Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pity the Poor Crows!

An Albany Eye On Crime

One day last winter at dusk I left my recliner in front of the TV (and a ‘Law & Order’ I had a nagging suspicion I’d seen before, more than once) to put on the ‘porch light’ to scare off muggers and make my neighbors feel unjustifiably secure. Truth is, I don’t have a porch, hence no ‘porch light’, since I live in a brick row house on Elm Street in beautiful Downtown Albany. I like my block because it lives up to its name: tall, stately, thick-bodied leafy trees sheltering up and down both sides of the street: Elms, Ficus, and Pears that don’t, however, bear fruit. It’s their look that comforts me. So, I turned on the outside light (one of those new bulbs that cost $35.00 and burn for all eternity) in the areaway (what we called it in Brooklyn) where you store the garbage cans a couple, three steps below street level. And then I saw the crows. By the thousands, in the trees, on telephone wires, atop streetlights, making a din of CAW! CAW! CAWS! Stunning, it filled me with awe of the marvelous world.

Then I read in the Times-Union, the local rag, that the City of Albany had brought in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency to drive the crows out of town. ‘Crow Dispersal’ by means of pyrotechnics and sound devices: fireworks and shooting off fake guns, I presume. In a Letter to the Editor, a reader, obviously a crow-lover, asked: ‘What is it that the crows are doing? Why is it they need to be killed?’ As if on cue, another reader replied: ‘They poop all over everything, cars, sidewalks, backyard, roofs. When I was a kid my mother and grandmother always warned me about bird droppings being real bad. I think we have the making here of a Public Health Crisis!’

And so began the annual Crow War! I don’t recall seeing many crows in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens where we lived before leaving the City. What I do remember is walking out of my apartment building each morning and being altered, electrified by the swell of music from the legion of small birds living in the trees and on the outcroppings of buildings. Instantly and forever, I became a bird-lover. Curious about the crow, I Googled him.

Crows are large, perching birds with glossy black plumage and a raucous voice. They rise early and make a lot of noise. Crows are very social and live in large extended family groups. A bunch of crows is called a flock or a ‘murder of crows’ A ‘murder’ because the flock will sometimes kill a dying or injured crow, it’s thought. Crows appear to be monogamous and can live 20 years or more. They’ve been congregating in large roosts in the fall and winter for as long as there have been crows. Roosts of tens of thousands of birds are common. But their arrival in cities is relatively recent. Since 1993, upwards of 50,000 crows have taken to roosting in large trees in the center of small Auburn, New York. Like Albany, Auburn declared war on the crows and has had as much success: Nada. Crows are considered to be among the world’s most intelligent animals, capable of both tool use and tool-making. If you have the good fortune to see a crow burying food in your backyard, you might see him cover it over with a leaf or plucked grass, then look at it several times and use different coverings before being satisfied with his efforts.

Why are tens of thousands of crows roosting in the trees on Albany streets? It’s speculated that crows have figured out that you can’t shoot at them in cities where there are ordinances against discharging firearms, unlike in the country. There is a crow-hunting season in New York State. Another hypothesis is that they seek safety in numbers against their nemesis, the Great Horned Owl. Crows don’t see well at night but the Owl does. Therefore, crows roost near sources of bright illumination such as streetlights so they can see the Owl coming.

The most remarkable talent of the crow, according to researchers, is the ability to recognize individuals by facial features, especially if the person has done them wrong in the past. I saw a demonstration of this on TV. A person wearing an outsized Nixon mask approached a roost of crows in a tree that, upon sighting him, sounded a loud alarm and swooped to the attack. A year earlier, the researcher, wearing the mask, had threatened those crows.

The moral here, Albanians: Don’t piss off the crows. They have memories like elephants.

Robert Knightly


  1. My goodness, good night Miss Agnes, mercy me ... you do seem to live in a wild place! Bats and crows!!! Wow, I'm glad now I live in mild Manhattan, only a block from the most famous Y in the world , only three blocks from the biggest Islamic temple in the land, feet from the rats swarming from the 2nd Ave subway excavations - what with bomb scares and them real big terrorists, we could go up in smokeless smoke and flameless flames at ANY moment! Good golly, Miss Molly, maybe I'b best pack my trunk and move to South Dakota! Do you think? tjs

    1. Nahhh!... South Dakota is even worse. You could die a lingering death from the emptiness, the boredom.

  2. Bob, despite the Hitchcokian nature of images this conjures, I felt sympathy for the crows. I have, however, HATED their noise at dawn of summer's morning in Garrison. I might have cheered their fear of Nixon's face in the past, but the Republicans of today make Tricky Dick look like St. Francis of Assisi!

  3. Crows are all over the place where I live in the foothills of California. Some mornings they congregate and make the worst sounding music. Drives our dogs crazy. They also steal food out of the dogs' dishes when they aren't looking.