coffee, and then headed home again.  I was intending to make a blog post of different bits I had seen on my walk–a broken robins egg, a painting of the solar system across a sidewalk. As I neared home, however, something much more interesting occurred.

First, I noticed something black near the edge of the path. I couldn’t make out the details of it and assumed it was a piece of tarp or plastic. Of course I just  had to find out for sure, and just as I was making fun of myself for always checking bits of nothing on the ground, I made out the soft edge of a bird’s wing. It turned out what I had thought was plastic was in fact a dead crow.

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(Note: I couldn’t help but be reminded here of the fossil of the earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx. Magnificent!)

(Image by Gareth Dyke)

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I racked my brain trying to remember if it was there when I first passed. I feel sure I would have noticed it, which means it got there somehow in the hour I had been gone. But how? Had an animal dragged it there? Had it just fallen from the sky? Why was it splayed out like that? Rigor mortis? Something else?

It was then that I noticed the sounds coming from the surrounding trees. Other crows.. many of them. They were cawing and cawing. It seemed I could make out the sound of some younger crows punctuated by the low gravel of the adults.

I went back to the dead crow to take a closer look.

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This time as I stepped close one of the crows broke out of the trees, flying over my head and then taking post in a single tree that stood nearby.

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I stood watching for a long time–the crow never stopped cawing at me, as if telling me to mind my own business. I tried to record the other sounds coming from the trees but unfortunately they were too far away to be picked up on my phone.

While it may sound strange, crow “funerals” are actually fairly well documented. There are many accounts of dozens–sometimes hundreds–of crows gathering around a fallen fellow. You can read some of them herehere, and here. This behavior has also been seen in magpies. The question is, why?  Mourning? Reverence? To let everyone know there is a change in the social structure? To eat it as food later? To let everyone know that whatever this crow did was dangerous and they should not repeat its behavior? Maybe they even killed this crow in the first place?

Regardless of what the answer is, it was a really wonderful experience. I never cease to be amazed at the complexity of the animal kingdom, and while I do not know the reason for these crow gatherings for sure, I would certainly not be surprised if the answer involved some attributes that we tend to assume are only human.

Fellow blogger Go Explore Nature told me she and her son also recently saw a crow funeral after a crow died in the front yard of his elementary school. Have any of you readers ever experienced a gathering like this? Under what circumstances? What did you see?

This experience was also a good reminder about all of the exciting things happening in the natural world around me. For a brief moment I thought that maybe the crow funeral was some sort of fate–a reward for the unusual circumstance of getting up and out early. I know, however, that the truth is amazing things are always happening out there all around us! Whether we are there to see them or not is a different matter.

I hope everyone is having a good weekend! As always, I’ll see you out there!

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9 Responses to “Crow Funeral”

  1. Miriam Sagan Says:

    Wow! I love crows–they ate so smart–and often talk to me…

  2. Gwen Says:

    Crows are so fascinating. Nature did a an in-depth special on them and I haven’t looked at them the same since. I wish I had been able to get video of the crows protecting and feedin the grounded fledgling outside my apartment.

  3. Crows are fascinating. Ever since I had a magical encounter as a child with a crow who followed me everywhere for 2 weeks, I have been struck by their beauty and mystery. Thank you so much for writing this wonderful post. You may like my latest post: beauty comes from within: http://www.marghanita.com/nature-is-a-great-teacher/

  4. Here is a video showing caledonian crows using tools. Crows are so smarts…
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8631486.stm

  5. Larry Says:

    In the Los Angeles suburb of Marina Del Rey I witnessed in excess of 50 crows surrounding in trees a dead crow on a lawn. No doubt in my mind or the other the other five passer byes that they were mourning. Stunning, you could hear the flocks anguish. Seems science doesn’t recognize this phenomena yet…… Just watched PBS “nature” an episode called “a murder of crows”, good stuff

  6. Jay Says:

    Much to my surprise I witnessed the same thing with rabbits recently. I was driving through our subdivision in southeast Michigan when I saw a dead rabbit in the middle of the road ahead of me. Two other rabbits were standing over their fallen comrade. The were sitting up on their haunches. One sat with his head cocked quizzically, looking down at the dead bunny. The other looked down at the dead rabbit, then would look around as if wondering what had caused this. Other rabbits (I saw two or three) were hopping toward this little group. They all scattered, of course, as I drew near.

  7. Linda SD Says:

    I believe I heard a mourning crow this morning. We have a grove of big douglas firs outside our bedroom, and there’s a nest there. Every morning (too early, of course), we hear the adult crows sounding like they’re starting affectionate coaching of the babies. There’s almost a purr to their voices. This morning, though, I was awoken before dawn by an unfamiliar sound, but which sounded like that of some kind of owl calling as it flew from tree to tree. Then a lone adult crow hollering. But the sound that followed was the most haunting sound, almost a sobbing. A two-tone somewhat drawn out sound, starting higher and dropping lower. It went on for I’d guess 15 minutes, then stopped. I heard a single crow further away, “talking” away, and then a whole bunch of crows came back to the fir grove and cawed and cawed and cawed, and then they began making that affectionate coaching sound, together. It was terribly moving, though I can’t really know what it meant.

  8. Sue Says:

    I just happened to spot a crow funeral today again. The same thing happened 2 days back. First a few of them gathered around making a whole lot of noise, went to my window and saw that they were trying to pull a dead crow out of a pit..And then with all the caw-ing there were like 30-40 crows all around as if they were paying some sort of tribute to the dead crow. They keep coming back in 2’s and 3’s and pick up the feathers and stash them on someones roof. Very weird !!

  9. kindlej Says:

    When I was in the 7th grade I had to walk a little over 2 miles to school. On occasion I would walk the train tracks home. One day while I was walking the train track home I noticed up ahead of me hundreds of crows on the lines on each side of the train tracks. They weren’t making a sound….hundreds of crows not making a single sound.

    It was creepy and made me nervous. I stopped when I first saw them but did not want to retrace my steps having already walked about a mile on the tracks, so I continued on at a slow pace. Every crows eyes were on me, they looked me directly in the face. About half way through the line up of crows I saw a dead crow on the ground beside the train tracks. I stopped for a moment and looked at it and then looked up at all the crows on the lines around me. I knew immediately that they were there because of that dead crow.

    I know it sounds weird but I felt a change come over the crows as I stood looking at the body. I felt like they wanted me to keep walking and leave them to their….whatever it was. As I walked home that day I came to the conclusion that that must have been there king.

    Today I was looking out the window with my daughter and saw a crow in the yard and I told her the story of “The King of Crows”, she found the story interesting and wanted to look up the behavior of crows, I found some stories, so I thought I would share my experience. I hope my story will help anyone who has had a similar experience know that, yes, these things do happen and, no, you are not crazy.


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