Tail Pulling

Crows (meaning Corvus, not just the crows with the common name “crow”) pull tails.  It’s like they can’t help themselves.  If there is a tail, it must be pulled:

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Magpies in the genus Pica (the holarctic magpies) do this behavior as well, which is impressive, considering how much smaller they are.  One advantage they have is a small size that lets them get off the ground and away from their target a lot quicker.

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And apparently all tails are fair game, I guess there is truly “no honor among thieves”:

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Usually when you see this behavior it’s in the context of food.  A crow or magpie will pull another animal’s tail in order to distract it from it’s food and steal it (this sometimes occurs alone or in teams).  Here’s a video of a raven stealing a bald eagle’s food. This behavior is so common it’s noted in many scientific papers, with a nice summary from Lawrence Kilham in his 1989 book The American Crow and the Common Raven, page 34-35:

Tail pulling is a habit common to a number of corvids (Goodwin 1976). The crow that robbed the otter by pulling its tail could have done so by happenstance or as a deliberate piece of strategy.  It is hard to know.  The crows had pulled the otters’ tails many times before, to no seeming purpose except an urge, shared by Black-Billed Magpies (Lorenz 1970) and Common Ravens, to provoke animals larger than themselves, whether there is any immediate advantage to doing so or not.  Bent (1946) reported three Common Ravens robbing a dog of a bone, one bird pulling the dog’s tail while others stood by its head.  It is conceivable that crows, like ravens, are capable after trial and error of seizing upon the right movement for pulling a tail to advantage.  Another use of tail pulling can be to get a larger bird or mammal to move from a carcass, as I describe later for Common Ravens contending with Turkey Vultures and as Hewson (1981) did for Hooded Crows contending with a Buzzard.  Goodwin (1976) described crows and magpies pulling the tails of mobbing predators. 

The behavior appears to be innate, for one of my hand-raised crows pulled a sheep’s tail and a hand-raised raven a cat’s tail when they were less than three months of age.

But honestly?  I think they just do it for fun, or simply can’t help their natural inclination for causing trouble ;)

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Because clearly some animals just deserve it (read: squirrels are annoying and their tails are irresistibly fluffy).  Cats are also fun targetsSparrow-hawks too.  (And even if the tail is hard to find, they will seek it out.)  … …and Foxes.

Just another reason to love corvids ;)

10 thoughts on “Tail Pulling

  1. Ed Darrell

    What do you think might be the possibility that crows and other corvids pass along tales about tail pulling?

    Might this be a behavior that is learned, and passed along through “discussion” among the birds, and not by demonstration only?

  2. thecorvidblog Post author

    While there is no doubt in my mind that crows learn new behaviors socially, because tail-pulling is found in such a wide range of corvid species, I have to think it’s somewhat innate/genetic. Now, how to use tail-pulling to get food or trick another animal? That’s likely learned (either socially or from individual trial and error).

    As far as corvid verbal, symbolic language? That’s unknown at this point, but the likely story is that they learn from watching other successful birds.

  3. Marion

    I don’t think crows just pull tails because they are interested in an animals food; I throw out cracked corn to the ducks and geese here so the crows have as much access to it as the others but they will still sneak up behind a goose or a duck and poke it in the butt. One day a couple of ducks and a goose family were lying in the sun, there was no food but grass. And a crow sneaked up behind the gander and poked it in the butt and the gander glared at it but the crow wouldn’t leave him alone. Finally he got bored with the gander and started trying to poke the goose. When I shooed it away so the geese could rest he went hopping over to a couple of ducks and had to annoy them. Sometimes they also seem to show compassion….one day two ducks got into a mighty brawl and a crow stood by watching them and every so often he would hop up behind one of the fighting ducks and poke it. He was acting like a referee. Another day a crow hopped up behind a goose that was eating corn and I thought he was going to give the goose a poke…but he seemed to be observing the goose and saw this goose had quite a sore lame leg and he didn’t poke him or annoy him at all. Another crazy thing I’ve seen them do is stand on a tree branch, then hang upside down for a second then let themselves fall. It’s crazy..the first time I saw a crow hanging upside down I thought it had its claws stuck in the branch and had died..but then he let himself go, caught himself and flew back up to the branch to do this over and over.

  4. The Corvid Blog Post author

    Marion, I totally agree that it’s not likely just a food-getting behavior, and is likely innate and compulsory to a degree. That’s why I adore this specific quote from the piece I posted from Kilham, “The crows had pulled the otters’ tails many times before, to no seeming purpose except an urge, shared by Black-Billed Magpies (Lorenz 1970) and Common Ravens, to provoke animals larger than themselves, whether there is any immediate advantage to doing so or not.”

    Thank you so much for sharing your stories, I love them! I think as we study crows we will learn so much more about what is going on in their heads, especially with their emotional lives. Right now there are so many exciting studies about their cognition that I’m sure we will start to see work on how they percieve and react to social information from not just other crows, but other animals in general. I’d love to do this work myself! If only there was more time in the day right now!

    Please keep the comments coming on my posts as you see fit. I love that you watch and notice the crows so thoughtfully :)

  5. Brent Gilstrap

    I just found your wonderful blog (via a link posted by Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science).

    I wonder if corvid tail-pulling is related to an interesting behavior of the Common Raven in Yosemite Valley, where ravens remove and carry off the wiper blades from parked cars (to the bafflement of tourists!).

  6. The Corvid Blog Post author

    Brent,

    I’m not sure if the two behaviors are related at all. Ravens are very inquisitive birds (once they get over their neophobia). It makes me curious about the appeal of removing the blades and where exactly they relocate them. Sounds like it would be a fun study to do!

    In the meantime, I find it rather amusing, haha. I know the Yellowstone ravens are prone to stealing various things from tourists, even opening zipped bags and taking items.

  7. Canonical

    I live near Wolf Haven and have seen the ravens there yank the occasional wolf tail. Corvids, in general, seem to have quite the sense of humor. :) I have a crow family that visit me a couple of times a day for food. The male lands on our deck railing and does the mating “gurgle” call, complete with tail flares to let me know it’s time for food. Watching their two young this year has been fun.

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