Kevin McGowan Tells Crow Tales at Penn State on April 4

By dgross March 15, 2018
Kevin McGowan

Kevin McGowan of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, crows are fascinating creatures. Kevin McGowan of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology will give a fascinating presentation about crows at Penn State University campus on April 4. The title of the program is “To Know the Crow: Insights and Stories from Over a Quarter Century of Crow Study.” This presentation will be given on Wednesday, April 4, from 5:00 to 6:00 PM at 112 Forest Resources Building, Pennsylvania University Park campus in State College. McGowan has spent 30 years studying crows in New York state. He will share his insights about crow behavior including their intelligence, home and family life, flock life, creativity, and interactions with humans. Here is your chance “to know the crow” and better appreciate a fascinating creature that lives all around us. There are perhaps no birds in the world that are more interesting and complex that this common bird that lives in your own backyard. This program is free and open to the public.

Kevin McGowan is also known to birders for being the co-editor and author of the excellent reference book, The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in New York State. He is an accomplished and effective educator who serves as project manager of “Distance Learning in Bird Biology” at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. In this role, he was co-creator of Cornell Lab’s very popular and informative “All About Birds” website. As such, he is an excellent communicator about this fascinating and enigmatic common species.

Of the approximately 141 bird species in the family Corvidae, there are about 42 species of big black birds called crows in the world depending on what taxonomic authority you accept. The family Corvidae also includes jays, magpies, treepies, and nutcrackers. We say “approximately” because there have been a few taxonomic changes that are tough to keep up with in bird classifications and the exact number of species in groups is in flux.   In Pennsylvania, there are three species: the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), the Fish Crow (C. ossifragus), and the Common Raven (C. corax). The American Crow is the common “caw, caw” crow that everyone knows. Fish Crows are mostly riparian forest and agricultural area smaller crows that say “car, car” or “uh, oh.” Raven are huge crows, twice the size of an American Crow, that croak loudly and nest mostly on cliffs. Other crows that you might know include the Carrion and Hooded Crows of Europe, the House Crow of India, and the Chough, the Rook and the Jackdaw of Europe. Other members of the crow family found in North America include our common Blue Jay, Steller’s Jay, Gray or Canada Jay, the Florida Scrub-Jay, Green Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, the Black-throated Magpie-Jay, and the Black-billed Magpie. McGowan’s research has focused on the American Crow, which is common and widespread in Pennsylvania but poorly understood despite that everyone sees crows almost every day. Anne Clark of Binghamton University has collaborated with McGowan in the study of American Crows in New York state.

American Crow individually marked for research.

By marking individuals and following these birds through their lives, the secrets of the lives of crows have been discovered by this team of researchers in New York. American Crows have an unusual breeding system that is centered about the family. They have a cooperative breeding system with a pair as the center of the family group and auxiliary birds that assist the pair with protecting the territory and raising the young each year. Not only do crows recognize each other but also can get to recognize individual people (and their cars) who are in their world. Crows have high cognitive abilities and an ability to transfer cultural information from one generation to another. They act like “flying apes’ but even more social than most primates and behaving more like humans than any other kind of bird and most mammals.

Most American Crow pairs in the region are permanent residents so the small flock of crows that you regularly see in your neighborhood are a tight-knit family. However, this is complicated by an influx of American Crows migrating south to this region from eastern Canada and New England. Crows like company and even the local families will join a large roost.

Kevin McGowan also includes a lot of interesting information about crow biology including some myth-busting. For example, he shows that crows are not as guilty of nest robbing as many other wild animals that tend to be overlooked as nest predators. His presentation also will explore the expansion of American Crows in the urban landscape. Crows are actually fairly new to cities and towns with interesting consequences. With the lack of hunting and predators in urban areas, crows can avoid mortality they incur elsewhere. Since they are superb generalists as well as opportunistic and resourceful foragers, crows have adapted well to the human-dominated habitats. This has been a big part of the success and upward trends of crow populations despite challenges such as West Nile Virus and human persecution.

This lecture is sponsored by the Arboretum at Penn State Avian Education Program and the Department of Ecosystem Science and Management. The Penn State Arboretum can be found at the corner of Park Avenue and Bigler Road in University Park on the north side of campus. For more information about the arboretum please see or

Doug Gross

PA Game Commission