Out & About: The delight of observing crows in the Upper Valley

  • West Hartford, CT - 1/10/20 - Crows roost briefly at a staging area at Trout Brook Drive and Exeter Avenue before ultimately heading to the Berry Rosenblatt US Armed Forces Reserve Center on South Quaker Lane Hartford Courant — Brad Horrigan

  • Liz Sauchelli. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

  • Crows are smarter than nearly every other animal, and share traits with humans, whales, dolphins and other primates. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Crows may seem wild, but they are smarter than nearly every other animal, and share traits with humans, whales, dolphins and other primates. Valley News file photograph — James M. Patterson Valley News file photograph — James M. Patterson

Valley News Calendar Editor
Published: 3/7/2020 10:36:36 PM
Modified: 3/7/2020 10:36:33 PM

When I was younger, I thought a group of crows could murder me.

I came to that conclusion after a family member told me a flock of crows is called a “murder” and my impressionable brain connected the dots.

Those large, dark birds with black eyes indistinguishable from their bodies and shrill calls seemed perfectly capable of pecking someone (in my case, a small child), to death.

While that belief was corrected by my father, it still took me years to feel comfortable around the birds. Now as an adult and budding birdwatcher, I’ve come to another conclusion: Crows are pretty incredible.

While crows live in the Upper Valley year-round, they draw more attention this time of year in West Lebanon and Lebanon when they’re seen gathering by the hundreds in the early evening to head toward an evening roosting spot. With the leaves off the trees, they’re particularly visible.

And I’m not the only Upper Valley resident who’s noticed them.

Blake Allison, an avid birdwatcher who is part of the Mascoma Chapter of NH Audubon, recalled seeing a murder take flight from West Lebanon up to the Route 120 corridor last month.

“It was like a river of crows flying all in the same direction, some merging into the larger flight as it went along,” Allison said, as he observed a small group of the birds gathered near one of his birdfeeders. “It’s quite a spectacle, really.”

Public opinion on crows is mixed. They’re particular pests for farmers who plant crops (scarecrows earned their name for a reason). And, I will admit, that sometimes the sight of them picking at roadkill makes my stomach turn. But there’s a general sense in the birdwatching community that crows are among the brainiest birds.

For example, there are crows in Japan that use cars to crack walnuts.

“I truly appreciate their intelligence, and sometimes I think crows are smarter than I am,” said Adair Mulligan, executive director of the Hanover Conservancy.

Why is that?

“Just a deep suspicion that they know what I’m up to and they’re going to get their way,” she replied with a laugh. “They certainly are successful, and climate change is not going to get the better of crows. They’re very adaptable.”

I understand what she means. When I’m watching crows, I have this feeling that they know they’re being watched and sometimes am convinced they engage in a little performance art in response.

“I do love the interesting, collective names that are ascribed, and a murder of crows, I think, is absolutely hilarious and spot-on,” Mulligan said.

Researchers have documented the birds using — and sometimes making — tools. Crows have even been seen laying walnuts in the road so cars will drive over them and crack them open.

“They’re really great problem solvers,” said Grae O’Toole, lead wildlife keeper at Quechee’s Vermont Institute of Natural Science. “They can solve pretty complex problems using tools.”

To O’Toole’s knowledge, the group in the Lebanon area is the region’s largest.

“The big flock in West Lebanon is kind of an anomaly,” she said, attributing it in part to the landfill on Route 12A that can serve as a food source for the birds.

Mulligan also lauded their role as nature’s scavengers.

“Thank goodness they’re the cleanup crew for the highways. If we didn’t have crows, imagine what our roads would look like in terms of dead critters everywhere,” she said. “I think we should value them for that.”

Crows are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and meat.

“They will potentially prey on other smaller songbird species, steal eggs from their nest,” O’Toole said.

While crow attacks on humans are relatively rare, they can become aggressive while defending their territory or young.

“They’re very protective of their areas,” Allison said. “Crows will drive off ravens even though they’re in the same family.”

Crows are part of the corvus family, which includes ravens and bluejays.

I am pleased to live in an area where there is space to observe nature and to see something as spectacular as a murder of crows roosting during winter.

“In the birding world, I think a lot of people are very intrigued by them,” O’Toole said. “They’re one of my favorite birds.”

It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t mind a little murder.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.




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