Gathering by the thousands in the trees of Oakwood Cemetery, it seems as if they are waiting for everyone to arrive. They chat amongst themselves. Large groups fly in from every direction, returning from a day of scavenging in the cornfields. The cacophony grows deafening. Cold wind rips through the cemetery, the orange light of dusk offering none of the warmth the sun provided earlier that day. It was time. In unison, thousands of birds ascend into the air, emptying almost a hundred trees in a matter of seconds. Together, the birds overtake the sky as they begin their flight north into downtown. The murder of crows has once again performed its evening show for the city of Syracuse. And once again, few in the city are left indifferent.
Maybe its Alfred Hitchcock’s doing. When tens of thousands of crows are flying over you on a cold, cloudy November evening, you can’t help but feel a little ominous.
The birds are thought to flock to cities in the colder season because they offer warmth and lighting, the latter of which makes it easier to spot predators.
Guy Baldassarre, a former ornithologist and professor at State University of New York Environmental Science and Forestry (now deceased), stressed the animals’ benign nature to humans.
“They’re just black birds. And they’re big. And there’s lots of them,” he said.
He also refuted the common misperception that crows pose a health and safety risk. According to the Center for Disease Control, although birds can become infected with West Nile Virus, there is no evidence that the disease can be transmitted to humans through its avian host. Baldassare believed with a little education, “birds and people can go their own way.”
The city of Auburn had a different answer. With an estimated population of 50,000-70,000 birds, citizens were tired of the huge flocks that left their droppings on cars and benches. Their solution was to shoot them. For four years, beginning in 2001, sport hunters traveled from all over the country to participate in the shoot-out, a contest to see who could bag the most birds. As the event became publicized, protests ensued. Protestors claimed the very nature of a wildlife-shooting contest was inhumane, especially since there was no limit on the number of animals killed.
The contests were discontinued when the United States Department of Agriculture began an extensive hazing program, according to the Auburn Citizen. This included recording crow distress signals, lasers, and flares, which eventually reduced the population to a few hundred. The crows had enough of the harassment. They moved on to surrounding cities such as Syracuse.
Kevin McGowan, a Cornell University Ornithologist, says that while crow-hazing programs may reduce populations in one area, the crows will just move on to another, less threatening place.
“You can’t stop crows from coming together in the winter. They have to go somewhere,” he said.
The fact that they travel in such large numbers is due to the crow’s intensely social nature. According to PBS Nature, crows roost in the thousands to protect themselves from predators such as red-tailed hawks, horned-owls, and raccoons.
So, while a person may feel uneasy when looking up at thousands of crows flying across the sky, the crows feel just fine.
They also have close-knit families. According to National Geographic, researchers recently discovered that crows form personal dialects within their family groups. Crows also mate for life.
They are even known for defending unrelated crows, coming to their aid when they hear a distress call.
It’s definitely something to consider when all that cawing is putting you on edge. You are actually hearing extensive conversations by one of the most intelligent animals on the planet.
Some residents of Syracuse enjoy the daily spectacle. Madelaine Doherty, sophomore at SUNY-ESF, is fascinated by the evening display.
“In a city dominated by people, it’s refreshing to see such a powerful natural phenomenon taking place. It’s really quite beautiful.”