Tuesday, February 24, 2015

20015 February 21: A Murder of Crows

For as long as I can remember, I have loved crows. Ravens, too. Most people find these birds annoying, with their unmelodic and unnerving caw caw caw and their propensity for wreaking havoc with garbage. Birders and birdwatchers - yes, there is a difference, I am told - consider them 'trash birds', not worth noting in any detail on bird lists. But me? I have always been enthralled with this species' seeming enjoyment in their interactions with humans. And, like many Native American groups including the three whom I have lived among, I am fascinated by their intelligence.

Crows and ravens belong to the Corvidae family. In many cultures they bring fear and loathing to the hearts and minds of people, seen as pests by farmers and homeowners alike, a harbinger of death to be avoided and eradicated.

In 1992, there was some consternation in Kentville, Nova Scotia, near where we lived and where my daughter was born during the summer of that year, due to the desire of some residents to cut down a dead tree near the hospital. By night, this tree was a sight to behold, with its many branches weighed down by the hundreds of crows that roosted there. In the end, the tree was saved and the crows continued about their business for the time being.


By 1994, the situation changed. The crows had multiplied, and others had moved in from more rural parts of town, and by some counts, they numbered forty thousand or more. Having outgrown the tree, they took over the downtown. A novelty at first, the townspeople were soon overwhelmed by the noise and the mess and the garbage created by this huge roost, and non-lethal measures were taken to encourage the crows to go elsewhere. These worked for a time, but in the end, a few dozen crows were shot, and this, combined with the continued non-lethal methods, succeeded in ridding the town of its crows.

In 1998 I moved to Pond Inlet, an Inuit community of about one thousand two hundred people on northern Baffin Island, Nunavut. We loved watching the ravens as they hopped about, able to subsist in even the coldest weather by devising ingenious methods of finding food and shelter. Forget to tie shut the hatch on the back of your skidoo seat? Don't be surprised to find a raven or two in there in the morning, hunkered down for the night. One evening we watched as one wily creature untied the knot and climbed in anyway!


But attitudes are changing in the north as well, as human populations grow and with them, raven populations, as food sources become more abundant:

Birds' prevalence causes problems for residents

Peter Worden
Northern News Services
Published Monday, February 18, 2013

The Baltimore Ravens may have won the Superbowl, but many Mittimatalingmiut are not raven fans.
The common raven is a frequent site in Nunavut communities, but recently the birds have become too much to bear.
Concerns surfaced on the hamlet's Facebook public announcement board over local ravens preying on small birds such as ptarmigans, and the ravens' prodigious populations growing out of control thanks in part to its scavenging, omnivorous diet of food waste.
"There's more ravens here than usual that's for sure. It's causing trouble and people are not happy about them because they go through so much garbage," said Jeannie Maktar, a clerk in the hamlet office.
"Every day there are more. We see a whole bunch coming in. I don't know where they come from. They're bigger, much bigger than before. They're very active even up around -40 like it is today."
While the common raven has coexisted with humans for thousands of years, many Mittimatalingmiut now see them as pests.
The birds can live up to 21 years in the wild and are still loathed more than revered by many in Pond Inlet.
"We really need to reduce the numbers of ravens," reads the public announcement Facebook post.
"Do whatever you can to protect your garbage. That way the ravens will starve and naturally reduce their numbers."
Aside from simply securing trash, another poster suggested hanging a dead raven to ward off others. Maktar said one elderly person in the hamlet does keep a dead raven near his garbage area.
"I think it works for the other ravens not to come around. They read that as, 'Well our friend is gone now and this might happen to us,'" she said, adding that the hamlet's dogs and ravens work together to break into garbage.
"That's one thing we're noticing, that the ravens and dogs help out together, saying 'There's garbage here, open it and we'll eat it,' I suppose."
Ravens are now ahead of dogs as the most numerous animal in Pond Inlet, said Maktar, who couldn't say whether there were now more ravens than people in the hamlet of about 1,500.
While the hamlet is outside of a park, Garry Enns with Parks Canada, speaking about ravens, said Parks Canada's primary mandate is to preserve and protect nature.
"Ravens are part of that," he said.

In 2002 I went to Beijing, China, for the summer. When I wasn't teaching, I spent my time wandering around the streets of the city, sometimes walking fourteen kilometres or more as I meandered through parts of the city that most tourists rarely venture, taking in the sights and stopping at every little attraction that I came across. At one little house museum for a famous Chinese author, I was told that in fifty years, I was the first non-Chinese to take an interest in their establishment.

Many times I walked the famous side streets of Wangfujing, an area known for its alley markets, modern shopping centres, and street vendors. Come dusk, the poplar trees were home to many crows, watching over Chang' An Street, as this photo from January 2006 shows:

In 2007 I moved to Fort Resolution, a Dene and Metis community in the Northwest Territories in Canada's western Arctic.

Again, ravens abounded. I was greeted by them every morning as I walked across my street, past the neighbours' dogs, through the patch of trees and into the school yard. I don't know how many raven pictures I took that year, but there were many. I loved sitting on my back steps, watching them interact with each other, share food, talk. I loved watching them fly, swooping past, wing feathers rustling with the slightest whispers. (Should I admit that sometimes I talked back?)

The raven in this picture of the Catholic church was calling me. I ignored him. He kept calling. I ignored him. He kept calling. So I took his picture. Then he was quiet. (Some people I know refused to look at this picture after they had seen it for the first time - there are three ghosts clearly visible in the window when the picture is enlarged.)

Ravens in the Northwest Territories are often still given much respect and are said to hold much power. In 2013 they - or the Raven Spirit - were blamed for the malfunctioning that occurred at the grand opening of the Bluefish Dam Recommission!

In 2012 I found myself on my way to a teaching position in Moose Lake, Manitoba, a Swampy Cree community so far off the beaten track that it is difficult to find a map of where it is! 

(Moose Lake can be found in near the middle of the left hand side of the map.)

That year, magpies - another member of the crow family - took my attention. I clearly remember the first time I saw one. I had just crossed the Ontario - Manitoba border in my old white Jimmy, crammed full of my belongings, when a sudden blur of black and white crossed my windshield. I pulled over and watched the bird land in a tree, the two of us staring at each other for an eternity before I moved on.

And now, I find myself in Negombo, Sri Lanka. House crows, with their grey-black bodies and inky wings are everywhere. Every morning I watch small flocks head east and north, fanning out over the city. And every night I watch thousands of them fly past, heading back south for the night. Last Saturday, using survey methods I recently learned about in a statistics class I took at Penn State University, I counted over nine thousand crows fly past us on Rainbow Beach in ninety minutes. With an average of one hundred or more crows flying past each minute for more than two hours every night, I estimate that there are between twelve and fifteen thousand crows that migrate due north each morning from their roost somewhere south of Negombo, not counting the thousands that fan out all over the city!
This is the sky over Negombo for two hours or more every evening. 

While I was watching them fly past, one suddenly wheeled in the sky, and returned to land nearby. A whole small fish was on the beach, discarded by fishermen. Instead of gulping down the treat as I expected it to in order to not have it snatched away by the myriad other crows flying overhead, the crow quickly examined the fish, then sat back and began calling. It turned, and called again. It did this in every direction until finally, after several minutes, two other crows came. They greeted each other, with wing tips touching and beaks knocking together, then all three began eating the fish.

No matter where I come across this family of birds, they never fail to amaze me. Despite the many hours I have spent watching them, despite the hundreds of pictures that I have taken over the years, I still find myself being surprised by their behaviour. While I have long known that they are very social birds, and suspected that they are very caring creatures, I am often surprised by the evidence of this, as seen above and by the touching tableau which we witnessed as we ate breakfast the other morning, which can be found here.