In our backyards, off our balconies and out in our parks, we see the natural world everywhere – we need only take the time to look. Wild in the City highlights the biodiversity that exists in and around our cities by showcasing a subject from nature each month – it could be a bird, a tree, a river, a stream or a prairie meadow. Do you have a story to tell? Get in touch at email@example.com.
Standing on a traffic bridge in an industrial area outside of Vancouver, I feel an intensity in the air, like before a storm. The sun is setting, and raging wildfires across the province have turned the sky a hazy orange-yellow over sprawling warehouses and concrete. And then the crows start arriving, blanketing the sky in black.
The mass murder of crows flocks in by the hundreds – and then thousands – of birds, coming from the surrounding Lower Mainland neighbourhoods. They cover rooftops and perch wing-to-wing on power lines. They swarm in trees and cluster on the ground, cawing and chattering in a chaotic symphony.
While the scene appears like something out of an apocalyptic movie, the crow roost is a nightly occurrence in Burnaby from late summer and through the winter. Since they fly en masse over highways, mimicking rush hour, I can’t help but relate them to blue-collar workers who commute in droves out of the city to the suburbs. (Priced out of the Vancouver housing market? Relatable). Unlike their bourgeois corvid cousins magpies, who appear to wear small tuxedos and chirrup politely, these guys are sturdy, street-smart and emit a low smoker’s rasp. I imagine them meeting up at a happy hour to let loose with a few beers before getting some well-deserved shut-eye and then doing it all over again the next day.
And, according to the aptly named David Bird, a retired emeritus professor of wildlife biology at McGill University, that perception is actually not that far off. The crows spend their days in neighbourhood flocks, then at night huddle together in roosts not only for safety, he says, but as a form of socializing. There’s one such roost near his home on Vancouver Island.
“It’s hard to know what they’re saying to each other,” Dr. Bird says, adding that the crows are likely sharing information of some kind, but it’s unclear exactly what. Still, their cacophony makes it clear that they certainly have a lot to discuss.
If their communication is akin to plotting, I’m personally ready to welcome our new crow overlords – though not everyone feels the same. “Crows have been much maligned over the years. They’ve had a very tenuous relationship with humans because of their sometimes destructive behaviours,” Dr. Bird says. “They’re kind of beloved by some people and hated by others.”
Though I love my neighbourhood crows in East Vancouver, it’s not difficult to understand why they are hated, too. They’re noisy. They’re obnoxious. They’re messy. And they’re sometimes too intelligent for their own good – I’ve known my local crows to imitate a cat’s meow solely for the purpose of tormenting dogs. While I see the family of crows who frequent my balcony as entertaining company with distinct personalities – loitering around my bird bath is basically their 9-to-5 – the woman in the apartment below me sees them as annoying pests who use her beloved garden as a toilet.
Crow families have adapted to live in cities because they’re “extremely opportunistic and extremely adaptable,” Dr. Bird says. Since they’re omnivorous and scrappy, they can easily survive off everything from garbage scraps to worms and – unfortunately – raiding nests of other birds for eggs and nestlings. But it isn’t all negative. They also eat insects that humans consider to be pests, such as locusts and spiders. They sometimes even tidy up germy messes such as roadkill. And they can also be useful to other birds by supplying food scraps and empty nests.
“I think all birds have a role to play in the ecosystem,” Dr. Bird says. More than that, crows, as some of the most intelligent birds in the world, can perhaps also serve as a moral example. They protect injured flock members, co-operate in raising their young and generally look out for one another. “They are faithful to their mates, helpful to their parents, and maintain a lifelong attachment to their families,” Dr. Bird notes – perhaps more than can be said for some of their human counterparts.