Corvidae is a cosmopolitan family of oscine passerine birds that contains the crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, jays, magpies, treepies, choughs, and nutcrackers. In common English, they are known as the crow family, or, more technically, corvids. Over 120 species are described. The genus Corvus, including the jackdaws, crows, rooks, and ravens, makes up over a third of the entire family.
Corvids display remarkable intelligence for animals of their size and are among the most intelligent birds thus far studied. Specifically, members of the family have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests (European magpies) and tool-making ability (e.g., crows and rooks), skills which until recently were thought to be possessed only by humans and a few other higher mammals. Their total brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to that of non-human great apes and cetaceans, and only slightly lower than that of humans.
They are medium to large in size, with strong feet and bills, rictal bristles, and a single moult each year (most passerines moult twice). Corvids are found worldwide except for the tip of South America and the polar ice caps. The majority of the species are found in tropical South and Central America, southern Asia and Eurasia, with fewer than 10 species each in Africa and Australasia. The genus Corvus has re-entered Australia in relatively recent geological prehistory, with five species and one subspecies there. Several species of raven have reached oceanic islands, and some of these species are now highly threatened with extinction or have already become extinct.
Temporal range: Middle Miocene to present
|Distribution map of the Corvidae.
Extinct (post-1500) Extinct (pre-1500)
The family Corvidae was introduced by the English zoologist William Elford Leach in a guide to the contents of the British Museum published in 1820. Over the years, much disagreement has arisen on the exact evolutionary relationships of the corvid family and their relatives. What eventually seemed clear was that corvids are derived from Australasian ancestors and from there spread throughout the world. Other lineages derived from these ancestors evolved into ecologically diverse, but often Australasian groups. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Sibley and Ahlquist united the corvids with other taxa in the Corvida, based on DNA–DNA hybridization. The presumed corvid relatives included currawongs, birds of paradise, whipbirds, quail-thrushes, whistlers, monarch flycatchers and drongos, shrikes, vireos, and vangas, but current research favors the theory that this grouping is partly artificial. The corvids constitute the core group of the Corvoidea, together with their closest relatives (the birds of paradise, Australian mud-nesters, and shrikes). They are also the core group of the Corvida, which includes the related groups, such as Old World orioles and vireos.
Clarification of the interrelationships of the corvids has been achieved based on cladistic analysis of several DNA sequences. The jays and magpies do not constitute monophyletic lineages, but rather seem to split up into an American and Old World lineage, and an Holarctic and Oriental lineage, respectively. These are not closely related among each other. The position of the azure-winged magpie, which has always been a major enigma, is even less clear than before.
The crested jay (Platylophus galericulatus) is traditionally included in the Corvidae, but might not be a true member of this family, possibly being closer to the helmetshrikes (Malaconotidae) or shrikes (Laniidae); it is best considered Corvidae incertae sedis for the time being. Likewise, the Hume's ground "jay" (Pseudopodoces humilis) is in fact a member of the tit family Paridae. The following tree represents current insights in the phylogeny of the Crow family according to J. Boyd.
The earliest corvid fossils date to the mid-Miocene, about 17 million years ago; Miocorvus and Miopica may be ancestral to crows and some of the magpie lineage, respectively, or similar to the living forms due to convergent evolution. The known prehistoric corvid genera appear to be mainly of the New World and Old World jay and Holarctic magpie lineages:
Corvids are large to very large passerines with a robust build, strong legs and all species except the pinyon jay have nostrils covered by bristle-like feathers. Many corvids of temperate zones have mainly black or blue coloured plumage; however, some are pied black and white, some have a blue-purple iridescence and many tropical species are brightly coloured. The sexes are very similar in color and size. Corvids have strong, stout bills and large wingspans. The family includes the largest members of the passerine order.
The smallest corvid is the dwarf jay (Aphelocoma nana), at 41 g (1.4 oz) and 21.5 cm (8.5 in). The largest corvids are the common raven (Corvus corax) and the thick-billed raven (Corvus crassirostris), both of which regularly exceed 1,400 grams (3.1 pounds) and 65 cm (26 in).
Corvids occur in most climatic zones. Most are sedentary and do not migrate significantly. However, during a shortage of food, irruptive migration can occur. When species are migratory, they will form large flocks in the fall (around August in the Northern Hemisphere) and travel south.
One reason for the success of crows, compared to ravens, is their ability to overlap breeding territory. During breeding season, crows were shown to overlap breeding territory six times as much as ravens. This invasion of breeding ranges allowed a related increase in local population density.
Since crows and magpies have benefited and even increased in numbers due to human development, it was suggested that this might cause increased rates of nest predation of smaller bird species, leading to declines. Several studies have shown this concern to be unfounded. One study examined American crows, which had increased in numbers, were a suspect in nest predation of threatened marbled murrelets. However, Steller's jays, which are successful independently of human development, are more efficient in plundering small birds' nests than American crows and common ravens. Therefore, the human relationship with crows and ravens did not significantly increase nest predation, compared to other factors such as habitat destruction. Similarly a study examining the decline of British songbirds found no link between Eurasian magpie numbers and population changes of 23 songbird species.
Some corvids have strong organization and community groups. Jackdaws, for example, have a strong social hierarchy, and are facultatively colonial during breeding. Providing mutual aid has also been recorded within many of the corvid species.
Young corvids have been known to play and take part in elaborate social games. Documented group games follow "king of the mountain", or "follow the leader", patterns. Other play involves the manipulation, passing, and balancing of sticks. Corvids also take part in other activities, such as sliding down smooth surfaces. These games are understood to play a large role in the adaptive and survival ability of the birds.
Mate selection is quite complex and accompanied with much social play in the Corvidae. Youngsters of social corvid species undergo a series of tests, including aerobatic feats, before being accepted as a mate by the opposite sex.
Some corvids can be aggressive. Blue jays, for example, are well known to attack anything that threatens their nest. Crows have been known to attack dogs, cats, ravens, and birds of prey. Most of the time these assaults take place as a distraction long enough to allow an opportunity for stealing food.
The natural diet of many corvid species is omnivorous, consisting of invertebrates, nestlings, small mammals, berries, fruits, seeds, and carrion. However, some corvids, especially the crows, have adapted well to human conditions and have come to rely on anthropogenic foods. In a US study of American crows, common ravens and Steller's jays around campgrounds and human settlements, the crows appeared to have the most diverse diet of all, taking anthropogenic foods such as bread, spaghetti, fried potatoes, dog food, sandwiches, and livestock feed. The increase in available anthropogenic food sources is contributing to population increase in some corvid species.
Some corvids are predators of other birds. During the wintering months, corvids typically form foraging flocks. However, some crows also eat many agricultural pests including cutworms, wireworms, grasshoppers, and harmful weeds. Some corvids will eat carrion, and since they lack a specialized beak for tearing into flesh, they must wait until animals are opened, whether by other predators or as roadkill.
Many species of corvid are territorial, protecting territories throughout the year or simply during the breeding season. In some cases territories may only be guarded during the day, with the pair joining off-territory roosts at night. Some corvids are well-known communal roosters. Some groups of roosting corvids can be very large, with a roost of 65,000 rooks counted in Scotland. Some, including the rook and the jackdaw, are also communal nesters.
The partner bond in corvids is extremely strong and even lifelong in some species. This monogamous lifestyle, however, can still contain extra-pair copulations. Males and females build large nests together in trees or on ledges. The male will also feed the female during incubation. The nests are constructed of a mass of bulky twigs lined with grass and bark. Corvids can lay between 3 and 10 eggs, typically ranging between 4 and 7. The eggs are usually greenish in colour with brown blotches. Once hatched, the young remain in the nests for up to 6–10 weeks depending on the species. Corvids provide biparental care.
Jackdaws can breed in buildings or in rabbit warrens. White-throated magpie-jays are cooperatively breeding corvids where the helpers are mostly female. Cooperative breeding takes place when additional adults help raise the nestlings. Such helpers at the nest in most cooperatively breeding birds are males, while females join other groups.
The brain-to-body weight ratios of corvid brains are among the largest in birds, equal to that of most great apes and cetaceans, and only slightly lower than a human. Their intelligence is boosted by the long growing period of the young. By remaining with the parents, the young have more opportunities to learn necessary skills.
When compared to dogs and cats in an experiment testing the ability to seek out food according to three-dimensional clues, corvids out-performed the mammals. A meta-analysis testing how often birds invented new ways to acquire food in the wild found corvids to be the most innovative birds. A 2004 review suggests that their cognitive abilities are on par with those of great apes. Despite structural differences, the brains of corvids and great apes both evolved the ability to make geometrical measurements.
Corvid ingenuity is represented through their feeding skills, memorization abilities, use of tools, and group behaviour. Living in large social groups has long been connected with high cognitive ability. To live in a large group, a member must be able to recognize individuals and track the social position and foraging of other members over time. Members must also be able to distinguish between sex, age, reproductive status, and dominance, and to update this information constantly. It might be that social complexity corresponds to their high cognition.
The Eurasian magpie is the only non-mammal species known to be able to recognize itself in a mirror test. Magpies have been observed taking part in elaborate grieving rituals, which have been likened to human funerals, including laying grass wreaths. Marc Bekoff, at the University of Colorado, argues that it shows that they are capable of feeling complex emotions, including grief.
There are also specific examples of corvid cleverness. One carrion crow was documented to crack nuts by placing them on a crosswalk, letting the passing cars crack the shell, waiting for the light to turn red, and then safely retrieving the contents. A group of crows in England took turns lifting garbage bin lids while their companions collected food.
Members of the corvid family have been known to watch other birds, remember where they hide their food, then return once the owner leaves. Corvids also move their food around between hiding places to avoid thievery, but only if they have previously been thieves themselves (that is, they remember previous relevant social contexts, use their own experience of having been a thief to predict the behavior of a pilferer, and can determine the safest course to protect their caches from being pilfered). Studies to assess similar cognitive abilities in apes have been inconclusive.
The ability to hide food requires highly accurate spatial memories. Corvids have been recorded to recall their food's hiding place up to nine months later. It is suggested that vertical landmarks (like trees) are used to remember locations. There has also been evidence that California scrub jays, which store perishable foods, not only remember where they stored their food, but for how long. This has been compared to episodic memory, previously thought unique to humans.
New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) are notable for their highly developed tool fabrication. They make angling tools of twigs and leaves trimmed into hooks, then use the hooks to pull insect larvae from tree holes. Tools are engineered according to task and apparently also to learned preference. Recent studies revealed abilities to solve complicated problems, which suggests high level of innovation of a complex nature. Other corvids that have been observed using tools include the American crow, blue jay and green jay. Diversity in tool design among corvids suggests cultural variation. Again, great apes are the only other animals known to use tools in such a fashion.
Clark's nutcrackers and jackdaws were compared in a 2002 study based on geometric rule learning. The corvids, along with a domestic pigeon, had to locate a target between two landmarks, while distances and landmarks were altered. The nutcrackers were more accurate in their searches than the jackdaws and pigeons.
The scarecrow is an archetypal scare tactic in the agricultural business. However, due to corvids' quick wit, scarecrows are soon ignored and used as perches. Despite farmers' efforts to rid themselves of corvid pests, their attempts have only expanded corvid territories and strengthened their numbers.
Contrary to earlier teleological classifications in which they were seen as "highest" songbirds due to their intelligence, current systematics might place corvids, based on their total number of physical characteristics instead of just their brains (which are the most developed of birds), in the lower middle of the passerine evolutionary tree, dependent on which subgroup is chosen as the most derived. As per one observer:
During the 19th century there arose the belief that these were the 'most advanced' birds, based upon the belief that Darwinian evolution brings 'progress'. In such a classification the 'most intelligent' of birds were listed last reflecting their position 'atop the pyramid'. Modern biologists reject the concept of hierarchical 'progress' in evolution [...].
Corvids are reservoirs (carriers) for the West Nile virus in the United States. They are infected by mosquitoes (the vectors), primarily of the Culex species. Crows and ravens are quickly killed by this disease, so their deaths are an early-warning system when West Nile virus arrives in an area (as are horse and other bird species deaths). One of the first signs that West Nile virus first arrived in the US in 1999 was the death of crows in New York.
Folklore often represents corvids as clever, and even mystical, animals. Some Native Americans, such as the Haida, believed that a raven created the earth and despite being a trickster spirit, ravens were popular on totems, credited with creating man, and considered responsible for placing the Sun in the sky.
Due to their carrion diet, the Celtic peoples strongly associated corvids with war, death and the battlefield – their great intelligence meant that they were often considered messengers, or manifestations of the gods such Bendigeidfran Blessed raven or the Irish Morrigan, underworld deities that may be related to the later Arthurian Fisher King. The Welsh Dream of Rhonabwy illustrates well the association of ravens with war. In many parts of Britain, gatherings of crows, or more often magpies, are counted using the divination rhyme: one for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told. Cornish superstition holds that when a lone magpie is encountered, it must be loudly greeted with respect.
Various Germanic peoples highly revered the raven. The major deity Odin was so associated with ravens throughout history that he gained the kenning "raven god"[b] and the raven banner was the flag of various Viking Age Scandinavian chieftains. He was also attended by Hugin and Munin, two ravens who whispered news into his ears. The Valravn sometimes appears in modern Scandinavian folklore. The Sutton Hoo treasure features stylised corvids with scrolled beaks in the decorative enamel work on the shield and purse lid reflecting their common totemic status to the Anglo-Saxons, whose pre-Christian indigenous beliefs were of the same origin as that of the aforementioned Vikings.
The 6th century BC Greek scribe Aesop featured corvids as intelligent antagonists in many fables. Later, in western literature, popularized by American poet Edgar Allan Poe's work "The Raven", the common raven becomes a symbol of the main character's descent into madness.
The book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and its film adaptation features a crow named Jeremy.
Unlike many other bird families, corvid fitness and reproduction, especially with many crows, has increased due to human development. The survival and reproductive success of certain crows and ravens is assisted by their close relationship with humans.
Human development provides additional resources by clearing land, creating shrublands rich in berries and insects. When the cleared land naturally replenishes, jays and crows use the young dense trees for nesting sites. Ravens typically use larger trees in denser forests.
Despite the fact that most corvids are not threatened (many even increasing due to human activity) a few species are in danger. For example, the destruction of the Southeast Asian rainforests is endangering mixed-species feeding flocks with members from the family Corvidae. Also, since its semiarid scrubland habitat is an endangered ecosystem, the Florida scrub jay has a small and declining population. A number of island species, which are more vulnerable to introduced species and habitat loss, have been driven to extinction, such as the New Zealand raven, or are threatened, like the Mariana crow.
The American crow population of the United States has grown over the years. It is possible that the American crow, due to humans increasing suitable habitat, will cause Northwestern crows and fish crows to decline.
The azure jay (Cyanocorax caeruleus) (Brazilian Portuguese: Gralha-azul - blue crow) is a passeriform bird of the crow family, Corvidae. It is found in the Atlantic Forest, especially with Araucaria angustifolia, in south-eastern Brazil (São Paulo to Rio Grande do Sul), far eastern Paraguay and far north-eastern Argentina. It is the state bird of Paraná.Black-rumped magpie
The black-rumped magpie (Pica bottanensis) is a species of magpie found in central Bhutan to westcentral China. It was formerly classified as a subspecies of the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica).
A molecular phylogenetic study published in 2018 found that the black-rumped magpie is a sister species to the Asir magpie from south-western Saudi Arabia.Black magpie
The black magpie (Platysmurus leucopterus) is a species of bird in the family Corvidae. Despite its name, it is neither a magpie nor, as was long believed, a jay, but a treepie. Treepies are a distinct group of corvids externally similar to magpies. It is monotypic within the genus Platysmurus.Bornean black magpie
The Bornean black magpie (Platysmurus leucopterus aterrimus), also known as the black crested magpie, is a treepie in the family Corvidae. It is endemic to the Southeast Asian island of Borneo.Bornean green magpie
The Bornean green magpie (Cissa jefferyi) is a passerine bird in the crow family, Corvidae. It is endemic to montane forests on the southeast Asian island of Borneo. It was formerly included as a subspecies of the Javan green magpie, but under the common name Short-tailed Green Magpie. Uniquely among the green magpies, the Bornean green magpie has whitish eyes (dark reddish-brown in the other species).It dwells in thick vegetation in the mid and upper storeys of forests, and makes only short flights.The Bornean green magpie builds an open cup nest of sticks in the canopy. The Bornean green magpie has a rather harsh call; a reminder that they are passerine birds which belong to the crow family Corvidae.Cayenne jay
The Cayenne jay (Cyanocorax cayanus) is a species of bird in the family Corvidae.
It is found in Brazil, French Guiana, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela.
Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical moist lowland forest, subtropical or tropical dry shrubland, and heavily degraded former forest.
In 1760 the French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson included a description of the Cayenne jay in his Ornithologie based on a specimen collected in Cayenne, French Guiana. He used the French name Le geay de Cayenne and the Latin Garrulus Cayanensis. Although Brisson coined Latin names, these do not conform to the binomial system and are not recognised by the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. When in 1766 the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus updated his Systema Naturae for the twelfth edition, he added 240 species that had been previously described by Brisson. One of these was the Cayenne jay. Linnaeus included a brief description, coined the binomial name Corvus cayanus and cited Brisson's work. This species is now placed in the genus Cyanocorax that was introduced by the German zoologist Friedrich Boie in 1826. No subspecies are recognised.Cissa (genus)
Cissa is a genus of relatively short-tailed magpies, though sometimes known as hunting cissas, that reside in the forests of tropical and subtropical southeast Asia and adjacent regions. The four species are quite similar with bright red bills, a mainly green plumage, black mask, and rufous wings. Due to excess exposure to sunlight (and, possibly, a low-carotenoid diet), they often appear rather turquoise (instead of green) in captivity. They are carnivorous, and mainly feed on arthropods and small vertebrates.Cyanocitta
Cyanocitta is a genus of birds in the family Corvidae, a family which contains the crows, jays and magpies. Established by Hugh Edwin Strickland in 1845, it contains the following species:
The name Cyanocitta is a combination of the Greek words kuanos, meaning "dark blue" and kitta, meaning "jay".Eastern jungle crow
The eastern jungle crow (Corvus levaillantii) is a bird in the family Corvidae.
It is found in China, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, and Thailand.Jay
Jays are several species of medium-sized, usually colorful and noisy, passerine birds in the crow family, Corvidae. The names jay and magpie are somewhat interchangeable, and the evolutionary relationships are rather complex. For example, the Eurasian magpie seems more closely related to the Eurasian jay than to the East Asian blue and green magpies, whereas the blue jay is not closely related to either.Magpie
Magpies are birds of the Corvidae (crow) family. The black and white Eurasian magpie is widely considered one of the most intelligent animals in the world and one of only a few non-mammal species able to recognize itself in a mirror test. In addition to other members of the genus Pica, corvids considered as magpies are in the genera Cissa.
Magpies of the genus Pica are generally found in temperate regions of Europe, Asia and western North America, with populations also present in Tibet and high elevation areas of India, i.e. Ladakh (Kargil and Leh) and Pakistan. Magpies of the genus Cyanopica are found in East Asia and also the Iberian peninsula. The birds called magpies in Australia are not related to the magpies in the rest of the world (see Australian magpie).Piping crow
The piping crow (Corvus typicus) is a species of bird in the family Corvidae. It is endemic to Sulawesi in Indonesia. Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist lowland forest.Ratchet-tailed treepie
The ratchet-tailed treepie (Temnurus temnurus) is a species of bird in the crow and jay family Corvidae. The species is also known as the notch-tailed treepie. It is monotypic within the genus Temnurus.The species has a disjunct distribution in Southeast Asia and China. One population is found in southern Thailand, another in southern Vietnam, another in central and northern Vietnam and Laos, and the last in Hainan in China. Its natural habitat tropical moist broadleaf evergreen lowland forests, and secondary forest and scrubland.Sichuan jay
The Sichuan jay (Perisoreus internigrans) is a species of bird in the family Corvidae. It is endemic to China. It is one of three members of the genus Perisoreus, the others being the Siberian jay, P. infaustus, found from Norway to eastern Russia, and the gray jay, P. canadensis, restricted to the boreal forest and western montane regions of North America. All three species store food and live year-round on permanent territories in coniferous forests.
Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist montane forests. It is threatened by habitat loss. They're mostly situated in isolated fragments of highly elevated coniferous forests on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau of west-central China. These locations are generally isolated, because of the mountainous terrain in that particular region. However, it is predicted that both of the extent of suitable habitat and the suitability of that habitat will decrease substantially under climate change. Climate change might force these birds to migrate northward and upward, but areas remaining for such compensatory extension are quite restricted. In addition, acceptable habitat will become much more disconnected, which may increase the negative effects of climate change indirectly by slowing or halting gene flow and accelerating the rate of extinction of fragmented local populations.Slender-billed crow
The slender-billed crow (Corvus enca) is a Passerine bird of the family Corvidae, in the genus Corvus. The violet crow has been found to be distinct genetically and separated as Corvus violaceus.It is found in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical moist lowland forest and subtropical or tropical mangrove forest.Sumatran treepie
The Sumatran treepie or Sunda treepie (Dendrocitta occipitalis) is a species of bird in the family Corvidae. It is endemic to the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical moist lowland forest and subtropical or tropical moist montane forest. The Bornean treepie (D. cinerascens) is sometimes considered to be a subspecies of this bird.Treepie
The treepies comprise four closely related genera (Dendrocitta, Crypsirina, Temnurus and Platysmurus) of long-tailed passerine birds in the family Corvidae. There are 11 species of treepie. Treepies are similar to magpies. Most treepies are black, white, gray or brown. They are found in Southeast Asia. They live in tropical forests. They are highly arboreal and rarely come to the ground to feed.Tufted jay
The tufted jay (Cyanocorax dickeyi) is a species of bird in the crow and jay family Corvidae. It is endemic to a small area of the Sierra Madre Occidental of Sinaloa and Durango in Mexico.
It is resident in relatively moist, epiphyte-laden subtropical montane forests, especially those with a large component of oaks.Urocissa
Urocissa is a genus of birds in the family Corvidae, a family which contains the crows, jays and magpies. Established by Jean Cabanis in 1850, it contains the following species:
Urocissa is a combination of the Greek words for "tail" (oura) and "magpie" (kissa).
Extant species of family Corvidae