On winter evenings, just as the sun begins to go down, I hear the crows coming long before I see their black silhouettes swoop in and gather in the trees. Their cacophonous cawing, clicking and croaking fills my ears as I watch them swirl over the rooftops and land in the branches, only to suddenly startle and fly around again. I find this nightly ritual wild and fascinating.
When I lived at the City Hall end of Broadway, I would watch from my backyard as hundreds of American and fish crows would gather for the night in the trees near the United Baptist Church. The sheer numbers of the flock, the noise and the restlessness (even in the middle of the night they are never completely quiet), is like watching a neighbor throw a gala that you can listen in on from afar.
Now living at the opposite end of Broadway, the tall trees on my street are an occasional waystation on the journey toward Washington Square. From my third floor abode, I can see the crows coming from all directions, calling raucously as they gather in the hickory and beech trees before heading to their final roosting tree for the night. I have never officially counted the number of crows that gather in our neighborhood, but 500 would be a conservative estimate, and I have read that there are roosts in some places of up to two million.
The roosting areas are sometimes used by generations of crows for hundreds of years. I like to think that in the year 2100, crows will still be gathering on winter evenings off Broadway.
In the morning, the crows head off in different directions to find food, like commuters heading to work. On the islands, there are fish crows and American crows, both large black birds difficult to tell apart, except for the more high-pitched nasal call of the fish crow. For some reason, fish crows like to hang out on the roof of the Middletown post office, probably using it as a lookout for snacks in the supermarket parking lot.
Crows are opportunistic omnivores, which means they will eat just about anything that comes their way, including, insects, small animals, fruit, seeds, carrion and garbage. After a rainstorm, look for crows and gulls picking up earthworms on the playing field of Aquidneck Elementary School. During spring breeding season, crows are a bane to songbirds trying to raise their young because they will raid nests for eggs and fledglings. You will often see redwinged blackbirds and common grackles chasing off crows, a behavior called mobbing.
In turn, you will also often see groups of crows chasing off raptors, like red-tailed or Cooper’s hawks. Even when the predator is simply minding his or her own business, it is the job of the crows and their cousins, the blue jays, to act as the neighborhood watch. If you are walking and hear a group of crows or jays calling loudly and insistently, I encourage you to find out why they are so upset. I have often been rewarded with the site of a hawk or an owl.
The corvid family, including crows, jays and ravens, are among the most intelligent of all birds. During the day, crows often travel in family groups of two or three generations, working together to find food. One day, I watched a group of crows working a garbage dumpster. Two sat off to the side acting as lookouts, while the others foraged in the trash. Soon, one crow emerged from the dumpster with a coffee cup in his beak and proceeded to tip the cup up and drink the contents. Crows and ravens can problem-solve, work as a team and use tools like sticks to retrieve what they want.
Blue jays, like other corvids, often mate for life and stay together as a family group throughout the winter. Jays commonly say their own name loudly and repeatedly, but they have a range of interesting sounds and are good mimics. If you hear a red-tail or red-shouldered hawk crying nearby, but cannot find the raptor, look for blue jays. Handsome birds with a distinctive crest and black markings around their face, blue jays do not have blue pigment in their feathers. They have melanin, which is a brown pigment. But the structure of the feather interacts with light in such a way that they appear blue.
If you want to identify a common raven, look at a lot of crows, and the day a raven shows up you will know it by the larger size and beak, the wedge-shaped tail and the shaggy appearance of its neck feathers. They have a deep croaking call that resonates for long distances, and like the jays, they make many different sounds. Audubon has two permanently injured ravens at the nature center in Bristol, one of whom does an excellent turkey, great-horned owl, dog or crow call when inspired.
As forests have regenerated on abandoned agricultural fields in southern New England, common raven populations have steadily increased over the years. Recently, I watched a small group of crows mobbing a common raven over the fields next to Albro Woods. When crows fly, it appears that they are rowing their way through the air, steadily moving from one place to another, but ravens are acrobats who soar and play in the air. They have been recorded doing somersaults, rolls and even flying upside down. Ravens don’t roost in large numbers like their crow cousins; they travel as pairs year-round, and as a family group for a time after the young fledge.
Corvids and humans are closely connected throughout history. The intelligence, appetites, problem-solving skills and loyalty of crows and ravens have inspired stories in many cultures over eons of time. They appear in myths as saviors, messengers, or tricksters, and they symbolize wisdom, longevity, death, light and magic, depending on the story’s origin. If you stand out on a clear winter evening in Washington Square to watch the crows come to roost, you may be inspired to write your own story of these intriguing feathered creatures.