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.

 

28 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. Melody

    While biking the 15 mile loop in Everglades Nat. Park at Shark Valley Visitor’s Center I got “robbed” by 2 crows. I left a grocery bag with a candy bar and a rubber banded set of credit cards, Starbucks card, AAA card, etc. as well as some receipts and 2 $20 bills in the bicycle basket. I was not gone more than 10 minutes. When I returned i noticed some money 10 feet away and realized it was my money and receipts scattered about. All the other cards were gone. There were 2 crows making noise nearby. The park staff said those crows are notorious for getting into purses by unzipping them. They had seen one crow take a set of keys and drop them in the everglades.
    A guide checked several caches where they take things sometimes…..but he could not find my credit cards. So, they at least preferred the plastic cards over the paper money!

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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 🙂

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

  17. 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 🙂

  18. 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.

  19. Bobbi

    I have a family of fish crows that come visit me at work (probably because I give them small amounts of food -currently superworms and the occasional crackers, raisins* or peanut ), the only shiny thing they’re attracted to is the dish I put the superworms in. I’m trying to not overfeed them(they seem to stop by maybe 3-4 times a day, so I think I’m just a snack bar-they only get 10 superworms per visit) and they seem to cache the crackers or other dry food, I do have video of one hiding crackers under dry grass piles. *the raisins are for the mockingbirds, but the crows keep stealing them. Interestingly enough the entire family now knows how to most effectively kill the superworms from the alpha showing them once. just wondering if feeding them like that is ok? I’m trying to not interfere with their normal foraging. But they do beg a lot, and will stare into my window to get my attention, and leftovers.

  20. Mrs. Julie Warburton

    we have got a blackish baby fledgling bought in by our cat, No eyes open yet, big wide beak, a scary looking beak. I feel but a bid babyIs it a crow, raven, long legs but very young.

  21. GremReaper

    http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31604026
    I’ll let this stand on it’s own. And the Crows I see in the pictures are NOT all juveniles. I’ve also witnessed crow nest during my younger days, and many have been adorned with shiny objects. Perhaps some populations of crows have found this to be a protective feature. Nothing drives off a potential predator than a flash of light.

  22. Rhys

    Im an arborist and take out cocas palms quite alot, the crows like too put golf balls in the cocas palm heads for some reason i have no idea why, i know this because a client i worked for lives behind a golfcoarse and saw the crows dropping them in there on a number of occasions, we found about 8-10 golf balls in about 6 palms
    Rhys,

  23. Irene Whittle

    I raised two crows in my lifetime, both at different times. I did not cage them, and let them fly free. They knew their names when I called them and they would even pitch on my car when travelling short distances. They are very very intelligent. Have you ever discovered a crows hiding place. I did. Well these two crows had their own out of the way hiding place and in that place was all shiny objects. I would find quarters, dimes, nickels, shiny nails…etc. So there must be a reason the crow picks up the shiny object and then hides it in his/her safe place. Some say it is to line their nests to attrack mates. I did not do much research into it, but I do know they collect and hoard these shiny objects. I saw it with my own eyes.

  24. Dr. Damon Adams

    I had a pet crow for 4 years that took tools that were shiny along with other small items and buried them on our sand beach in the same area…literally dozens of items were there (we duv them up after he died) including screws, small tools like screwdrivers, small hardware items, etc!!!! He would not bury anything if he knew we were around to see him.

  25. Dani Dee

    I am not an expert by any means in birds, and I have full respect for the scientific process. However, I remember from a biology lecture than birds have three receptors in their eyes for light, that they can see UV light, and that this appears to help them find sources of water (which are reflective- the birds storing them might think they are storing a source of water?) Also, many shiny objects are glass with aluminum backing, and as aluminum absorbs reflects light but glass absorbs it, my professor suggested that perhaps the birds, with their enhanced eyesight, see distorted reflections in these objects and are intrigued by that. This was years ago but interesting enough that it stuck with me. I’m sure you already know that birds can see things we cannot, and as humans are fascinated enough with shiny things, I don’t see how it’s unreasonable to assume birds might also be interested. Have you done or read any controlled studies to see what objects crows prefer?I can’t find any except regarding how birds perceive certain feather markings that are not visible to humans and indicate sex. I can’t imagine it would be that difficult to set out some small objects in known territories with a camera, and I think this is fascinating topic. Any thoughts?

  26. Helena

    I haven’t read all the comments on here (I am already well into y 60s and may not have time). re research here is a piece from2014. It doesn’t quote any large studies but does back up what you have had to repeat over and over. Pet or hand reared corvids will behave differently from wild birds. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/wild-things/magpies-don%E2%80%99t-shiny-things.
    We used to have a lot of wild magpies around a long thin N/S acre garden when I lived at home. We watched them playing with wind blown tin foil in the orchard one day but that is al they did. Another time we were alerted to their noise and watched them as they sort of jumped off the tops of some tall sycamores into a very strong wind from the west (we were 2 miles from the north west coast of the UK) and shrieked as they were lifted up and blown back onto the tree. They kept this up for ages. It was brilliant to watch.
    Re Sarah above, perhaps she only noticed the shiny things and not the bit of food stuck to them or any of the other thing they brought home which were not shiny but may have been edible. It is her expectations tha maybe biasing her rather than reality. I would expect that wild birds don’t really have spare energy to bother collecting useless stuff, unlike humans. Food is the important thing.

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