Hello Jane and All Other Bird Lovers,
Lately I’ve been stumped when people ask me ‘What’s with all the crows these days?” Like me, they are astonished and mystified at the huge numbers of these darksome creatures that sometimes, especially at sunset, seem to be taking over the skies here in Santa Cruz. (Spoiler alert: It turns out that crow populations are not increasing nationwide nor is a Hitchcock nightmare about to descend upon us.)
I decided I had better do a little online research and also pay closer attention to the actual crows around me! Here’s what I discovered when I googled ‘Why are there so many crows?’ First of all, the huge concentrations of crows is a five-month winter phenomenon, starting sometime in November and ending in March when the crows disperse to their individual territories to start building their nests and raising their young. Add to this the fact that large flocks of crows head south each year from Canada for the more hospitable winter climate of the states, adding large numbers to the ranks of local crows. Further add to this the fact that crows are wonderfully communal creatures, mating for life, and even depending on first and second year non-breeding siblings to help raise their new broods. During breeding season they are isolated from the rest of their clan . But once the kids are raised, I like to imagine, the crowd-loving crows all get together in raucous celebration of their temporary freedom from childcare responsibilities and in joy at hanging out with the rest of their huge clan that they don’t get to see for nine months. Whatever the true motivations and feelings are, these intrepid socialists gather in the hundreds, the thousands and even – in at least one documented case in Oklahoma – in the millions – with the purpose of all sleeping in a few trees together! It’s called roosting. Why do they do this? Primarily for safety say the experts. During the long winter nights, they are especially vulnerable to nighttime predators like Great-horned Owls. Roosting in large groups gives them more protection.
In the process of reading about crows, I also discovered that crows were originally drawn to agricultural lands outside of cities. But they were unwelcome guests –– driven off by guns, firecrackers and furious farmers who didn’t appreciate their fine brains. So over time the crows have congregated more and more in urban areas like ours – another reason that we see so many of them. They are mostly ground foragers preferring open spaces with just enough nearby trees for cover. They are never found in densely vegetated areas like forests. Being undiscriminating omnivores, they will eat just about anything – from wild plants and seeds to carrion and human garbage. This is another reason we city dwellers see so many of them. We have so much garbage lying around.
The one thing that I wasn’t able to find out from the online literature was more about their roosting. Close to sundown, I got to witness first hand large flocks of crows (about 250) flying in from all directions and assembling on some sycamores and cottonwoods along the river. They never stopped emitting their strident chatter, creating a huge, cacophonous racket that never stopped. Some of them hopped into the river for a very splashy bath, others got a drink of water, others gathered bedtime snacks along the sandbars and most of them settled into an already crowded tree for the night. I assumed they had found their night time roosting spot and were settling in for the night. I seems I was wrong.
The second time I watched the scene, I again saw them all settling into the cottonwoods along the Benchlands. But I hung around longer this time. After about 30 minutes it slowly dawned on me that they were peeling off alone or in groups of 2 or 3 , leaving the tree I was photographing more and more empty – until it was entirely bare. Now I saw dark shapes slipping silently downstream in the twilight, no longer a loud chorus of wildly chattering birds.
Were the sycamores that I had been watching only a way station? It suddenly made sense to me that the wily crows might not have wanted to advertise their actual sleeping place with so much drama. It was as if they had chosen their first place as a site where they could greet each other, pass on messages of the day, bathe, snack, and maybe talk about where they would go next. But perhaps haunted by memories of furious farmers with guns, or of Great Horned Owls (crows have prodigious memories), they understandably did not want to advertise where they actually planned to spend the night. I tried to follow them. I crossed the bridge, followed them downstream in the direction they were all going and peered out into the distance. But no sounds and no flocks. They had given me the slip! I went home and started reading and discovered the term ‘pre-roosting site’. Ah! That was the concept I needed to understand what I had just seen. I am now seriously on the trail of a final roosting site! I’m wondering how many birds might be found there. I wish I could tell them I carry only a camera and a loving heart, not a gun. Nor do I want to eat them. I’m a vegan.
While in pursuit of the departing crows I saw 10 CANADA GEESE AND 2 GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE, calmly nibbling away on the grassy lawns near the Duck Pond. This was only my second sighting of the latter less common goose, bringing my total goose species to three this year – including the much rarer Snow Goose I wrote about several months ago. The orange legs, white forehead shield and pinkish beak of the Greater White-fronted Goose give her quite a fanciful look, don’t you think?
Bad as the world can seem some days under the new Trump regime, there is still lots to crow about, isn’t there! At least in the world of birds. Let’s keep cawing loudly about these wonderful birds on our river!
My best to all lovers of nature.