Before dusk, from late October to April, a group of more than 10,000 crows blots Vancouver’s skyline as it returns from its daily foraging to a nondescript office park on the edge of Burnaby.
Before dawn, Fidel Eligan jumps onto his bike and rides 20 minutes down into the industrial flats rimmed by the Trans-Canada Highway to begin his workday with the same repetitive task: cleaning up after this cacophony of corvids.
For many people in this city of glass, the biblical flock brings a natural – if somewhat menacing – cadence to the end of each winter’s day. For the solitary 68-year-old, the mass of crows provides a minimum-wage job he knows inside and out.
He has spent the past six soggy winters arriving around 6:15 a.m. to mop and pressure wash the putrid excrement from the entrances to two office buildings so the software engineers and other white-collar professionals working there don’t track in the waste. No one knows why this murder of crows has gathered here in the urban outskirts for nearly five decades, but experts say the birds may marshal to avoid nocturnal predators such as the great horned owl, which can decapitate its prey by puncturing skulls with its beak and ripping upward.
Mr. Eligan says he likes the demanding labour of cleaning up after the roost, even if the stench rivals that of the most run-down pet store.
“Maybe no crow, maybe me, no work,” he says with a chuckle on a recent morning. “I enjoy the crows.”
That wasn’t always the case. Mr. Eligan is from the central Philippines island of Cebu, where he says he and his neighbours were more likely to grasp for a slingshot than a piece of bread if they spotted a crow. Now, he regularly brings old cookies or other clearance items from the grocery store to feed the flock that he can part like Moses.
Mr. Eligan, who was a car mechanic back in the Philippines, lost his wife, Estrellita, to lung cancer in 1994 and, two decades later, decided to join his adult son in Canada. The father of three and grandfather to eight rents a small room in a Burnaby house that he shares with other single people. After long days cleaning, he likes to kick back watching clips on YouTube of news from Metro Vancouver and Metro Manila.
“I have money and no problems for me because I’m an old man,” says Mr. Eligan, who doesn’t look it.
In the Before Times, Mr. Eligan would spend his Sunday mornings taking transit downtown to observe mass at Holy Rosary Cathedral and then grab lunch. With religious services suspended during the pandemic, he has opted to take on an overtime shift disinfecting the buildings in the same office park each weekend. The slight senior dons a hazmat suit, straps a 15-kilogram tank to his wiry back and spends hours spraying the lobbies, hallways and staircases his company is subcontracted to clean.
His love for the crows is increasingly being shared by others, thanks in part to science revealing more about their impressive intelligence.
Rob Butler, a retired federal biologist who has observed this roost since the early 1970s, says popular culture has long misrepresented crows. Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds, a feral fever dream in which corvids turn on their human neighbours, foisted decades of stigma upon them, as Jaws did with sharks.
“They think that all these crows are really dangerous, that they’re going to fly down and peck their eyes out,” says Dr. Butler, who, as a teen in North Vancouver, nursed a crippled crow he named “Jake” back to health.
People in bohemian East Vancouver have a particular affinity for the crow, in part because of the exploits of Canuck, a crow who was orphaned from the roost and raised by a local man.
Until his recent death, Canuck was known for getting in trouble all over the city and made international headlines in 2016 when he flew off from the scene of a police shooting with the knife of a man who was shot. That same year, former Vancouver Province reporter Nick Eagland also went viral for filming himself getting dive bombed more than a dozen times in 10 minutes to demonstrate how protective the species is when people walk close to their nests.
A common myth is that crows are disastrous for songbirds, Dr. Butler says, but they rarely eat the eggs of these birds because they remain high above the ground and typically don’t “skulk around in the shrubs.”
“The Steller’s jay is far worse than the crow,” says Dr. Butler, who co-founded the Pacific WildLife Foundation charity, which conducts research along the coast and educates the public.
However, crows, like many other animals, can cannibalize the offspring of others in their group when the opportunity arises, he says. To counter this, studies have shown, females frequently lay their final egg a slightly different shade of green or blue, which makes it stand out and get eaten more frequently, leaving the others intact, Dr. Butler says. Most crows only end up raising one or two young so that third or fourth egg is less important, he added.
Crows scavenge for human food or carrion in the city as well as hunt other species. In Vancouver, they like picking up mussels on the foreshore and cracking them open by dropping them onto pavement from high above.
The majority of the roost leaves Mr. Eligan’s office park every April so that they can spread out across the region to give birth each spring, Dr. Butler says, only returning at the outset of winter when the juveniles can make the longer flight back to Burnaby.
Before the pandemic, when the crows left, Mr. Eligan did, too. He would spend months travelling his native Southeast Asian archipelago and visiting with family there.
“I’m always happy,” he says of his life.
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