It is an awesome and eerie sight to witness a flock of crows — or murder, as it is called — swooping overhead. And we aren’t even in the thick of it. Our neighbourhood is sometimes part of the crows “pre-roost” where they mass by the hundreds before moving on to their nightly roost near the Ottawa General Hospital — where tens of thousands gather.
Bird experts have yet to come to a consensus on why the birds gather in such huge groups. Among possible explanations — safety in numbers against predators, a desire to socialize (and holy, uh, crow, do they have a lot to talk about!) , and mating purposes. They roost overnight, take off the next day in different directions in search of food, then reunite again at dusk.
The crow population is surging in Canada, in part due to loss of habitat. Last year Maclean’s reported that crow populations are up thirtyfold since the 1970s in some cities. Washington zoologist John Marzluff called it an “urban invasion.”
Ottawa, and Woodstock, Ontario are among the areas most affected. Chatham, Ontario was home to a murder of more than one hundred thousand crows when a company was called in with birds of prey to chase them away. They are still a major problem for residents there, making huge messes as they scavenge in garbage.
The crows have their own mysterious reasons for getting together, but for humans their assembly can serve a practical purpose: Just as the streetlights coming on used to let kids know it was time to get inside, the flight of thousands of birds over local pubs lets those stopping after work for a pint know it’s time to get home to get dinner on.
Maybe the gathering of thousands of the big, noisy black birds would be less intimidating if it were called something other than a murder, but I doubt it. The first time we saw hundreds of cawing crows perched on every branch of the tall oaks on our street and lined up menacingly along the peak of the nearby church, we couldn’t help but feel a chill. Dave and I decided it would be best to take part in a safe indoor activity, like watching a movie.
Next time we won’t be choosing The Birds.