BOTHELL — It’s turned into more than a must-see murder.
At dusk the sky darkens over the University of Washington Bothell as up to 15,000 pitch-black crows descend on the campus. Swooping and cawing, they come from all directions to roost for the night.
The mammoth mob might seem ominous to a casual onlooker. But it’s roused the curiosity of Bothell educators and students. They’re working to better understand crows and their connection to humans.
Four years ago, as a freshman, Colton Niblack was caught off guard when he first spotted the flying horde gathering overhead in 2012. “I thought it was the apocalypse,” he said.
Like many others, Niblack’s initial surprise turned to intrigue. Now, he’s studying the crows alongside fellow biology students and UW researchers. The clever creatures could give them insight into the evolution of intelligence.
Crows have left their mark on culture too. For centuries, they’ve fascinated people all over the world.
In Bothell, the birds have piqued the interest of educators and students in several areas of study, not just sciences.
Crows are known to recognize and remember people’s faces and share that information. They mate for life and are thought by some to hold funerals for their dead.
Flying in the face of the slur “birdbrain,” some have showed their smarts by making and using tools, a feat few animals have accomplished.
People have even reported getting gifts from the avians. While other birds’ numbers are dwindling, crows have adapted and are thriving alongside humans.
The American crows started coming to roost in the treetops of a restored wetland at UW Bothell about 10 years ago. After spending the day scavenging for food in their usual spots around Seattle, Monroe, Everett and Edmonds, they take safety in numbers as night falls.
“I’ve never seen so many birds in one dang place,” said freshman Gregory Yuen.
As the sun sets, small groups of crows sail through the air above campus. One by one they land, perching on rooftops and along fence posts.
There seems to be a pecking order as some wait longer than others before heading to the roost for the night. At dawn, they rise, making their way back to their feeding spots.
“It’s inspiring” to watch, said Assistant Professor Doug Wacker. “Crows do things that make you think.”
The neurobiologist is taking advantage of the spectacle just outside his classroom. He’s teaching animal behavior, using the 58-acre North Creek Wetlands as lab to research crows.
Wacker enlisted a group of undergraduates to spend much of the 2014-15 school year doing something that would turn up the noses of most college students.
Student biologists tracked trails of white waste through the trees to determine the roost’s boundaries.
“I’d much rather be out in the wetland surrounded by crow poop than behind a computer answering emails,” Wacker said.
Bri McCloskey, one of the students who did the tracking, agrees. The 2015 graduate comes back to campus from Idaho to continue the research when she can.
Students this year are studying crow calls. They want to find out how complex the communication is and what different vocalizations mean.
“Before I got into this, I didn’t think about what crows are talking about,” said senior Arianna Greer, 22. “Now, I want to know.”
She and fellow biology students record crows calls with a parabolic microphone. They have to go out often so the crows get used to them and aren’t reacting to their presence. They then analyze the audio and compare calls, using a computer program that creates a visual representation of the sound.
Students are studying nonverbal crow communications, too.
Senior Bonnie Johnson is documenting it by making detailed sketches that illustrate the birds’ gestures and movements.
“It’s very important to define behavior by what the crow is doing,” the community psychology major said.
Johnson, 20, wants to provide clear images to label the crows’ actions. Most textbooks describe them based on people’s perceptions, which might be inaccurate.
Science students aren’t alone in turning their attention toward the sky.
Ursula Valdez takes her class beyond biology, exploring connections between humans and crows. She describes how they’ve influenced culture, religion, mythology, superstition, literature, movies, art and other traditions around the world.
“They’ve even become part of the culture on campus,” she said as her students took notes while watching the crows come in to roost on a rainy evening in January.
“There’s some crazy things with these crows,” sophomore Aliyanda Harris said. “I think they’re starting to wonder who we are and communicate that to their homies. It’s creepy.”
That’s one of the negative perceptions Valdez is trying to reverse. The biologist busts myths about the often-misunderstood creatures in her class, which attracts students of all majors. By the course’s end, they’re expected to do creative projects to share what they’ve learned with others.
The roost dwindles to a few thousand crows during the summer. But like the students they share the campus with, they’re back in larger numbers come fall.
Wacker has projects for future students in mind. He wants to enlist the help of engineering students to build a “crowbot,” a mechanical model that demonstrates how the bird behaves. Biology students can then manipulate crows during experiments and use it to test theories.
The research Wacker is doing with students builds on the work of University of Washington Professor John Marzluff. The wildlife biologist has spent almost 20 years studying crows. He writes for the Avian Einsteins blog for Psychology Today and is the author three books about crows.
“I certainly didn’t set out to be the crow guy, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
But since they’re around the Seattle campus where he teaches, he could research them with his classes.
Corvids, the family of birds that includes crows and ravens, have long been suspected of having the ability to recognize human faces. Marzluff and his students were the first to formally test that theory 10 years ago.
To be “dangerous,” they wore a rubber caveman mask while trapping and banding several crows on campus. For their “neutral” face, they put on a Dick Cheney mask, an ironic twist on the then-vice president’s reputation.
For months following the trapping, they walked around campus in the masks, not bothering the birds. But the crows didn’t forget.
They’d caw harshly and dive bomb the caveman. Cheney, however, provoked little reaction.
After experimenting on campus, Marzluff and students tried more realistic masks, and employed volunteer observers who were unaware of the effect being tested, at several sites in and around Seattle.
Almost 10 years later, the crows still remember. And they’ve apparently passed the information along to younger birds that weren’t alive during the mask experiment, Marzluff said. The professor’s research suggests crows learn to identify threats and react. Marzluff gets occasional calls from people who claim they’ve never crossed a crow but are getting reactions from angry birds that are embarrassing. Marzluff recommends using food to make amends.
“You have to stick with it and try to get on their good side,” he said.
A few people have reported getting gifts from crows after feeding them. Marzluff investigated a call from a Marysville man who said strange items were showing up on his bird feeder after he left chicken and pizza for crows. The delivery that piqued Marzluff’s interest was a candy heart that said “love” on it.
“They connect with people in a lot of ways,” he said. “I think they have a lot of the same feelings as we do, maybe just not to the same extent.”
Crows evidently bond with each other too. They mate for life and raise their young together. They preen each other and mourn after losing a mate.
He and doctoral student Kaeli Swift are now looking into the phenomenon of so-called crow funerals. Crows gather around dead comrades, diving and making noisy caws. They’re also known to bring things like grass or sticks to the site.
Marzluff and Swift want to see what crows understand about death. Swift drops cheese puffs and peanuts for the crows and watches as they eat. A masked volunteer interrupts the snack, holding a taxidermied crow out like an offering. The bird dive bomb the person with the corpse.
Weeks later, they are provoked by someone wearing the mask. The same experiment with a taxidermied pigeon doesn’t provoke aggression.
Marzluff suspects they pay careful attention to their dead as a way of gauging threats to their safety. The ability to remember those who’ve crossed them and learn from their cronies might give them an evolutionary edge. It’s easier for them to survive because they can recall what they’ve learned, change their behavior accordingly and pass wisdom on to others, Marzluff said.
Crows help people, too. In cities, they provide one of few chances to get close to wildlife.
“In order to value the world beyond humans, you have to foster that connection,” Marzluff said. “Unfortunately not everybody finds them fascinating.”
He wants people to consider crows as carefully as they consider us. That’s why the professor appreciates the work being done in Bothell and is continuing his research by studying crow brain scans.
Learning about how animals think provides important insight into why some creatures are able to successfully adapt to the changing environment while others are going extinct, he said. It could also help researchers better understand the complex human brain.
“It gives us perspective on our own intelligence and our own place in nature,” Marzluff said. “We’re part of this long lineage of the evolution of intelligence.”