Observations of some mammals and birds touching their dead provoke questions about the motivation and adaptive value of this potentially risky behaviour. Here, we use controlled experiments to determine if tactile interactions are characteristic of wild American crow responses to dead crows, and what the prevalence and nature of tactile interactions suggests about their motivations. In Experiment 1, we test if food or information acquisition motivates contact by presenting crows with taxidermy-prepared dead crows, and two species crows are known to scavenge: dead pigeons and dead squirrels. In Experiment 2, we test if territoriality motivates tactile interactions by presenting crows with taxidermy crows prepared to look either dead or upright and life-like. In Experiment 1, we find that crows are significantly less likely to make contact but more likely to alarm call and recruit other birds in response to dead crows than to dead pigeons and squirrels. In addition, we find that aggressive and sexual encounters with dead crows are seasonally biased. These findings are inconsistent with feeding or information acquisition-based motivation. In Experiment 2, we find that crows rarely dive-bomb and more often alarm call and recruit other crows to dead than to life-like crows, behaviours inconsistent with responses given to live intruders. Consistent with a danger response hypothesis, our results show that alarm calling and neighbour recruitment occur more frequently in response to dead crows than other stimuli, and that touching dead crows is atypical. Occasional contacts, which take a variety of aggressive and sexual forms, may result from an inability to mediate conflicting stimuli.This article is part of the theme issue 'Evolutionary thanatology: impacts of the dead on the living in humans and other animals'.