What explains two dead crows hanging from East Van tree?

Even the Vancouver park board has never seen this happen before

Melanie Mason-Webb and her family were just finishing their picnic dinner at New Brighton Park on Friday night when her nine-year-old daughter looked up at one trees towering over the playground.

“There’s a bat in the tree,” her daughter said.

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Craning her neck, Mason-Webb could see a dark outline of something hanging from one of the high branches. It was too big to be a bat. Was it a garbage bag? Her eyes made out the silhouette of an upside down head and wings and she realized it was a crow.

And then she noticed another dead crow hanging several metres away.

“It’s really, really odd,” she told the Courier on Saturday, after posting photos of the dead crows on her Facebook page.

A group of crows is called a murder of crows. Had someone or something killed the birds?

Mason-Webb did some sleuthing and found out that people sometimes hang dead crows on fence posts and shed doors to scare away other crows.

A 2015 study published in the journal of Animal Behaviour found that crows are unwilling to approach an area where there’s a dead crow, which is why some farmers employ the method as a way of keeping the birds away from their crops. Further, 38 per cent of crows stayed away from the area or person associated with the death for six weeks.

But, given how high these two dead crows were, Mason-Webb couldn’t imagine anyone climbing the tree to put them there.

East Van crows
Every night at "crow o'clock," thousands of crows fly east over East Vancouver on their way to Burnaby. - Rebecca Blissett

However, if that was the intention, it worked. The crows that fly over the East Van park every night on their way back to Burnaby — Mason-Webb says residents call it “crow o’clock” — wanted nothing to do with the tree, she says.

The Courier sent Mason-Webb’s photo to Howard Normann, the director of parks for the City of Vancouver.

“In all my years in parks operations I have never witnessed that,” he replied in an email. “I’ve seen lots of ‘one off’ dead crows but never hanging in trees like that.”

Normann says that while crows can be aggressive and territorial when they are nesting, the park board has no issue with them, nor are they causing any known problem at the park.

CrowTrax, the website that lets people report aggressive crow behaviour, has had only one report at the park over the past two years, the site's administrator says.

Regardless, hanging dead crows in a tree is something that park staff would never do, Normann says.

“Some people dislike crows for a variety of reasons,” he says, “one of the main reasons being some people believe they are killing off all the songbirds. They also rip up lawns looking for Chafer beetle grubs.”

Looking at Mason-Webb’s photo, he says, “it would appear that the branches would not support someone’s body weight to actually climb the tree and place the crows within the branches.”

“I suspect that if the tree is too high to climb, that the dead crows are a natural occurrence. It may be related to hawk or owl predation,” park board biologist Nick Page said in an email.

Told of the park board’s comments, Mason-Webb said that after posting the photos, she remembered that a kite had previously been caught in the tree.

“What if they got caught in the string,” she wonders.

That’s a possible reason, Normann says, but he’s doubtful. “I read in The Science Explorer that crows are smarter than the average five- to seven-year-old child. 

"I find it highly unlikely two crows would get caught in a kite string but I’m sure stranger things have happened. This brings a whole new meaning to ‘a murder of crows.’”

Normann said someone with the park board will remove the birds; perhaps then the murder mystery can be solved.

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