It is an early winter evening and I am hiking along a rocky ridge that faces east. The view of distant valleys and mountains is punctuated in the foreground with the naked branches of trees barren in winter. A gentle fog is rolling in from the south riding a whisper of a breeze containing warm, moist air. What little snow we have had has melted so that brown and gray colors dominates the landscape before me. I am left alone with my thoughts.
On an opposing ridge I can hear the call of a crow. The calling of the crow sounds lonely, then I hear the call of several crows, and before I know it the entire precipice is screaming with crows cawing. I try to peer through the fog, but the distant ridge reveals no visual evidence of the happenings across the valley. The birds continue to call, a noisy, almost eerie, sound. The increased calling intrudes upon my thoughts. The noise is overbearing and brings my complete attention to the crow congregation.
I suddenly hear an uproar of calling, similar to a large human crowd cheering after a homerun is hit at a baseball game. The sounds are moving, coming closer and closer. Soon the crows began to land on the branches of trees on my side of the valley. First one lands on a branch, then another, and soon dozens, no hundreds, of rowdy crows are perched above my head in the trees. The darkening sky becomes even darker with the back birds shading out available light. There are so many it is difficult to see the silhouette of one individual bird. The noise is deafening.
Silence is generally the sound of the winter woods. This is the extreme opposite. Bands of screaming crows flying in from all directions dim any hopes I had of reflective thought.
The crows are noisy but they do not seem angry. True, larger birds are forcing smaller birds from good sturdy branches, but in a very random way the entire mass of birds seems organized. Their sheer numbers are intimidating and I am reminded of the Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds”.
Crow roosting is not fully understood by ornithologists. Bands of crows from different territories come together in large groups during the late autumn and winter months. As many as a half of million crows have gathered in these congregations. It is more common to see hundreds or a few thousand in this roosting behavior.
While roosting behavior is not well understood, there seems to be some social value to the behavior. The birds seem to engage in some sort of communication behavior that benefits the flock. It was once thought that the roosting behavior established some sort of regional political hierarchy amongst the larger crow population, but there has been little observed evidence that supports this theory.
We do know that crows have some ability to communicate with vocal sounds. While it doesn’t appear to be a language with defined “words”, there certainly seems to be meaning behind certain vocal sounds and voice pitches. Warning calls, territorial calls, and “counter singing” where crows from one territory repeat the sounds of crows from another territory are common.
The American crow is extremely territorial. Extended families form to protect the territory. Older siblings will often feed the newly hatched along side of the parents. This behavior is very rare amongst bird species. Bands of crows are often observed harassing predatory birds such as owls and hawks driving them out of their territory.
There is much evidence that crows are highly intelligent. The species has outwitted attempts by humans to exterminate them for hundreds of years. Crows seldom fall for the same trick more than once. Despite over 200 years of attempted elimination by humans, crow populations are ever increasing. They seem to get the last laugh.
Crows have an inherent ecological value. As a true omnivore they are valuable in that they help to control populations of rodents and insects by consuming thousands of them in a lifetime, they clean up carrion speeding up the decomposition process, they distribute seeds from fruits eaten in the wild, and they provide healthy competition for food supplies effectively controlling and balancing competing animal species in the forests and fields.
The light in the distant dwindles with the approaching night sky. The crows appear to be settling in; raucous crowing is interrupted by a sudden silence, followed by more crowing. Eventually the roost settles down, and a murmur of cooing can be heard. This soothing sound has almost a lullaby quality to it.
Finally there is silence, save the occasional flapping of wings from a crow trying to secure its position on a branch. It is disconcerting knowing that hundreds of birds are above my head and I cannot see or hear them. I try to quietly exit the area. A few birds hear my footsteps, and the cawing begins anew, but it only lasts for a minute.
It is very dark, and even though my eyes have adjusted to the lack of light I have to carefully pick my way through the brush and fallen limbs in the dense forest. At one point I stop to get my bearings, and once my legs are no longer moving my brain begins to work. Not ten minutes ago my world was besieged with deafening noise. It is at this point that I realize that this is a matter of perspective. I imagine that the “noise” to me might have been a joyous overture to the crows. Perhaps it is a celebration of survival.
And with this thought I carefully travel home in the night forest with a big smile on my face and yet another new appreciation and perspective of the natural world.
Originally written in March of 2006