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The Personal Crow Observations of Michael Westerfield

May 15, 2008

A Clamoration of Crows: Some Ruminations

This morning, as I was sitting on the porch of a very rustic cabin in the Arkansas Ozarks, peacefully listening to the rushing of the rain swollen “crick” in the “back holler”, I gradually became aware of another rather discordant sound emerging from the roar of the water. It slowly grew louder and more distinct until I realized that it was the sound of a large and very excited group of crows moving rapidly in my direction. I didn’t see what it was all about. From the sound of it I imagine they were probably mobbing one of the larger owls that was unwise enough to be caught out in daylight in “crow country”.

When the noise was at its height, a new phrase popped into my mind to describe it: a “Clamoration of Crows”. Not bad, I thought. Crows are known both for their clamor and their orations. It certainly fits a lot better than that popular and very inappropriate term, “Murder of Crows” that so many folks are using these days.

I’ve always hated the term “Murder of Crows” and try everything I can to suppress its usage. Despite Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and various folk tales and superstitions, crows are not particularly murderous, certainly not when compared with the raptors - hawks, eagles, and especially owls - who make their living by killing. I can understand the liking that some have for “murder of crows”, it does have a delightfully spine chilling sound, but its use has done these marvelously intelligent and highly social birds a great disservice. Their black (ominous to some) color and raucous (to those that do not listen closely) voices put them at enough of a disadvantage without hanging an undeserved murder rap on them as well.

The reputation of crows as birds of ill omen seems to date from the days when humans got civilized enough to engage in large scale warfare that left battlefields strewn with plenty of corpses to attract crows and other carrion eaters. Crows haunting battlefields was, of course, solely the result of the actions of “murders of men”. Before that, crows and ravens (which, after all are just big crows) in folklore tended to be intelligent tricksters, forever outwitting the cleverest humans. They were objects more of grudging admiration than of fear.

Some folks think that crows have murderous eating habits. Its true that crows will eat just about anything that can be eaten, though some crows show distinct preference for some foods and dislike of others. About the only things which they won’t eat are green leafy things and other crows (and I wouldn’t swear to either of those if they were pushed to it by starvation). Most commonly they eat bugs, grubs, seeds, small fruits, carrion (road kills), and human garbage. Which other things they eat depends on the time of year and locally available resources.

The feeding behavior which shocks human observers most usually occurs in the Spring when the crows are raising their young. Crow babies are BIG, grow fast, and consume a tremendous amount of food. To fill those gaping beaks, crows will hunt anything that they can manage to catch and this includes baby rabbits, eggs and young of other birds, frogs, small snakes, young squirrels, and the like. Interestingly enough, predation by crows to feed their young is reported not to decrease the population of prey species. Crows tend to nest early in the Spring and they only produce one successful brood of young a year. The species whose eggs and young they take, will generally produce one or more additional set of offspring in a given year and the later nests are generally more successful in producing healthy young, even discounting crow predation. Seeing a crow kill a young rabbit or baby robin can be distressing, but they are doing it to ensure the survival of their own offspring, and there will never be less rabbits or robins because of them.

A behavior, which seems widespread in legend, but which is of dubious reality is that crows will sit in judgment over one of their flock members who has transgressed in some way and, if they find him wanting, execute him/her by viciously attacking until the culprit is dead. Most commonly the offense cited in the stories is that a bird serving on watch duty while others feed was inattentive and allowed a predator to kill a flock member, bring the death penalty down on himself. If such a thing actually happened, perhaps there would be some justification for calling the group involved a “murder of crows”, but I don’t really believe it ever has.

While I have never actually seen it myself, I do believe that on rare occasions crows will, indeed, kill other crows. Over the years, crows.net has received three or four good, eyewitness reports of one crow killing another in the presence of other crows who only act as excited spectators. I think that these observations represented battles for territory or dominance between two male birds, the same sort of battle that is fought between the males of many species. Crows will often have “flurry fights”, brief challenges or disagreements between flock members that last for a few seconds. The more serious territorial challenges between two dominant birds generally end like the majority do in all species, the weaker male admits defeat and flees the field. In a very few cases something goes wrong with the normal pattern, perhaps the males are too evenly matched and neither will admit defeat. In that case the fight may be to the death with, according to one observer, one bird holding the other to the ground by standing on him and pecking him to death.

A murderer crow? Perhaps. Certainly not a “murder of crows”. This same sort of thing sometimes happens in other species when males battle for dominance, including our own.

There is a very specific reason why I don’t believe that crows ever kill a “guardian crow” for dereliction of duty, with or without a trial. It never occurs to most people that when they are looking at a small group of crows feeding while one or more acts a “sentry” that what they are seeing is a close knit crow family. The sentry is generally a parent of the younger crows on the ground. Both parents may act as sentry, or they may take turns, or an older sibling may take a turn. Crows are incredibly alert for danger, but sometimes predators succeed and a crow family member is killed. In such cases the family is likely to chase after the predator to rescue their kin or to hold a “crow funeral” to mark (dare we say mourn) its death than kill mom or dad or older brother.

In actual fact, crows are almost the reverse of murderers. They are well known to be extremely caring for their family members, to feed and care for a wounded companion or offspring, sometimes for long periods at great personal risk. They will risk their lives for another crow that is in danger and will valiantly attack and drive off far larger predators who threaten their group. Rather than kill a strange young orphan crow that happens into their territory, a flock will frequently adopt it as one of their own.

While I was writing the paragraph above, a term came into my mind that much more suitably characterizes those small groups of black birds you see everywhere: a “Caring of Crows”.

Other appropriate names for groups of crows, some of which are in current usage an some of which are more obscure, are as follows. Remember, no ornithologist, ever refers to a “murder of crows”.

Flock of Crows: This is the most common term for a group of crows which is larger than a mated pair with several offspring. A flock can be any number from less than a dozen to many thousand.

Cooperative Group: This is a term ornithologists and particularly corvid specialists will use for a mated pair and their resident offspring to avoid having to use the taboo word “family”. There is nothing that biologist fear worse than being accused of attributing human characteristics to other animals, even when the term in question is obviously correct.

Family of Crows: The term that most clearly describes to the “layman” the relationship of the members of that small group of crows in the yard to each other. Usually a mated pair and the offspring from the most recent nest, and possibly including one or more offspring from previous years’ nests. Size seems to normally range from three to eight or so, depending upon many circumstances.

Roost of Crows or Crow Roost: Crows tend to gather together – roost – at night to sleep. From late fall to very early spring, crows form large communal roosts at night. These roosts may contain up to tens of thousands of birds. These roosts are amazing to see, particularly when the birds are arriving in the evening.

Mob of Crows: Crows will attack and drive away predators that enter their territory. When a number of crows engage in a mid-air dogfight with a hawk, eagle, owl or other predator, its called “mobbing”. When crows are engaging in a group attack, they are a “mob of crows”.

Gang of Crows: I don’t know if this is an “official” term or not. There are a lot more crows than there are available nesting territories. Since crows can’t mate and reproduce without having a territory, there a lot of unmated male and female crows out there. Some have to wait for years to mate. Many of these younger birds will “hang out” in large groups, feeding and socializing and arguing rather like teenage humans. I call these groups Gangs of Crows.

Parliament of Crows: I believe this one is a fanciful British usage. Those black clothed birds sitting around cawing their unintelligible arguments endlessly do rather remind one of members of parliament. Sometimes, Congress of Crows.

Cawcus (or Caucus) of Crows: Another political allusion.

Cacophony of Crows: If this on doesn’t exist, it should.

Surely you could use one of these instead of that most unsuitable “Murder of Crows”.

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A "CROW FUNERAL": JUNE 1, 2001

Several times in the past, I have heard reports of "crow funerals", various types of group behavior by which crows acknowledge the death of another crow. I had never observed anything that might fit into this category of behavior until today.

At about 5:10 p.m. I was bicycling home when I heard the cawing of a number of crows from above me. My first thought was that a group of crows were "mobbing" an enemy and I looked to see what was going on. About a dozen crows were flying above, coming together and moving apart, all the while keeping up a steady vocalization which sounded almost, but not quite like a mobbing call. No predator was anywhere in sight and their flight behavior was not typical of engaging an enemy.

As I watched, small flights of crows joined the group until there were perhaps 30 crows present. All kept up a continuous cawing, and although the birds clearly were interacting with each other in flight, they seemed neither to be challenging nor courting each other.

Eventually, seeking the reason for the behavior, I moved up closer to the area that seemed to be the center of attention. There, on the side of the road, was a dead crow that appeared to have been hit by a car and to have been dead for a short time. The birds continued to circle overhead as I examined the dead crow. I moved away, leaving the dead bird in place so that I could continue to observe the group behavior. The birds continued on in the same mode until a man who was working in a nearby yard came over and swept the dead bird into a clump of bushed. The crows lingered for another minute or so then dispersed.

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Sunday, February 20, 2000

Drove down to Norwich this evening, after an absence of a couple of weeks, to see what was going on at the roost. First I checked out the assembly area in the cemetary, and not one bird was present. Next I went to the shopping center area where the roost had been, and again not a crow to be seen. I knew that there was still a roost; I had seen large flights of crows heading in and I could still see flights overhead, but heading beyond the old area.

After chasing crows for fifteen minutes or so, I spotted a large congeregation at the school bus parking area alongside the railroad tracks. They remained there until just before dark then all left and reassembled to roost in a residential area a few hundred yards away. This area was actually just about half a mine down the road from the original shopping center lot.

The puzzling thing about this change of location was that it defied the conventional wisdom as to the location of city/suburban crow roosts. Many roosts are located in brightly lit areas, such as the original shopping center roost, and it is said that they like these areas because the lights let them spot predators - particularly owls - and see to fly if they must escape. But the new roost location was in about as dark an area as you could find in a city, an old Victorian street with virtually no street lights. Crows are always interesting.

Sunday, November 28, 1999

I had made three or four trips down to Norwich to observe the communal roost. During the course of those visits, I tried to get the lay of the land and identify the "staging areas" and the main roost. On my first visit, starting about an hour before sunset, I posted myself in the main area where I had spotted numerous crows in past years and set to watching the sky and attempting to follow the flights of crows to their destinations. The area was located in the southwest corner of Norwich near the intersection of Routes 82 and 395. The area which I suspected to be the communal roost was centered on the Staples company parking lot between Route 82 and Old Samem Road.

On the first visit, I followed the flights of crows west on Route 82 past the Maplewood Cemetary, then south on Montville Road. I found a large congregation of crows in a gravel mining area just south of the cemetary. Many hundreds of birds were in the trees, perched on the gravel piles and walking around on the ground. Surely a major "staging area", I thought. Towards dusk, the crows all took off and headed towards the roosting area around Staples.

The next visit I made was a few days later. I drove straight to the gravel bank at about the same time of day and there was not a crow to be seen.. After waiting a bit, and still no birds, I drove up into the cemetary to take a look there. Sure enough, hundreds of crows were assembled there, sitting in the trees and wandering around between the graves. I couldn't stay until dusk, and when I left the birds were still in this new "staging area".

Third visit. No crows in the gravel bank. Crows in the cemetary and, as dusk approached, they flew off in the direction of the Staples parking lot. I followed after them, but when I reached the parking lot, very few birds were in evidence, about a couple of dozen in the nearby trees. However, flights of crows were visible above the trees to the north in an area called on the map East Great Plain (which was odd because it seemed to be a hill). I followed a series of roads up the hill and found a vast number of crows in a new well wooded subdivision on Sherwood Lane. At this point I didn't know what to think. Is this a staging area? Is this the main roost?

Today, I went down again, determined to solve this mystery. It was a bright, clear day with the temperature in the 50s. I arrived at the Staples parking lot at 3:25 p.m., about an hour and a half before dark. A few crows were perched in the trees that surround the parking lot. Most of those had left by 3:55 p.m. At 4:00 I checked the gravel pit and there were no crows. At 4:05 I checked the grave yard and not a single crow was present. I drove back towards Staples and drove up the hill behind the parking area. In the subdivision, thousands of crows were perched in the trees in an area centered on Sherwood and Boxwood Lanes. The time was 4:15 p.m. The curious thing was that the heads of all of the thousands of birds perched in the trees all seemed pointed in the same direction. Not having a compass or map with me, I noted that I needed to check on that phenomena again next time and see in which direction (if any) they faced next time.

At about 4:25 p.m., the crows began flying down towards Route 82 and I drove back to the parking lot and watched as thousands of birds flew in and filled all the trees in the area. For half an hour, the sky was filled with crows, then as it grew darker they settled down in the surrounding trees until, in the dim light, it looked like the leafless trees were in full foliage. Next, I drove back up Sherwood Lane and found the area empty of crows.

Questions to be answered: Why and how often do the crows change their staging areas? Were the crows on Sherwood Lane really facing in the same direction? Were they facing the direction of the communal roost or were they, perhaps facing out of the wind or responding to some other environmental stimulus? Note: the birds in the communal roost were facing all different directions.

Monday, November 29, 1999

7:00 a.m. Clear, 35 degrees F. Grey dawn about 6:30 with crows calling in the distance.. A week ago or so I stopped putting out food overnight so that the crows wouldn't wake me up with their calling at dawn. I put the food out at noon now and they have learned about the shift in schedule very quickly. Later, when it gets colder, I'll switch back to morning feeding.

1:05 p.m. A single crow sounding the alarm call caught my attention in the West Main Street area of Willimantic. The crow was single-handedly "mobbing" a red tailed hawk, swooping down at it repeatedly while keeping up the alarm calls. After a minute or two, it circled away, still calling, swung back to swoop at the hawk again, then circled the hawk in widening circles. It seemed apparent that the crow was calling for others to help mob the hawk and when, after a few minutes, none appeared, it flew off, still sounding the alarm call.

Wednesday, December 1, 1999

6:50 a.m. Clear, 20 degrees. I was awakened as usual this morning by the sound of crows cawing in the distance. Usually, shortly after I first hear them, one or more bird will land in the large sugar maple tree overlooking my porch rooftop feeding station and give a few caws before landing to feed. This morning, however, I heard a call different from any I had heard before. It was somewhere between an alarm call and the continuous cawing that a single bird would make when he was calling others to a food bonanza, but without getting a response. I looked through the one-way mirrored glass in the window and saw a single crow calling a sequence of seven caws, pausing, then repeating the sequence. The bird was obviously reluctant to come to feed, but I could see no cause for alarm and the call was distinctly different from the alarm that was given for a cat or other potential danger.

After a few minutes the crow left and I went outside. The cause of the crow's uneasiness was immediately apparent. On the opposite side of the house, out of my view from the window, was a flock of several hundred blackbirds (possibly grackles) which took flight as soon as I walked out.

This experience illustrates the difficulty both of trying to catalog the calls of crows and to communicate the subtle distinctions between them in writing. I could clearly distinguish that I was hearing a new call, but without a recording of that call, it would be impossible to convey the new call to others, and the liklihood of such a situation happening again when a recorder is at hand is remote. The call meaning "there's lots of good food here but also a bunch of blackbirds" might, therefore, never be cataloged.

Saturday, December 4, 1999

Checked on Norwich roost area again. At 3:30 p.m. no crows were gathered in the cemetary. At the gravel pit a machine was operating and the crows had gathered across the road at another portion of the operation where no work was in progress. It appears that the staging area moves around within a certain area depending, at least to some extent, upon the human activity taking place at the different locations. The birds abandoned the cemetary on weekends when many visitors were present and the gravel pit when machines were operating. The main roost area, however, so far has remained the same.

Monday, December 6, 1999

Heavy rain in the afternoon. At 3:30 p.m. No crows were gathered in the cemetary or areas near the gravel pit. A few hundred crows, many fewer than previously, were gathered in the subdivision. A relatively small number of birds gathered in the main roost area towards dark, but only about 10% of usual number. Rain was pouring down very hard as night fell.

Wednesday, December 22, 1999

Traveled down to the Norwich roost again on this clear, cool afternoon. The size of the roost seems to have expanded greatly, both in number of birds and in area, since my previous visits. It would be a challenge to work out a method of mapping the roosting area and somehow estimating the number of birds present on any given night. I begin to get the impression that both staging areas and roosts are not static and that their populations fluctuate widely depending on a variety of factors.

Saturday, December 25, 1999

I had a reminder this morning that nature makes no allowance for human fancies. Wishing to share the Christmas festivities wityh the birds, I set out a feast at the rooftop feeding station. The crows and bluejays, the starlings and sparrows, the mourning doves and red breasted woodpecker (who loves corn chips) all came. While they were in a frenzy of feeding, I took the dogs outside. I was standing on the side of the house when I heard a loud "thump" against the top floor dormer window. A red tailed hawk had swooped out of the sky, hoping to get his breakfast from among the feasting birds, but he missed his aim. He fluttered down and sat on the front porch for a few minutes then flew off to a high perch. It was a reminder that even on Christmas the hawks are waiting.

The afternoon was cold and very clear and bright. As far as I could tell, the crows did not assemble at staging areas in Norwich, but instead flew directly to the roost about half an hour later than usual. Initially they were spread out throughout the roost, but as it grew later and darker and colder, they began to move into a smaller and smaller area until finally they were all packed into the smallest area possible. If tonight is like last night, the temperature should drop below 20 degrees. Surely packing all those birds together must moderate the temperature in the roost and keep the collective mass of crows much warmer than individual crows roosting separately.

Saturday, January 22, 2000

While driving home at about twilight on a short section of highway connector by the Eastbrook Mall, less than a mile from my house, I was surprised to see a large number of crows engaged in the sort of group flights that characterize roosts or staging areas. I turned around and found a few hundred crows gathered in the trees around the mall parking lot. The gathering had all the appearances of a small roost and I marveled that it could be within half a mile of my house without my noticing it. The day was clear and very cold, about 10 degrees at 5:00 p.m.

Sunday, January 23, 2000

I returned to the mall area at about 5:00 p.m. today and the gathering of crows was gone. One or two birds sat in the trees, but there was no evidence of a roost or staging area. What can this mean? Today, the weather was warmer, about 25 degrees and heavily overcast. I had noticed before that more birds appeared at the Norwich roost on overcast days than on a clear one. This is a subject that requires further investigation.

Wednesday, February 2, 2000

The crows have never returned to roost at the Eastbrook Mall. A visit today to the Norwich area found the roost still there, although its center had moved about a quarter of a mile up the road. It was a clear, cold and windy day. A staging area was located in the cemetary, with many birds perched on and around the monuments. Took some photos which should be classics if they turn out.

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