Crows and Shiny Objects

I got this question from csmithstudio on Tumblr:

Hi Jenn! A friend told me about your blog and I’m delighted and grateful to you for taking the time to post this! I am an artist focusing almost entirely on birds and I would like to do a painting of crows including the treasures they commonly collect. I’ve tried to research what they might be attracted to but so far have only found golf balls and angry golfers! Do they stash their hoard in a nest or somewhere else? Thank you! Christina

I’m super glad you asked me this!  I’ve been meaning to post about this topic.  The reason you can’t find anything is because crows don’t collect shiny things.  This is an extremely common myth, but it’s just that, a myth.  (And I’ve seen way too many “official” websites state this myth like it’s fact, so don’t feel bad for believing it!)  The thing is, stories about crows collecting shiny things are anecdotal, and not observed by people who watch crows constantly and study them.

There’s a couple of reasons why people might think crows like and collect shiny objects and continue to pass along the myth.  First, young crows are very curious about everything.  They play with all sorts of objects they find in nature, and chances are if something is glinting they may me more likely to explore that object (just like how you might notice something glinting in the grass and investigate it), than something that blends in to the background.  As I talked about in a previous post, juvenile crows are the same size and, to the untrained eye, look just like adult crows, therefore people may be attributing a juvenile play behavior to all age groups, accidentally.  Are they particularly attracted to shiny objects, or obsessed with them?  Highly unlikely, they may just be more likely to find them because they are easier to see/attract attention easier (welcome to why advertisers use shiny and bright things on other humans to attract their attention).  Honestly, adult crows are more likely to be terrified of brightly colored or shiny objects unless heavily associated with food on multiple occasions.

Second, a lot of observations about crows playing with shiny objects come from people who have had pet crows.  A hand-raised crow is going to have a lot of exposure to human objects, and will therefore play with those objects.  They may be attracted to what their “parents” (the humans) are attracted to, and therefore be more interested in rings, watches, silverware, etc. for the reason that they are of high value to their “family” not because they are shiny objects.

Third, it is likely that the shiny or bright objects simply remind the crows of food, or the crows are investigating them for potential food opportunities.  The going theory for why crows and ravens are so attracted to golf balls, as Christina mentioned in her note, is that they look an awful lot like delicious eggs.  I have personally watched crows play with and steal golf balls off a golf course (which was hilarious).  However, they lose interest pretty fast after, presumably, realizing the objects aren’t food (though I swear some of the crows just had a blast chasing those golf balls around).

There are a number of reasons why crows may be attracted to shiny or bright objects and trinkets, but no more so than you or I or most animals would be attracted to them.  In other words, their interest in shiny objects does not appear to be inordinate.

So, do crows hoard the objects they find?  No.

Crows don’t hoard anything.  If a crow takes off with your keys, it was likely that the bird wasn’t done exploring them for any food opportunities and took off with them to finish it’s inquiry in safety (and probably dropped them somewhere when it realized it had no use for the keys).  Crows, and other corvids, do cache items, which means that they store them for later (see my post about Nutcrackers for the most incredible cachers), but wild crows only store food items (I say “wild” because captive birds may cache non-food items, which would be expressing an instinctual behavior, using non-typical items found in the captive habitat).  Furthermore, they don’t cache all of the food items in the same location (larder).  Crows (and most corvids) are scatter cachers and leave bits of food all over the place within their territory (I once watched a crow pull half a ham sandwich out of the branches of a spruce tree…I still have NO idea where he was keeping it in there, but it was pretty hilarious to watch).  So there is no secret hoard full of shiny objects to find in a crow territory.

What about the nests?  Well, crows don’t use nests for anything but raising babies.  The nests are built just before egg-laying at the beginning of the breeding season, are lined with soft grass and moss, and are immediately abandoned once all the kids fledge.  Crows don’t store objects in a nest or sleep in a nest (unless you are a baby or the bird on incubation duty during the breeding season).  Although crows have been reported to use wire hangers and other urban metal materials to build the structure of their nests, this is more likely due to the utility and availability of these objects as construction material, not because they are shiny.  You may wonder if crows might put shiny objects in the nest to attract attention from potential mates, but crows have selected mates far before nest building begins.  If you find a crow nest in the wild, you won’t find wondrous treasures, you are likely to find a pile of sticks, grass, and poop….and sometimes a sleeping raccoon (true story).

So in conclusion, Christina, I would love to see you possibly illustrate caching behaviors of food, since those are the most valued treasures for crows.  In urban/suburban environments I’ve seen them cache everything from seeds and dead animals/insects, to ham sandwiches, pizza, and french fries.  It might be more fun (and accurate) for you to explore the wide and variable diets of these birds.  Feel free to contact me for more details if you are interested! :)

You have also given me the chance to review a game a friend bought for me recently, Crows by Valley Games, Inc.  I brought this game to a lab meeting and as a crow research group we played.  While thoroughly not impressed by the premise of attracting crows with shiny objects and trinkets, it was still quite fun!  We highly recommend it with the caveat that you replace “shiny objects and trinkets” with “peanuts and road kill.”  They certainly hit the mark with the trash tiles though.

A board game that is fun, but propagates the inaccurate myth that crows are inordinately attracted to and collect shiny objects.


19 thoughts on “Crows and Shiny Objects

  1. Count Repugsive

    How interesting! I’ve read a number of novels that have crows stealing shiny things as a plot point and I never realised it’s something they don’t actually do.

  2. Ichneumon

    I seem to remember a turn-of the century moral story (from the Ernest Seton crowd) of a raven that collected shiny objects and it was an example of avarice, etc… I can’t find it now though.

    Cool article.

  3. F

    I expect one reason, although I couldn’t guess why crows in particular would be singled out, is that people noticed something a crow was prodding about or carrying because they could see the shiny thing.

  4. mary

    Very interesting. I’ve witnessed some fascinating Blue Jay caching. Once, three acorns were buried in a row, about three inches apart. Each acorn was gently tapped into the ground and then covered by exactly three yellow leaves. It looked like counting to me. Such a smart bird, but unfortunately, as soon as it flew off a curious squirrel hopped over and quickly unburied each acorn and took them! In another instance, I actually saw a Blue Jay holding on to the side of a tree, woodpecker style, and pecking acorns into little crevices.

    But, no, I have never witnessed the shiney object thing either, but always believed the myth anyway. I did once find an HP yellow ink cartridge in the hollow of a tree. Any thoughts on what brought that there?

  5. The Corvid Blog Post author

    Squirrels are good at stealing caches, haha.

    Not sure what brought that there! Could have been a mammal too. Packrats in particular carry all sorts of peculiar things to different places.

  6. The Corvid Blog Post author

    Sorry for the extreme delay in my response here. The article is nice, and I read the paper it’s based on, but notice that the birds are all captive and don’t have much else to do. This is in the context of an experimental procedure and the birds are well aware that they will have food waiting for them when they are done. Why not play with the other thing when you will have food anyhow?

  7. eight

    Are there any documented experiments that show that crows are not attracted to shiny things? I believe you, but I can’t find any serious research that was done into this.

  8. The Corvid Blog Post author

    There are no formal studies showing that they aren’t (nor that they are). We talk about doing this all the time in my lab, but unfortunately other, somewhat more serious ecological and social questions always manage to need our attention more. Hopefully we will get around to doing this soon!

  9. NoItsNotaMyth

    Crows DO take shiny things, I had two crows as pets growing up and they always picked up anything shiny. They don’t steal them, they try eat them then just drop them when they find out its not edible.

  10. Jesse Ritz

    What about the February 25, 2015 BBC news story: Each morning, [the Manns] fill the backyard birdbath with fresh water and cover bird-feeder platforms with peanuts. Gabi throws handfuls of dog food into the grass. As they work, crows assemble on the telephone lines, calling loudly to them. It was after they adopted this routine that the gifts started appearing.

    A video shows crows feeding after six year old Gabi set out food; so they are definitely crows. Our crows don’t bring us anything, but we feed them when we have old food to discard. Cats occasionally leave a dead mouse on our doorstep (only the door nearby where we feed [the neighbors] cats – pan drippings, etc.

    The crows would clear the feeder of peanuts, and leave shiny trinkets on the empty tray; an earring, a hinge, a polished rock. There wasn’t a pattern. Gifts showed up sporadically – anything shiny and small enough to fit in a crow’s mouth. A picture by Katy Sewall shows over 100 objects, similar to what I’ve collected from the lawn and driveway over 40 years… but far too much to be assembled from a small yard in a year or two.

  11. The Corvid Blog Post author

    Please see paragraph three of my response, “Second, a lot of observations about crows playing with shiny objects come from people who have had pet crows. A hand-raised crow is going to have a lot of exposure to human objects, and will therefore play with those objects. They may be attracted to what their “parents” (the humans) are attracted to, and therefore be more interested in rings, watches, silverware, etc. for the reason that they are of high value to their “family” not because they are shiny objects.”

    Please also refer to the paragraph before that about juvenile crows and exploration :)

  12. Sarahummingbird

    They may not collect to keep… but they make collections. The grackles in my area make strange collections in the park often, and the crows i came to know and love that roosted in my tree every night in New Mexico would bring things home at night. I highly doubt they would be bringing them to see if they are food at home, they were always shiny tiny things. It just is. It might not be something they all do, but to say its all a myth is … a lie. When there are countless witnesses to this, videos made, i simply can’t agree to your “facts” because they are not true in my experience.

  13. The Corvid Blog Post author

    I can’t speak on grackles, which are not crows or even related to crows. However, a personal observation/experience is an anecdote and does not define a common trend. I have not seen any of the videos you speak of, and as I said in my post, the only people who claim that crows collect shiny things are people who have raised them as pets. If you can verify that the crows brought home objects, as adults, and if so, that they were biased toward shiny objects, then you may have the beginnings of an actual argument, but as it stands, personal observation of crows in one’s backyard and an unrelated species (grackles) are not a basis to form a strong hypothesis.

  14. The Corvid Blog Post author

    The article, and the surrounding media, do not support crows collecting shiny objects. Let’s break down what is actually going on. First, let’s look at the actual objects found in the yard. Not every object is “shiny” and all are simply objects that one might find laying around or discarded on roadways, gutters, etc. The media outlets are the ones defining the objects as shiny. I would first define them as small objects easily found discarded, before linking them all as “shiny”. Second, let’s examine what animals are actually visiting the backyard. A follow-up article says that between 30-100 crows show up each day (this is not a single family of crows), and that many pigeons and rats have shown up as well. The amount of animals showing up in the backyard each day dramatically increases the statistical probability that an animal simply drops an object it may have been investigating or manipulating on it’s own, and doesn’t guarantee that it was a crow that left the object, and certainly doesn’t guarantee that the object was left for a specific purpose (instead of just being discarded due to no longer being interesting to the animal). It simply isn’t supported by what we currently know of crow biology that they would give gifts without some sort of direct, timely reinforcement for giving the gifts. I am not saying that animals aren’t capable of giving gifts. For example, many animals give nuptial gifts to their mates, but crows aren’t one of them (that we know of).

    What I took away from that article was being very impressed by Gabi’s love for the crows, and her cataloging of each object found. If we want to know more about why the objects are showing up and how they may relate to crow biology (perhaps small nuptial gifts happen rarely?), I think she’d be the perfect person to investigate it further. I’m super excited she’s taken interest in the birds and seems to have a scientific enough mind to catalog what they find in their yard and observe them. She seems like a great little girl who I hope continues her love for ornithology, the crows, and science!

  15. Sarahummingbird

    I’ve never raised one as a pet and i know grackles are a different species. i was raised in areas with various types of birds that are black. i am drawn to them in all shapes and sizes, or perhaps they are drawn to me? I am akin to all feathered friends. i used to pet pigeons in the park when i was a child. my name came before i was born — my personal experience is true and quite divine. i don’t need book facts to tell me what to appreciate. i appreciate the magic … the myth as it were…. experience speaks deeply for me, beyond any textual fact could teach.

    Would you rather be locked alone in a library with internet access for the rest of your life or be unable to read?

    Just wondering.

  16. The Corvid Blog Post author

    Definitely not discounting your personal experience, just recognizing it as what it is, an anecdote.

    To answer your question, I would be very sad to be alone in a library with internet access. If those were my only choices, I would certainly choose the inability to read and be able to explore the world. Much of my crow knowledge is from observation and spending time with them, and speaking with other people who have spent their lives watching and studying crows :)

  17. Dr. Wiggleton

    Sara, nothing personal, but putting “facts” in quotes as if this person doesn’t know anything is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever come across. I mean, sure you have “divine” knowledge, and she’s only got, what, a doctorate in crow behavior? Yeah, you’re probably right.

    You are utterly wrong and sound like a jackass in your replies. Read a damn book and respect the fact that people have researched these things and may actually know more from their education than the wonderful knowledge bestowed on you the time you rubbed a pigeon.

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