Most of us don’t treat crows very kindly. We attach curse words to their names. Without flinching, we step over their corpses on the sidewalk. Outside of suburbs, we kill them unsentimentally for sport, not for food. We may occasionally be amused by their antics – by playful swoops or human-like tricks – but our amusement often spills over into dread. We fear that their brazenness and intelligence will bully aside more fragile birdlife, will bully aside … even us. We fear empty cities echoing with one forsaken bird call. How has it come to this? And are we justified in our fears of a crow planet?
At one time, crows – and their corvid brethren, ravens – were revered by cultures throughout the world. In the Pacific Northwest, many native tribes attached to these birds deep mythologies. Ravens often represented potent animal-gods of creation and trickery. The Haida tribe, for example, maintains rich legends of the mischievous ways in which Raven created the world. In one legend, Raven makes rivers flow only one direction so as to not make human travel too easy. In another, Raven steals light from a greedy old man to illuminate the world.
Corvid mythology has changed with historical context. In the middle ages, when ravens could be seen scavenging on the fallen bodies of plague victims or soldiers, they were labeled as harbingers of death. Many cultures, from Native Americans to Greeks, have imbued crows with the power to mediate between the worlds of living and dead. But it wasn’t until the industrial revolution, when people concentrated in towns and cities like never before, that corvids became a totemic nuisance.
What changed? Not the crow-human ratio. Experts predict that it has remained fairly constant for thousands of years. University of Washington ornithologist, John Marzluff, estimates that about one crow exists for every five people, or one per human family. Unlike most species on the planet, which have been vastly worse off for human existence, crows are syanthropes, meaning they thrive in association with humans. As human populations have exploded over this earth in the last many hundred years, crow populations have followed us like lurking shadows.
The plasticity of crows allows them to thrive in the disturbed, developed, and littered landscapes where we live, work, and play. They can eat nearly anything: insects, worms, seeds, other bird’s eggs, pizza crusts, cardboard, and human vomit, to name just a fraction of their diet. Marzluff estimates that the urban crow diet consists of about “50 percent garbage.” They also survive because they’re freakishly fast learners and intelligent birds. One example: separate populations have been recorded dropping nuts in front of car wheels and waiting for walk signs to retrieve their meals. They are as adaptable to city living as we are.
Like weeds, crows thrive with us, not despite us. And it’s largely the bird’s weedy nature that makes us uneasy. From the start of the 20th century until now, government departments and individuals have waged war against crows. Even Seattle’s chapter of the Audobon Society, an organization founded to protect birds, took an anti-crow stance. In 1919, the organization’s president, Mary Compton, wrote a letter to the Seattle Times stating, “the crow is one of the greatest menaces against which our game birds have to contend, and the same applies as well to all of our smaller birds.” She pleaded for “sportsmen of Washington” to “begin at once removing the crow from the protected list.” The city paid experienced marksmen to rid city parks of these pests. In 1939-40, the Illinois Department of Conservation documented killing over 300,000 of them. In 1962, Bert Popowski published The Varmint and Crow Hunter’s Bible. Popowski brags of killing 80 to 90 thousand crows by himself. He declares they make excellent target-shooting practice. Many people living today agree, although the act of killing crows is of dubious, even contradictory, legality. On the one hand, crows are protected by federal law under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which forbids the killing of migratory birds. But on the other, the birds are still regularly controlled by federal agents and hunted for sport when other targets aren’t available. As a society, we see too many crows to care about their individual lives.
Today, many people remain concerned that crows are out-competing more fragile local species. The ultimate generalists, crows symbolize a large-scale ecological shift toward robust and adaptable species. Booms in crow and raven populations have coincided with plummets in numbers of species like the California least tern, mountain plovers, and marbled murrelets. A 2003 study by Bill Kristan and Bill Boarman suggests that the common raven serves as a major limiting factor on the population of the Mojave desert tortoise, now a threatened species.
Marzluff concedes that corvids may sometimes have a negative impact on biodiversity, but he also suggests that this impact often gets overstated. In his most recent book, Subirdia, Marzluff unveils heavy amounts of research suggesting that the suburbs – those mixed-development kingdoms of crows – harbor more diversity of bird species than more purely forested or more purely urban areas. “Crows are generally not driving down the numbers of other species,” Marzluff said at a presentation at the University of Washington. “It’s habitat change, primarily, and other human-created things, like windows.” Marzluff is careful to temper the message that suburbs are best for bird diversity. Developed areas, he says, foster “a particular group of species,” so they’re “not wholly good for bird diversity.” Wilder areas foster a different group. To truly preserve bird species, he suggests we need to promote a diversity of landscapes, from multi-purpose suburbs to more monotonous, but people-less landscapes – from woods to tundras to deserts.
To view large-scale shifts in ecology and biodiversity, we need to zoom out. Properly zoomed we see that the “chief weed,” as Rebecca Solnit says, is us. Humans are by far the largest threat to biodiversity on our planet. Crows and ravens serve merely as convenient scapegoats for our transgressions. The swelling populations of these birds says more about us than it does about their own ecological impact. It reflects human values, which determine the shapes of our places of work, play, and living, and which also determine the nature of our relationships to other life forms.
Marzluff suggests many specific ways that we can change our behaviors and our developments to encourage diversity both of crow species and other birds, as well as other kingdoms of organisms. For example, he says, we can let go of our manicured lawns, or as he says, “Don’t covet thy neighbor’s lawn.” Keeping lawns trim, fertilized, and watered uses immense resources, pollutes our backyards and rivers, and annihilates biodiversity. In contrast, planting more native shrubs and trees helps more native bird species survive.
In her wonderful meditation on crows and humanity, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom From the Urban Wildnerness, Lyanda Lynn Haupt observes that, as humans, we have the unique and frightening power to “determine the well being of our more than human communities.” To do this with appropriate grace and humility, she suggests we take a wider view of wildness and wonder than we’re accustomed to. For many of us, crows and ravens serve as our most frequently encountered native wild beings. That we see them everyday shouldn’t diminish their wildness or our appreciation for them. “Crows may not be the bird we deserve,” Lynn Haupt writes, “but they’re the bird we’ve been given.” By overlooking crows, we not only overlook an extraordinary example of wildness next door, but we also overlook ourselves – the ways our values shape the nature of the world we inhabit.
“It is in our everyday lives that we must come to know our essential connection to the wider earth,” Lynn Haupt says, “because it is here, in the activities of our daily lives, that we most surely affect this earth, for good or ill.”
 Crows don’t only caw. We’re just beginning to uncover the complexity of their language. According to a study by Cynthia Sims Parr, American crows have 30 or more distinct building block sounds for communication. John Marzluff says, “Like vocal smoke signals, crows may vary the number, type, rhythm, and repetition of individual calls to convey different meanings.”
 Guess how many birds die each year from smacking into windows? About half a billion to a billion. Death by free-roaming cats? Over four billion.