Crows are members of the Corvidae family, which contains ravens, rooks, jays, jackdaws, magpies, choughs, treepies, and nutcrackers. Sometimes, birds from the entire family are simply referred to as ‘crows,’ but crows belong to the genus Corvus, which also contains ravens and rooks - it is a bit confusing!
Crows are distributed across much of the world and are highly intelligent and adaptable, but do crows migrate?
Generally speaking, crows are quite sedentary and don’t migrate far, if at all. However, in the USA, one study found that around three-quarters to two-thirds of crows in Utica, New York, and Davis, California migrated every year, suggesting that crows are not always as sedentary at northerly latitudes. Instead, crows likely only migrate when food becomes scarce from ice and snow cover.
Many species of crows are distributed across northern latitudes, including Canada, the US, and northern Europe and Asia, such as the American crow, Carrion crow, and Hooded crow. Rooks, magpies, choughs, jays, and many other corvids also live far north in cold areas, and many don’t migrate.
Crows are tough birds, and many species don’t need to migrate - only if necessary. However, in the USA, migratory crows tend to migrate every year without skipping a year, even if it’s mild.
Read on to discover more facts about the migratory habits of these highly intelligent birds.
In the US, recent studies have found that crows do migrate more than we think
The American crow is split into five subspecies; the western crow, eastern crow, Florida crow, southern crow, and northwestern crow. Of these subspecies, western, easter, and northwestern crows are the most likely to migrate. American crows in Canada nearly always migrate, timing their migrations with when the ground becomes covered in snow and ice.
In the USA, a recent study on crow migration found that 73% of western crows and 86% of eastern crows migrated, with an average migratory journey of around 310 miles. Crows on the east coast had a shorter migratory journey of around 287 miles, while west coast crows traveled approximately 366 miles. The longest journey recorded was 1,740 miles.
These crows were situated in Utica, New York, and Davis, California - so reasonably far north. Crows distributed further south, e.g., the Florida subspecies, probably don’t migrate.
American crows that choose to migrate exhibit high breeding ground fidelity, meaning that they return to precisely the same locations to breed after returning from their fall and winter migration. Crows often reuse nests, too, with some substantial nests accumulating more material every year until they’re very large indeed.
Another species of crow in the US, the Fish crow, lives almost exclusively in the east and southeast, and doesn’t migrate at all.
American Crow populations in Canada almost always migrate
There are two species of crows in the UK; the Carrion crow and the Hooded crow. The Carrion crow is a non-migratory resident, even across their Scandinavia and northern European range. The Hooded crow is partially migratory, heading south from northern Russia, Siberia, and Scandinavia.
Hooded crows breed across the UK and Ireland, with substantial breeding populations through central and eastern Europe. Some birds probably leave the UK to head into southern Europe too.
In the UK, Hooded Crows are partially migratory
Crows are tough and hardy, and most northerly species don’t mind the cold. In some cases, Hooded crows, Carrion crows, and American crows breed as far north as Canada, Scandinavia, and northern Russia.
Crow migration is motivated by food sources - crows probably migrate when the ground freezes over. Crows primarily scavenge from the ground - locating thawed foraging sites makes their life easier.
A US study revealed that migratory crows traveled an average of 310 miles from the west and east coasts. However, some crows traveled much further - one individual traveled a massive 1,740 miles.
This would take the crow all the way from southern Canada to Mexico. Crows are not especially strong flyers and don’t complete their journey in one go, but in stages, foraging as they go.
The majority of crow migrations in the US are around 300 miles
In North America, the American crow migrates from the north, west, and east USA and southern Canada. Migrating crows can stop pretty much anywhere they can find food, but some head as far south as northern Mexico, Arizona, and Florida.
In Europe, Hooded crows distributed across Scandinavia, Russia, and northern Europe head towards interior and central Europe. Some western populations head to the UK and Ireland, while others end up as far south as the Mediterranean.
Species of crows distributed across Africa and Asia, such as the Jungle crow and Cape crow, don’t migrate.
Crows are not particularly strong flyers - American crows can attain a steady flight speed of around 35mph. During migration, crows remain close to the ground and take regular stops to feed and rest.
There’s no substantial data on how long it takes for crows to migrate, but we’re almost certainly talking weeks rather than days.
Close up of a perched Carrion Crow
Crows take regular breaks when they migrate. Rather than forming large flocks and completing their journey in one heroic journey like swans, geese, and other migratory birds, crows take a relaxed approach, stopping for breaks as they go.
The American crow has a steady flight speed of around 35mph, but flying requires a good deal of energy, and crows stop to forage to refuel along the way.
Crows become more sociable in the fall and winter, gathering together in wintering flocks. A wintering flock of crows can number thousands of birds.
When crows migrate, they often stick to their large wintering flocks. While they may not fly in a big group together, they tend to congregate to feed and roost.
A flock of crows in flight
Only two species of crows are reliably migratory: the American crow and Hooded crow. Most other species of crows are sedentary or only migrate short distances.
Crows are distributed as far south as the southern cape of Africa, where it isn’t necessary to migrate. Only crows distributed in northern Europe, Canada, and the north USA migrate reliably.
The further south you go, the less likely crows are to migrate. Migration is driven by food availability more than anything else, so if there’s plenty of food available all year round, crows probably won’t migrate.
Only American Crows and Hooded Crows are partially migratory
Crows are generally not sociable, but in the winter, they often come together in large wintering flocks to roost communally.
Communal roosting enables crows to stay safe in numbers while sharing body heat. This is especially common amongst younger birds.
Roosting sites vary from dense woodland to buildings and urban areas.
In summer, most crows are breeding - or have bred already.
Most species of crows in the Northern Hemisphere breed in the traditional spring breeding season, ranging from around April to June. So, in summer, most adult crows are busy raising their chicks. Crow chicks remain with their parents for much of summer until they fledge but may remain close to their parents until the next spring.
Close up of an American Crow
Crows show high nesting and breeding site fidelity, meaning they tend to return to the same breeding and nesting sites every year. American crows return to the exact location from which they left.
In fact, some crows attempt to return to the same nest, which they’ll upgrade if possible. Reused crow nests can become very large, ranging up to several feet wide and deep.
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