2017-03-16 / Nature

The Crows Among Us

By Charles Avenengo

A murder of crows seen roosting in Touro Park. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) A murder of crows seen roosting in Touro Park. (Photo by Charles Avenengo) “The crow is either a saint or a sinner depending upon the point of view.” – Charles Townsend, zoologist, 1905

Every night at sunset, Aquidneck islanders watch crows by the hundreds streaming in from all directions. While their final destination is downtown Newport, they use staging areas before settling in for the evening. These staging areas vary, but for the most part the crows follow a fixed route. Currently, their final destination is located in six trees in Touro Park.

Although they can be a nuisance – spooking people, making noise, and raiding farms and backyards en route to the park – they are quiet once settled. Indeed, someone passing by might not even realize they are there.

No one is quite sure exactly why they flock together in the winter months in such large numbers. It has been suggested they do so for warmth, for protection against predators like owls or raptors or that they don’t have an established breeding area.

In the early 1960s, crows moved from rural roosts to urban areas. Again, there were theories as to why this phenomenon occurred. For decades, the prevailing theory held that they had been ruthlessly persecuted in the rural areas, so the urban influx was a protective measure against the oppression. It has also been suggested they were lured by the warmer city temperatures.

“In a very real sense the communal winter roost is the matrix that ties together all the complex elements of crow society,” said Michael Westerfield, author of “The Language of Crows.”

While researchers continue to piece together theories, the fact remains that they are here and in force. A recent count revealed that there were nearly 1,000 crows in the downtown area. That might sound like a lot, but not compared to Framingham, Mass., where there is an estimated 20,000, or Danville, Ill., home to the country’s largest wintering roost of 168,000.

The Newport roost is estimated to have gathered in the mid- 1990s. Newport Tree Warden Scott Wheeler said the first complaint was lodged in 1997.

While they are properly called American crows, also included in these flocks are fish crows, which are distinguished from American crows by their smaller size and voice. The call of the American crow has been described in bird field guides as “an honest-to-goodness caw,” while the fish crow has a more nasal “ca.”

Crows don’t have many admirers. Many people are spooked by their presence. “I feel like Tippy Hedren,” said Newport’s Margo Pires when asked about the crows, referring to the lead actress in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic movie thriller, “The Birds.”

Towns have used many methods to eradicate the crows or, at least, chase them away. In Newport, the smaller branches of an elm tree in front of the courthouse on Washington Square have been trimmed to make for less roosting space. Wheeler has also used recorded predatory bird calls at night to scare off the crows.

Crow droppings don’t help their popularity, either. A couple of times each year, especially before events like the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, city workers must power wash areas where crows have, in Wheeler’s words, “carpet-bombed.” If your car gets nailed by these droppings, wash it immediately because the uric acid is destructive to car paint.

The good news is that the wintering flock will soon break up. The crows will couple off into breeding pairs and might even end up nesting in a pine tree in your back yard. Chances are you may never notice them.

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