Opening the Twitter app on literally any weekday morning can cause the same gut-churning combo of curiosity and dread as getting an email with the subject line “Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd:” or double-clicking a Nextdoor post with over 100 comments. But on Monday, Twitter was saved by a writer in Canada, who shared an oddly specific warning that was emailed to every student at Nova Scotia’s Acadia University.
“The department of safety and security at my girlfriend’s school just sent all an email telling students not to make eye contact with crows,” Gabrielle Drolet wrote and, wow, she was not kidding.
In the email, Acadia officials warned that they had “received reports” of crows that were behaving aggressively toward humans, and it suggested what people could do to keep from antagonizing the on-campus corvids. “If at all possible, try to refrain from walking on campus with open food,” the school recommended. “Avoid wearing shiny objects, carry an umbrella or wear a hat and, if possible, make eye contact with the crow.” (Drolet confirmed to VICE that the school was actually encouraging people to lock eyes with the birds.)
Acadia’s other suggestions for minimizing crow-on-human conflict included “waving your hand” at a swooping crow, frequently changing the routes that people walked around campus, and reporting any aggressive crows to the Safety and Security Department. They also wrote that “crows have excellent memories,” which is the kind of fun fact that also manages to sound like a threat.
Drolet told VICE that she and her girlfriend had, so far, managed to avoid the crows that warranted that mass email. “Because it’s summer we haven’t spent much time on campus, so neither of us have experienced the wrath of the crows just yet, but I will say that [the town where we live] is filled with crows,” she said. “An unreal amount.”
But what makes crows choose violence? And should you actually make eye contact with a large bird that may or may not be memorizing everything about you? To answer those questions, we reached out to Kaeli Swift, a postdoctoral scholar in the Quantitative Ecology Lab at the University of Washington, who has studied crows and their behaviors for over a decade.
VICE: So for starters, what can cause crows to act more aggressively towards people?
Swift: Right now, it’s the breeding season for all birds in North America, not just crows. When a baby bird leaves the nest and won’t go back to it, we refer to it as a fledgling. Many people assume that when birds fledge, they’re fully able to fly but that’s not the case for a lot of birds, including crows. That means a fledgling could be on the ground and running around, and it’s obviously very vulnerable. That’s a particularly high-defense time for its parents.
Is that a temporary behavior change for the crows, or are they always this protective of each other?
They’ll continue to defend their young, but once the fledgling can really fly, the need for parental defense decreases. By then, if you get close to a fledgling, it will fly away from you; it doesn’t need its parents to come in and harass you as much. It’s a temporary behavior that really peaks in July and then settles down.
Acadia University recommended not carrying food around these birds. Why are they going after everyone’s food? Are they trying to take it to feed their young, or what?
That’s not my experience [with crows] but I don’t want to speak to a population that I’ve never been around. There’s a possibility that these crows in Nova Scotia may have different habits. What tends to happen is that crows will seek people out, if they see those same people regularly. Crows on college campuses get used to being fed, and a lot of times that’s intentional, and a lot of times it’s not, because students are messy and they leave garbage everywhere: that’s kind of the nature of a college campus. If they’re used to getting food, they’ll be a little more bold, but they’re not like gulls. You always see those classic pictures of somebody on the pier with an ice cream cone, and a gull will swoop in and grab the scoop of ice cream. Crows aren’t like that, but if a crow gets used to being fed by a particular person, they could start to sort of dive-bomb that person. It’s rare, but it’s their version of jumping up and pawing at your thigh.
Why would the school specifically warn about wearing shiny objects when you’re walking around these birds?
Because they have succumbed to the myth that crows care about them. That’s a misconception, it’s not a real thing. The mythology of crows liking shiny objects actually originated in France. There’s a really famous play that came out in like the 18th century, and there’s a reference about a magpie wanting jewelry, but there’s no scientific basis for that. We’ve done studies to try and evaluate corvids’ attraction to various objects, and we’ve never actually been able to show that they’re biased toward shiny things. They are very curious though, particularly when they’re young, so they will make off with a variety of different objects. It’s not that they never find shiny baubles and fly away with them, they just don’t actually seem to do that at a higher proportion relative to [flying off] with other things. Our sense that they do is probably just confirmation bias.
Gotcha. Another thing that the school mentioned was that the crows have excellent memories. Does that mean they can recognize and remember humans?
Yes, that’s true—but they’re also conflating a couple of things. What is sage advice is that...so, let’s say you’re walking on campus, you see a baby crow on the ground and you think that it’s injured, so you pick it up because you’re going to take it to a rehab facility or you’re going to take it home and nurse it back to health...that’s the scenario where, if his parents see you do that, they’ll learn your face and harass you if they see you again. They’ll harass you potentially indefinitely. But it’s not the case that they’re just memorizing every single person that happens to wander near them, and seeking them out for the rest of time.
OK, so they’re not like little Terminators that will just come after you forever.
No, and the concern about them learning your face is really only relevant if you’re engaging with them in some way. If you walk by a nest every day on the way to your dorm, that’s not a context for them to learn your face. They may harass you every day, but it’s not because they’re picking you out, it’s because you’re walking by their nest every day.
The warning also suggested waving your hands at the crow, but will it perceive a movement like that as threatening?
Yeah, that is terrible advice. That will get you memorized.
Yikes. What about making eye contact with the birds? Is that good advice?
That actually is good advice. There’s a University of Washington study that looked at this, and we know that crows are very attentive to gaze. They don’t seem to be responsive to facial expressions, but they do pay attention to where we’re looking—and they get nervous when we look directly at them. If you’re getting dive-bombed, you’ll notice that they always approach you from the back, right? They know that’s a defensive tactic, and they don’t want to get injured in pursuit of that defense. They’re never going to show their hand and let you know that they’re going to dive-bomb you, because you could catch them, or swat them. They’re going to try to be sneaky, but if you can maintain eye contact, you won’t get swooped by that crow. That is good advice, as was to carry an umbrella.
What advantage does an umbrella give you?
If you’re getting swooped and you carry an umbrella, then none of the other stuff matters: it protects your identity and you’re not going to get any contact. That’s it, that’s really the only thing that the university needed to say.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.