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Getting To Know Your Neighborhood Crow

Suzanne Hogan

The American Crow is a smart and wary social bird with all black feathers, black talons and a black beak. Every once in a while during the winter, you can see thousands of these crows gathering in certain spots around parts of Kansas City.  Over the past 50 years, crows have been congregating more and more in urban environments – and if you’ve been in the middle of a dive-bombing murder, you know they create quite the disturbance.

A large congregation of crows took over my neighborhood for a couple weeks at the end of last December and into January. At dusk they’d fly in. Big black crow-shaped leaves blanketed the treetops.

“They were all just like going nuts, screaming and throwing things,” said my sister Jessica, who lives with me. She is strongly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” She was terrified.

“I don’t think people realize how big they are. And they’re menacing, and they hang out in packs, and they make horrible sounds. And it’s my home, that’s what I kept thinking. It was like, I have to come home to this?”

It was a wild party in the trees over our house that we weren’t invited to. They left an awful mess.  We started referring to our cars as poop leopards, and the front porch was caked in bird droppings.

“The first time I ever washed my car I think, ever,” said Jessica.

Not knowing much about crows – in our ignorance we resorted to making fun of them. And then one day, they left.

Even though it took a month to get the poop stench out of the porch, we wondered: Why had a murder of crows come to our neighborhood in the first place?  Where did they go?

I wanted answers.

Kevin McGowan of Cornell’s Lab of ornithology says, “Crows don’t like to do anything alone or quietly.”

He has been studying crow behavior for 25 years.  He’s climbed 70-foot trees up into crow’s nests. He marks and tracks crow families. 

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR

  He says crows have been congregating at dusk in the winter months to prepare to roost since there have been crows. All across North America this takes place.  The congregations include local crows who live here year-round and groups of crows from other areas who are in town for the winter and want to hang out. The places they choose change every couple days or so.

“There are no leaders in this and it does sort of seem to be a group consensus,” says McGowan.

It’s like they all have a sort of vague notion of what they want to accomplish: to pick a good spot where they all feel comfortable.

McGowan says, “There’s a tipping point that if you get enough birds to go everybody thinks it’s a good idea and everybody will go that way.”

He says even though crows are an extremely common bird, there is a lot that is unknown about them.  But he has discovered a lot of surprising things. They have strongly connected family structures, they stick together in their territories, they’re cooperative breeders, young crows help their parents raise the young.  They can solve puzzles, recognize human faces and cars.

“They chase my car down the street, they know my car, they pick my car out of thousands of other cars, because I’m the guy that tosses them peanuts,” says McGowan.

And sure people feed birds all the time, birds love to be fed—but this is different.  This proves something more. The crows know him.

He says, “The fact that a bird is looking at people and thinking about the different individuals. Do you do that with birds in your backyard, do you think about individuals? You know usually we don’t. Usually it’s ‘Oh there’s a crow.’ Well it’s not just any old crow, it’s a specific crow. That specific crow could know you as a specific individual person and react in an appropriate way depending on who you were to it.”

The thought of a murder of face-recognizing crows was creating dark poetic thoughts in my mind about what the natural world was trying to tell me. But it also sparked thoughts about animal congregation terminology, like a murder of crows. These are popular to writers and nature enthusiasts.  Some of my favorites are a battery of barracudas and a lounge of lizards. But McGowan dismisses that kind of talk.

“To a scientist, they’re all flocks so I say flock of geese not a gaggle of geese,” he says. “And murder comes from the fact that crows have a dark reputation because they’re scavengers. In Europe, they were an indication of something that happened around death, be it a battlefield or a plague or something like that. They were there to peck the eyes of out of whatever they could find. But I try to get people to not use that because that just plays into that old bad reputation kind of thing. Murder with its connotations is just playing into that old stereotype, and I’d like to stop it.”

Flocks of crows can get pretty massive –  thousands and thousands of birds.

And any time you see large number of animals coming together it’s usually for two reasons, to detract predators and share information about food. Which are both things that are happening when crows congregate -- but there’s even more to it.

McGowan recalls a young bird he was radio tracking in New York. The bird was part of a congregation of 5,000.

“All the birds took off and went to the south and towards campus, but this kid’s signal went the opposite direction and he actually turned home and went home and slept on his home territory that night. So he basically went for the party but didn’t do the sleep over. And what that means is, he was there for the social stuff – it had nothing to do with predator protection or food information, he was there for something else completely and exactly what that is we don’t really know yet.”

Crow congregations in urban areas have been increasing over the past 50 years or so. It’s warmer in cities. Also crows can’t see very well in the dark, so they like big well-lit trees that city lights provide to protect them from the great horned owl. And in 1972 the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act was extended to cover crows, which protected them from their other biggest predator – people.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR

“Up until that point they were not protected,” says McGowan. “And then suddenly they were protected.  And they’re still hunted, there are still seasons on them, but you can just shoot one whenever you see it.”

McGowan thinks this has made crows less wary of people over the years, “Crows have changed their behavior, basically because we’ve changed our behavior.

Crows rip open trash bags and can be a general nuisance to a city, known to take over downtown areas, hospitals, and schools.

But until there is some way to figure out how to attract them to roost where people aren’t we’re going to have to deal with these occasional neighbors despite any fear or hatred.

McGowan knows that crows are an unpopular bird, but encourages people to try to make a little attitude adjustment.

“People just think they’re evil and nasty, and they just don’t like them,” he says. “You know I ask people about that, ‘Why?’ And it all boils down to they’re black and they don’t have a pretty song. And crows are actually gorgeous birds that if you see one up close walking in the sunshine. They’re glossy and with a slight purplish iridescence to it. Their feathers are beautifully put together. They’re all very neat and very nice patterns and they’re a very handsome bird."

At dusk I drove around midtown eyes to the sky following the crows.  Friends sent me texts, “Try Warwick near the Nelson.” “10th and Paseo crows are here now!” I’d scramble and try to catch them, but I kept missing them.

And then finally I found them, it was a group even larger than the one that had been in my neighborhood at 22nd and Woodland near Lincoln Prep.

It felt good to see them, and I wondered if any one of them maybe recognized me.

With spring around the corner the crows will start to focus their energy towards the nesting season and egg laying. The out-of-town crows will go home and do the same, and the large roosts will disband until next winter’s congregations start up again, which could be in your neighborhood. Believe me, you’ll know when they’re there.

Check out Dr. Kevin McGowan's Frequently Asked Questions About Crows

This story was produced for KC Currents, which airs Sundays at 5pm with a repeat Mondays at 8pm. To listen on your own schedule, subscribe to the KCCurrents podcast.

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today. In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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