Vancouver Loves Crows

Sept. 19, 2013, 3:24 p.m.

VANCOUVER — Every day at dusk, thousands of crows across Vancouver drop what they are doing, take to the air and head east.

The effect is a blackening of the skies over east Vancouver as the crows loosely follow the SkyTrain to a nightly meeting point in central Burnaby where they crowd wing-to-wing for warmth and protection and intricately plot out the parks, beaches and alleys they will scour for food come morning.

In plenty of other cities, Hitchcockian fogs of crows have been met with fear, hatred, poison and shotgun fire.

But here in the suburbs of Vancouver, for whatever reason, the nightly crow parade has become a carefully curated local institution. And with the coming of the winter months, the crow cloud is only expected to thicken.

“It’s quite amazing to be able to see something like that in the middle of the city,” said George Clulow, president of the B.C. Field Ornithologists and a longtime organizer of an annual count of the birds.

At its height, he once counted 30,000 crows.

The Burnaby roost, located around an area known as Still Creek, has only existed since 1971, and may have been the result of the “urbanization” of local crows as they switched from their age-old diet of shore detritus to capitalize on the sudden explosion of garbage cans appearing in the Vancouver core.

It was a prudent move. As the human population around their Burnaby headquarters swelled, the crows have been able to enjoy an unprecedented golden age of unattended garbage bins, roadkill and discarded hot dogs.

“We have supported a much larger crow population than was probably there naturally,” said Mr. Clulow.

Spending the night in dense groups is standard behaviour for crows, and similar — although less visible — roosts have been catalogued all across North America, including a 100,000-strong roost in Danville, Ill., that is said to be the continent’s largest.

The phenomenon is thought to exist largely for protection: When gathered in huge numbers, crows are better able to beat up on approaching hawks or owls. The noisy gatherings may also function as a crow forum of sorts.

“There’s a whole communication thing going on,” said Mr. Clulow, noting that when the animals set out the next morning in family groups, they often carry an eerily accurate picture of where to find Vancouver’s best deposits of organic debris.

“How it happens is not really clear,” said Mr. Clulow. “Nobody speaks crow.”

In recent years, an ever-expanding body of crow research has revealed the birds to be, along with parrots, at the pinnacle of avian intelligence.

Crows can use up to three tools in sequence in order to complete a task, according to research from Oxford University, a trait that puts them in an elite tool-making fraternity with primates.

The birds can also recognize human faces, according to research conducted on the Seattle campus of the University of Washington.

“They get to know you,” said Michael Jackson, president of Culex Environmental Ltd., a Vancouver firm that was hired to study the Burnaby roost and probe its relation to West Nile Virus.

The crows were initially wary of his crew, he said, until they “softened” to their presence overtime. “It’s almost like they knew we were trying to help them out,” he said.

And just like the trickster crows and ravens of aboriginal myth, crows have even been seen deceiving other crows in order to keep a valuable food find to themselves.

Nevertheless, despite their sinister capacities, a sudden appearance of thousands of crows is not to be interpreted as a prelude to eye-pecking the local townsfolk to death, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film, The Birds. Tellingly, on its website the Massachusetts Audubon Society feels the need to stress that “murderous behaviour” is “nonexistent among birds of any kind.”

Nevertheless, elsewhere in North America, crow roosts have often struggled to coexist with human settlements.

In the mid-20th century, arguing that crows were sabotaging local agriculture, U.S. farmers would converge to wipe out entire crow roosts with organized shoots, mass-poisonings or even bombs.

More recently, 13 years ago, Chatham, Ont., faced off against a monolithic roost of more than 100,000 crows with controversial crow shoots and a contractor to scare them away with a battery of tricks including shrill noises and a trained owl.

Nevertheless, the crows remain. “Status-crow,” as local media declared in February.

As far back as 1999, when a wave of new development was planned for Still Creek, Burnaby city council specifically ordered builders to take “reasonable measures” not to disturb the resident crows.

On the whole, the people of Burnaby seem to enjoy their nightly crow parade.

Burnaby’s Gilmore Community School fixed painted crows to their school’s fence to complement the hundreds of crows that use the fence as a stopping point on their way to Still Creek. In February, Vancouver’s Still Moon Arts Society held a Crow Roost Twilight Bike Ride to trail the animals on their nightly commute.

As far back as 1999, when a wave of new development was planned for Still Creek, Burnaby city council specifically ordered builders to take “reasonable measures” not to disturb the resident crows.

New builds arrived nonetheless, but the crows appear to have handily adapted to life straddling forested green space and an industrial park that includes a Costco and the corporate headquarters for both Yellow Pages and McDonald’s.

Of course, the steady rain of crow droppings has forced office workers to scurry to their cars under umbrellas, and building owners cut down on their exorbitant pressure-washing expenses with unpleasant audio recordings, plastic owls and even professional falconers.

“To their credit,” said Mr. Clulow, “they haven’t tried to move them out.”

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