How did crows develop a social safety net?S

A lot of crows come to my backyard looking for peanuts, but this group of five was different. They were scrappy, with tattered white bits of down sticking out from between their black feathers. One of them made a cry more like a bleat than your typical caw caw! And then I discovered them doing something extraordinary.

Illustration by Mark Turnauckas

For about a year now, I've befriended the local crows and jays by putting out peanuts on the balcony over my backyard. Even when there are no peanuts out, the crows will come and hang out in the trees next to my window, eating and socializing. A particular group will come every day, for weeks or months, then will be replaced by a new group.

Every group has its own quirks, but that scrappy group was the quirkiest. They were basically punks. First of all, they were incredibly loud. They were always play fighting on the tree branches, squawking and shoving each other and hopping over each other's heads.

How did crows develop a social safety net?S

Photo by Azaliya via Shutterstock

Admittedly all crows can be loud, but most groups will show up, let out a few yells that mean "hello" (caw!) or "come get peanuts from the human" (caw caw caw!). Then they'll sit silently in the tree branches, sometimes cleaning themselves or stretching or panting (yes, crows pant when it's hot). Rarely do they just keep squawking or calling. But these punks never shut up. Especially the one with the bleating voice. Aaaaaaarrrggg! he would yell, sounding kind of insane, and get right up in the business of the other crows in its group. I nicknamed it Noisy.

You could tell from watching that Noisy was annoying the other punk crows. One would flutter down on a branch, and Noisy would land right next to it, sidling up and yelling aaarrggg! aaaaaaaaaaargh! The other crow would move away, sometimes getting squashed all the way over until it was teetering at the end of a branch. Noisy would also get up into the faces of the other crows when they were eating — literally. One of the bigger punk crows would crack open a peanut and start eating the flesh, and Noisy would open its beak wide, trying to swallow the beak of the other crow. It was like Noisy was trying to feed the way baby crows do, when their parents shove food down their throats.

What the fuck is Noisy doing? I would wonder. Why do those other crows put up with it?

After a while, I began to notice other things about Noisy. The crow had a hard time landing on the peanut-dispensing railing. And when a peanut was in front of Noisy, it would half-heartedly peck at it, often knocking it over rather than capturing it with a beak and flying away. The other crows could deftly hold a peanut down with one foot and smack it open with their beak in one peck. Noisy never did.

How did crows develop a social safety net?

Photo by Kip Lee

And one day, I realized that one of the other crows was actually feeding Noisy. When Noisy obnoxiously wrapped its beak around the other one's beak, Noisy was getting some peanut. I began to notice that the punk crows would also sometimes leave little crushed-up bits of peanut behind after they ate — these, Noisy could eat. It seemed like Noisy had some kind of disability, and that it had found caretakers among these dirty, funny-looking punk crows. It's possible that Noisy had problems with physical coordination, or maybe the bird was developmentally disabled. The fact that Noisy acted a lot like a baby bird made me wonder if perhaps the latter was the case — or if perhaps it were still a juvenile. Maybe Noisy was just really weird.

I'll never know what exactly the deal was with Noisy, because eventually the punk crew moved on. But I will say that in my year among the crows of San Francisco, this is the only time I have ever seen behavior like that. The crows who fed Noisy weren't exactly generous — they would probably feed it one time out of five that they ate. But the interesting part was that none of them ever fought back when Noisy would go nuts and scream at them. Sometimes, they would hop over Noisy's head, and they would definitely squabble among themselves. But they seemed to get that Noisy wasn't quite right, and cut the bird some slack.

Like many highly-intelligent wild animals, crows are still poorly understood by science. Everything we know about them comes from observations by scientists and amateurs like myself — even YouTube videos provide clues about what crows are like. This video below, from Russia, is one of the few that captures a common crow game where the birds slide down a snowy roof. Observers have reported this behavior all over the world, but this video shows that they will even use a sled (made with a plastic lid) when there's one handy.

We do know that they are social creatures, and that they live in often-shifting family groups like the ones that visit my backyard. They have a tendency to play, sometimes using sticks and balls as toys. And there is a lot of evidence that many of their quirkiest behaviors are learned. As wildlife scientist John M. Marzluff writes in In the Company of Crows and Ravens, some crows have taught their children to crush ants and rub the acids from the insects' bodies into their feathers as an insect repellant. Others don't exhibit this behavior.

It's possible that the punk crows had learned to care for Noisy. Maybe they came from a long line of punk crows who took in the oddest birds and made a life for themselves together.

How did crows develop a social safety net?

Photo by Screwtape

There are many animals whose behaviors we may never fully understand, mostly because there is so little opportunity to observe them. But that's not the case with crows, who are our neighbors.

Unlike many birds, crows have adapted to urban life as well as humans have. They're part of the urban habitat, like raccoons, squirrels, rats, pigeons, and many other forms of wildlife. They're a reminder that cities are ecosystems, just like every other place on the planet. Wild animals are all around us, if we just pay attention. And when we write down what we see, or record it, we can actually help researchers advance our knowledge of how animals behave when they're not in cages.

After the punk crows left, a new group of three started coming around. They had sleek, tidy feathers and would line up on the railing waiting for peanuts like they were waiting for their Buzzfeed animal centerfold moment. They would caw! caw! just once, and then quiet down. One of them would always come first, sitting in the tree patiently as I put out the peanuts, but refusing to eat until the other two arrived. Who knows why? Politeness? Deference?

I'll keep watching, and maybe one day we'll find out.

Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9, and this is her column. She's also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.