The Making of a Murder of Crows

When it comes to crows, depending on whom you talk to in this town, those ever-busy black birds are either loved or loathed. I don’t have to tell you that crows are omnipresent, on every street, power line, roof, alley, and park, doing what they do best: surviving and thriving, by basically stealing from us, or snatching up whatever edibles we discard. Our booming crow population often has me clawing at the question: do crows, which are supposedly a very smart animal, do anything worthwhile for us, or do they just drive us squawking mad?

Let’s take a quick tally. Take a look at just about any lawn in the city, from east to west. Most grassy areas are torn to shreds, covered in ugly divots, as if Happy Gilmore had a fit with his nine iron all over your lawn. It’s the crows that are gorging on the plague that is the chafer beetle, which has been a major Lower Mainland issue for several years (I know raccoons and skunks dig up the juicy lawn bugs too, but in my neighbourhood, the only culprits I see going grass gonzo are crows, often working in what I’m told are family units). The crows that hang out on our block are so dastardly, without prompting, my toddler refers to them as “naughty birds.”

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And how about every spring, when parent crows dive bomb unsuspecting humans, just because the sidewalks we innocently walk along happen to proceed directly under a crow’s nest filled with young’uns? Or when you leave food unattended outside for over eight seconds, only to have it stolen from a crow the minute you turn your back? Or that spring, in the early hours every morning outside my old apartment in the West End, when a murder of roughly 50 crows sat in one tree going cuckoo, all loudly cawing at once, waking up the entire block at 5am for a week straight? What was up with that?!

Not everyone in Vancouver is a crow critic. The crow and its shiny black plumage has been adopted as the unofficial bird of East Vancouver. Several businesses have embraced its shadowy image, including Black Rook Bakery and the Storm Crow Tavern. “As the crow flies” means something completely different in East Van, when you look up during the evening rush hour and see the sky blackened by thousands of crows heading home to Burnaby for the night. Local comedian Charlie Demers once shared a photo of a crow wielding a knife, gripping the blade in its sharp little beak. Charlie called it “the most East Van photo ever.”

According to a few of Vancouver’s best birdbrains, all of that obnoxious crow behavior can be directly interpreted as high-level avian intelligence. Biologist Dr. Rob Butler is Vancouver’s leading crow expert. He regularly hosts a popular lecture series called The Society of Crows, where he shares all sorts of feathered secrets, from the crow’s ability to problem solve, to their confirmed memory for human faces (especially humans that have done them either right or wrong, so behave or beware), and how many crows will rally when a single nest is threatened (something called “mobbing”, which is likely what happened outside my West End apartment), or when they act as good parents by protecting their young when they dive bomb you.

Robyn Worcester of the Stanley Park Ecological Society loves our crows too, saying that the birds are “opportunistic omnivores that are highly adaptive and merely responding to our impact on the landscape.” Robyn also suggests it’s possible the crows are doing us a favour by chowing down on the chafer beetle at such a rapid rate.

That begs a final question: if those crows are so damn smart, why can’t they at least replace their divots? If they can provide that courtesy, I promise I’ll eat crow.

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