You’d think seagulls would be the most common bird at San Francisco’s Pacific Ocean beaches, but they’re not. Surprisingly, crows and ravens are the most populous birds to occupy our local shoreline, and the Bay Area crow population is a full four times larger than that of ravens.
If you feel like you’re seeing more crows in San Francisco these days, you’re probably right. Crows had nearly been eradicated from the city in the mid-1980s, when only a couple dozen remained here. But recent bird counts estimate the current San Francisco crow population at nearly 1,000.
The best guess that birders have at the population size of any species of feathered friends comes from an informal, annual census known as the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. These late-December volunteer bird counts happen all over the country, and the Bay Area’s local chapter, the Golden Gate Audubon Society, conducts ours.
This year’s count estimated around 900 crows in San Francisco, and nearly 2,500 in Oakland — each of which represents an exponential increase over the last 20 years.
Bird observers aren’t entirely sure why more crows are showing up in the Bay Area. But it might have to do with the fact these very intelligent birds have realized that no one is likely to shoot them in San Francisco or Oakland. The crow has never been a very popular bird, and has long had a “varmint” reputation as a nuisance animal (if not an outright bad omen). Back in the early 1900s, Golden Gate Park hired police to shoot any crows they saw in the park, as well as other then-reviled animals like coyotes and blue jays.
California still has a crow hunting season, even in the modern era. (It runs from Dec. 1 to April 4, and there are plenty of exceptions that let you shoot crows in the off-season.) While city dwellers might consider crows a mere irritant, killing crows is pretty important in parts of the state that grow corn and nuts, which the crows love to feast upon.
In all, the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that about 35,000 crows are shot in California every year, mostly in areas where hunting is popular. As a survival tactic crows may be migrating to big cities as a refuge — and one with plenty of food. (Like raccoons, they consider human garbage to be excellent cuisine.)
Crows remain in San Francisco year-round, even during the rainy season. But you may not be seeing the same crows all year. Crows are a unique species in that some of them migrate, some stay put all year, and some packs are a combination of migrators and non-migrators.
And all of the caw-ing and squawking you hear from crows is actually intelligent speech. Ornithologists have found that crows have specific calls they give for announcing their locations, or the whereabouts of food or predators.
You might sometimes confuse ravens for crows, and the Bay Area populations of both birds have increased dramatically in recent years. Both are classified in a family of birds called corvids, though ravens are usually larger, have V-shaped tails, and tend to travel mostly in pairs.
And the two species hate each other. They often fight, and researchers estimate that the crows start the fight in 97 percent of these incidents, since ravens often rob crows’ nests for their eggs.
Crows, however, do the exact same thing — just to other species. It’s great that crows eat up mice and insects, although many bird observers blame the crows for a decline in some songbird and waterbird populations. In particular, the endangered species known as the snowy plover — those plump little birds often seen at Ocean Beach and Crissy Field — are a favorite for corvids’ nest-robbing meals, and crows are considered a driving factor in the plovers’ threatened status.
While ravens are known for tormenting people by repeating the word “nevermore,” crows are considered some of the most intelligent birds on earth. They know how to open plastic food bags, they drop nuts where cars drive to crack them open, and they use crosswalks to avoid getting hit by automobiles. And since no one’s shooting at them here, San Francisco is becoming a more popular destination, as the crow flies.