Counting Crows

If you’ve ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror classic The Birds, there’s an eerie scene that hits a little too close to home.To walk the streets of downtown Rochester at dusk in late fall is to awaken a sense of something primal—that...

We are part of The Trust Project.

Crows make tools. Understand stoplights. Mate for life. Hold funerals. Remember a face. And wreak havoc on our cars and sidewalks. So we’ve shot them with Airsoft rifles, annoyed them with laser pointers, blasted them with bullhorns, held annual crow hunts, stationed fake owls on our downtown buildings, released "trained attack raptors," hung their dead bodies in trees, and caught them in nets before tagging them and driving them to western Minnesota be released. Can’t we all just get along?

If you’ve ever seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror classic The Birds, there’s an eerie scene that hits a little too close to home.

An hour into the movie, right before the birds begin to lose their minds, a socialite played by Tippi Hedren gazes out upon a jungle gym to discover that a nearby pair of crows has suddenly, stealthily multiplied into five dozen. The iconic birds weren’t doing anything aggressive—not yet, anyway. But something about their stillness, their inky black plumes, and their silent gathering suggested all bets were off.

To walk the streets of downtown Rochester at dusk in late fall is to awaken a sense of something primal—that your movements are being noted from above. And they are, thanks to the thriving presence and superior air position of corvids, the ornithological category of the 20-30 thousand migrating and regional crows that flock to our well-lit, tree-lined, and open urban areas. We’re at least partly to blame, as we build them a perfect environment every time we clear woods to build houses. Our cohabitation with crows seems to deepen with each passing year.

Rochester’s crows now roost during winter in a changing array of tree tops and rooflines near the downtown and Mayo Campus, including Second Street SW, the trees in front of Old City Hall, the Foundation House along Fourth Street, historic Central Park, and the chain of tall trees leading southward toward Soldiers Memorial Field. It’s a group thing.

The crows around here are like Packer fans in Dooley’s. They know that not everyone likes them. But they behave themselves, look out for each other, and never travel in groups of less than three dozen.


Crows are our neighbors, in other words. And yet we treat our crows as invisible at best, a nuisance at worst. This is surely inconsistent, given our thing for the other flying friends in our midst. Rochester has been all too happy to brand itself in connection to its tens of thousands of Canada geese. It may be a love-hate relationship, but at least there’s the love side. But we shun the waves of fearless crows that clean up our scraps, offer up impromptu aerial shows—and occasional shouting matches at odd times—and move in expansive herds that transform the winter into a primeval migration rivaling that of gazelles on the African plains.

This is odd, our weird bias against crows, because while geese may fly in formation, they don’t appear to be a bird headed for the gifted and talented program, if you know what I mean.

Crows, on the other hand, are alive. They argue, play, stay active all day. Crows are industrious—they would never waste away a day waddling around the flats of Silver Lake like a certain herd of lobotomized waterfowl that will go unnamed. Crows are, in other words, due for their moment.

Many articles have been written about the crows of Rochester, almost all of them as a, quote-unquote, wildlife management problem. This is not one of these articles. These noble birds, you will now be asked to consider, deserve a proper appreciation. Crows are not only better to us and each other than geese, but they rival the services of cats, and certainly a lot of humans. Crows deserve a place on our new city flag, but I know that would have to make it past the Committee of the Whole. We ought to consider renaming the town. We could call it Crowchester.

The Birds, that was a bad movie," says Kevin McGowan. "It made everyone think of roosting crows as something unnatural, when it’s the most natural thing in the world. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Now they are just doing it in town, instead of out of town."

McGowan is an ornithologist at Cornell and one of the leading experts on crows in North America. He began to study the birds more than 30 years ago. If you are a wildlife biologist, it’s gratifying to break new ground, and it turns out no one had really studied crows. Once McGowan and others did, what they learned was astounding.

Crows, we now know, are one of three species in the entire animal kingdom that can fashion and use tools (the other two being chimps and elephants).

It’s been known since the ancient Greeks that a thirsty crow has the ability to use causal thinking. Aesop’s fables tell of a crow that drops pebbles in a long-necked jar to raise water within reach of its beak. It knew the pebbles would cause the water to rise. Real-life observation has proven this fable to be true.


But crows don’t just use tools they find nearby—like pebbles. Crows use tools that they know work. They will not drop items in a jar that float, for instance, only pebbles. And crows will make tools, not just find them. They will sharpen reeds to get a piece of food. They will even sharpen reeds to then get a smaller reed, which they then use to get a piece of food. This is a lot smarter than I was on my college SATs.

They’ve mastered technology, too: You can find all sorts of videos of crows using touch screens for rewards, for those who feel proud of their toddler doing that little trick.

Crows will not only drop a walnut onto the street to break it open, they will wait until the stoplight turns red to retrieve it, ensuring that they will not get hit by cars as they pick up their street-smacked snack. And the biggest surprise about our avian townmates is surely the fact that crows not only pick out individual faces in the crowd who have harmed them, but can spread the word to their friends and relatives to watch out for that person as well.

We know this—that crows can keep track of threatening individuals in their territory—because an intrepid crow researcher at the University of Washington named John Marzluff famously wore a primate mask when he netted and banded a crow, then watched how the birds reacted. Years later, long after the crows who first observed him banding a friend had died, the crows in Seattle still cried out a warning and even swooped into Marzluff’s path when he put on the mask.

And ornithologist McGowan told The New York Times that he is regularly followed by birds who have benefited from his handouts of peanuts—and harassed by others he has trapped in the past.

The crows do all this without an amygdala—the brain region we use to make emotional memories salient. That alone has brain researchers confused.

McGowan’s research into crows looked at the social networks of the birds, and discovered that crows are, in many ways, better to one another than we are to each other. The birds mate for life, for one thing, while we are at about a 50 percent divorce rate in the U.S.

The children of crows remain near their parents for up to five years of age, moreover, or long after their sexual maturation. This allows families to teach one another lessons and to help raise younger siblings, not to mention enlisting the help of aunts and uncles in the rearing of offspring.


It’s possible that crows have such strong families because, as much as we stigmatize them, life for a crow is hard. With predators, and cars, and all the other crow hazards, half of the babies die before maturation. The high mortality may explain why, when a crow dies, other crows will hold what can only be described as a crow funeral. Crows mass in silence near the body of a dead bird. They grieve its passing in silence before flying away, wiser about what can be learned from the loss. Crows teach other about everything: they have different warning calls for cats, hawks, and humans, and surely for cars as well.

Crows are, in short, amazing.

So why do we hold them in such low regard?

"It’s not true in all cultures," says McGowan. "In Native American cultures the raven was like a god, he was a trickster character that was treated with admiration." McGowan thinks our prejudice toward crows follows from old Europe, where it was duly noted that crows ate dead animals and probably dead people—they eat everything—and that with this came the stigma of death. But we need animals that eat other dead animals. "That’s an ecological service," says McGowan. "Crows are the clean-up crew. There’s more disease if the carrion eaters don’t get to clean up." And for all the farmers now cursing, crows eat pests in the field, as well.

But I know what you’re thinking: What about the crow poop? Turns out it’s messy but safe. Yes, cars get bombed, sidewalks white-washed, benches splattered. But maybe we should just hose our sidewalks in the morning and count ourselves lucky that concerns in Rochester begin and end with a non-hazardous, biodegradable splatter that accompanies nature in all urban locales. In Japan, where crows have been known to steal coat-hanger wires that they then shape with their wings to build form-fitted nests atop power line connection boxes, crow dispersal teams are sent into action daily to protect the cities from blackouts and trains stopping in their tracks.

"One day care in Rochester spreads more disease than all of its crows," says McGowan.

Mike Nigbur, of Rochester Parks and Recreation, is the point person for the $30,000 annual city outlay to keep the crows from massing in populated areas downtown. Nigbur, who’s been called "the crow czar," takes a second shift out in teams during late fall, whereupon downtown corvids are treated to a variety of nonlethal threats. The city uses lasers, noises, and distress calls.

"I think it distresses them," he says. They tried falcons in 2010, but "that did not go very well." Presumably, the manpower-to-crow-misery index was low, with the crow IQ so high. "They’re very smart birds," concedes Nigbur. "A very beautiful bird," too. Don’t worry, he hasn’t fallen into the corvids’ thrall. They’re trying out a new strobe on them this year.

"My advice to people who are trying to [fight crows] is to figure out what’s acceptable in terms of the impact of crows in your downtown and learn to live with that," says McGowan, who supports the Rochester methods, but advises we keep our expectations low. "Crows are like teenagers … you can’t keep them apart. You can break up the roosts somewhat and move them around a bit, but if you destroy all of them you wipe out a population of birds that spreads across hundreds of square miles. The moment they move to an acceptable spot, you leave them alone."

Plus, he says, the sight of the birds moving like mother nature herself across the evening sky is a gift that America has in its past spurned, and a loss it has come to regret.

"Passenger pigeons were the most abundant bird on Earth and we killed them all," he says. "They traveled in flocks of a billion birds. Accounts of their sightings from the 1700s say they would darken the skies from horizon to horizon, and pass over for an hour. That must have been an awesome spectacle to behold. We’ll never see anything like that again. To me, when I watch a roost of crows coming in like a river of birds across the sky, it’s an amazing thing to watch."

Just don’t do it after watching The Birds.

What to read next
In 1973, Rochester’s Rod Raver high jumped 7-foot-1 to set the high school state record. Nearly 50 years later, that record still stands. After that jump, though, Raver spent the next decade in a freefall. Until, he says, God caught him.