crab and crow
John Marzluff
A crow on Vashon Island preys upon a crab. Crows are curious scavengers and will investigate and eat a range of food items.

Chances are good that no matter where you live in the U.S., you’re somewhat familiar with crows. Perhaps you’ve seen them perching on a telephone pole, flying overhead, or raiding garbage. You can also likely recognize their caws. But have you ever noticed a crow letting ants crawl all over it, or sprawled out on the ground with its wings and mouth open on a hot day? If you’ve wondered what any of these behaviors are but didn’t know how to identify them, you’re in luck.

There’s now an app for that.

A married duo of University of Washington corvid specialists, John and Colleen Marzluff, in collaboration with children’s author Jonathan Tweet and game developer David Marques, have developed an app called Crow Scientist (Google Play Store, Apple App Store) to help people learn more about these animals. Corvids — the family of birds that includes crows, ravens, jays, and magpies — are master generalists that can survive in a variety of settings, including in urban areas amongst humans. The Crow Scientist app, which is free to download, is geared towards kids but is a viable source of information for anyone who wants to know more about crows in their own neighborhoods.

“We wanted to come up with a way to get people, especially kids, engaged with birds and other local nature, and the app is a great way for them to learn more about crows in a fun, interactive format,” John said.

cros and bear
John Marzluff
A crow perches on a branch near a grizzly bear in British Columbia. Crows are generalists with large ranges that often bring them into contact with other species.

Through Crow Scientist, parents can help their children connect with urban ecology while contributing to crow research. The more citizen scientists who use the app to record crow behaviors and vocalizations, the more John and Colleen learn about what these organisms do and why.

Knowing more about crows can also help prevent people from interfering with them in ways that will provoke the birds or cause them to attack. Awareness and understanding of these animals can help foster appreciation of some of their more interesting behaviors, such as mass nighttime roosting events in places like Bothell.

“Crows are amazingly social creatures, and we hope to make more people aware of why they perform certain behaviors so that we can appreciate what they do in our own backyards,” John stated. “They’re fascinating yet familiar: big, bold, extremely intelligent animals that do things we don’t usually associate with wildlife like storing food for later use, bringing people gifts, and holding funerals. During these funerals, we think they’re learning about danger.”

And there is much more to learn about corvid behavior.

John doesn’t predict that common crow or raven populations will dwindle anytime soon, but does foresee changes to their impacts on other species. Because these animals are able to survive in a variety of habitats, including places of human development, there may be more conflict between people and corvids in urban areas in the future. The US government kills some 10,000 ravens a year in response to these events.

“A better strategy would be to reduce food availability to corvids,” John suggests. “It would be a more sustainable, ethical way to approach the problem and would serve endangered corvid species in the long term.” For instance, Hawaiian crows exist primarily in captivity and are critically endangered.

According to John, knowing more about more common species of corvids, including analyzing the data gathered from Crow Scientist app users, can help him, Colleen, and other researchers understand and protect species under threat. “There has been a great response so far from hundreds of people using the app around the world, and there is absolutely room to do similar work for different species.”

The Marzluffs intend to continue educating people about corvids and addressing conservation concerns surrounding these species, and Colleen is currently working to publish a children’s book.

Download the Crow Science app on the Apple App Store

Download on the Google Play Store