The flock of crows that descends on Bothell every evening is a striking site. The more than 10,000 crows in the group, or murder, come from as far as downtown Seattle and Sultan and Gold Bar to spend the night roosting in the safe deciduous vegetation of the University of Washington Bothell campus.
Crows behave like humans in many ways, said John Marzluff, a UW professor who has studied crows and similar birds like magpies and ravens for most of his career.
“They’re very smart animals and very successful,” Marzluff said. “They are, just like us, trying to survive in this environment.”
Some crows eat fast food, scavenging from the garbage bins of KFC. Crows also smoke and drink, Marzluff said — they drink coffee, beer, wine and soda, and they pick up cigarettes, although they don’t actually smoke them. When it’s sunny, crows sunbathe.
Tony Angell, an artist who’s co-written several books about crows with Marzluff, says crows are an appealing subject for his art. He told other anecdotes about crows’ human-like behavior. One crow slid down the snow for fun, using a jar lid like a sled. A crow that grew up with a cat would pull string for the cat to chase.
The title of one of his books, “Gifts of the Crow,” alludes to crows’ abilities. Literally, crows like to leave gifts — such as candy hearts, trinkets, food and keys — for people who feed them.
“Both John [Marzluff] and I conclude that there’s something to this, because reciprocity is an advantage for a species,” Angell said.
The crows’ gifts are also metaphorical, he said. They give us “an opportunity to watch a common bird do amazing things,” such as form a social system, use tools, solve problems and exploit people’s bad habits.
Crows are also capable of recognizing humans’ faces, whether a friendly human who’s fed them or a frightening human who’s captured them, and passing that knowledge on to other crows.
This roosting group — which might seem large, but is small compared to groups in the Midwest with one million birds — has been at UW Bothell for 16 years, Marzluff said.
“Over the years, they shifted from the UW Seattle area at Foster Island to the Kenmore Park and Ride, where there’s the same vegetation, thick vegetation, and now they’ve shifted to UW Bothell,” Marzluff said.
The crows spend their days in the area around I-405 and State Route 522, finding food from fast food garbage cans or worms from people’s lawns. They often gather in Woodinville, especially at Fairwinds Brittany Park, in the afternoon before flying en masse to Bothell.
During this time of year, the group’s numbers are starting to decline because it’s nesting season. Crows are already starting to build nests in warmer areas, like downtown Seattle, and they’ll build nests in Bothell and Woodinville soon.
Some people find the crows fascinating, Marzluff said. A UW website, depts.washington.edu/uwcrows, lets users track crow sightings and includes detailed observations of the crows’ movements and eating habits. On a lighter note, the Facebook page “Bothell Crows” is written from the crows’ point of view.
But not everyone appreciates the crows: “It’s polarizing, and it’s like that all over the country,” Marzluff said. “...People don’t like the noise, they don’t like the poop, they’re afraid of all the diseases.”
The role of crows in spreading diseases is something Marzluff plans to study more. Crows pick up things from sewage plants and agricultural sites, so they could spread diseases that way, Marzluff said. But no one know how many contaminants crows are spreading compared with other methods of transmission, such as runoff.
Crows and humans have been linked since prehistoric times, Angell said, with crows and ravens learning to scavenge from humans.
“They get smarter and smarter as we get more sophisticated,” Angell said. “That co-evolution between both species is what drives both species.”