Have I ever told you about my fascination with urban crow behaviour?
No? Well, that’s probably because whenever I mention crows around here, I am treated to exaggerated eye-rolls and stifled giggles from my loving children. But since you’re in London and I can’t actually see you looking heavenward and wondering how to shut me up, I shall proceed.
(Photo: Monique Beaudin, Montreal Gazette)
It all started one winter’s afternoon a few years back, while I was driving out toward the airport. The sun was low in the sky, and the trees that line the airport parkway were jam-packed with birds. Loud, raucous black birds, and it seemed like more were flying in from every direction to join them.
As I drove back along the same route half an hour later, I saw the most peculiar sight: great black drifts of crows, rising out of those trees, and filling the skies as they flew northwest in a huge black noisy stream. Seriously, it looked just like that scene in Harry Potter where the owls fill the sky. Except it was, you know, crows.
I’d never seen anything like it.
But you know how it is—once you’ve noticed something, you start seeing it more and more often. And it turns out that for Ottawa’s crows, this is just part of their daily routine. The trees along the airport parkway are just one of a series of way-stations, a gathering point where they meet an hour or so before sunset. And then, as if by some signal, they set off for their night-time destination.
It’s an amazing sight, watching the crows converge from all directions, thousands upon thousands of them. You literally cannot see the branches of the trees, they’re that thick with crows. And the noise! They caw and shriek and chatter amongst themselves, as they settle in for the night; if you are nearby, it’s an awe-inspiring, eerie sound.
I did some research, and here’s the kicker: No one knows exactly why they do it.
Some say it’s for safety (because seriously, you would not want to mess with 10,000+ crows—just ask Tippi Hedrin); others say it’s a way to keep warm; or maybe it’s a social thing for them, like some kind of gigantic crow campfire, except without the marshmallows. Or the fire.
Okay, I know. Most people don’t like crows. They’re dirty, they’re noisy, they get into your garbage and steal eggs out of other birds’ nests.
Crows are smarter than monkeys
But they’re also unbelievably smart. They can make tools—and okay, yes, monkeys can do that too, but monkeys have never been seen making tools so they can make other tools that they then use to get a bit of food. That takes planning, forethought, dexterity.
All of which crows have. And if that doesn’t worry you, consider this:
Crows are watching you…and talking about you.
“Well, she really shouldn’t wear that shirt with those pants.”
If you’ve ever had the feeling that crows were watching you…chances are they actually were.
Crows live in families, and they spend a lot of their time observing humans, probably because we’re their main source of food. Not that they eat us (well, not usually), but they know we know where the good food is, and they know we’re a bit dim about how we hide it.
Garbage bags? Feh. Your friendly neighbourhood crows know that those are really just giant treat repositories.
Also, crows can tell us apart. And they can hold grudges. Scientists have shown that crows recognize human faces, and that they pass this info among themselves.
We know this because some researchers at a university in Seattle, wearing creepy masks, captured several crows and tagged them, then released them. After that, whenever the scientists wandered around the campus wearing those masks, the crows would scream at them; and not just the crows who’d been tagged, either. Pretty soon, the masked scientists couldn’t set foot outside without being dive-bombed and harassed by enraged crows.
Oh, and it wasn’t just “we hate guys wearing masks.” Because when the scientists went out wearing other masks, the crows weren’t interested.
And apparently the story of the mean guys in the masks became legendary among those crows, because eventually, even crows who hadn’t been born when the tagging occurred got in on the act.
Okay, I know I probably haven’t convinced you to love crows. In fact, I’m kind of scaring myself now.
We share our urban environment with these loud, smart, sharp-eyed, sharp-beaked animals, and 9 times out of 10 we don’t give them a second thought, other than to whoosh them away if they come too near our garbage bins.
Maybe it’s time we gave the crows their due. Or at least stop my kids from mocking my interest in urban crow behaviour.
Because that’s totally legit.