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WTF: What's with all the crows in Burlington?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: We just had to ask...


Published February 2, 2011 at 8:59 a.m.

  • Matthew Thorsen

Twitter has recently been all aflutter about a seeming uptick in Burlington’s crow population. Is there actually, as ornithologists term it, an “irruption” of crows in the Queen City this winter?

Probably not, veteran wildlife watchers concur.

Crows are always more numerous in urban areas in winter than in summer, notes Carol Winfield, a zoologist and founder of the Vermont Wildlife Rescue Association. “Some birds don’t migrate because they can make a living here,” she says.

“It’s normal for crows to roost in Burlington in winter,” adds Craig Newman, a wildlife rehabilitator and director of Outreach for Earth Stewardship. “I’ve seen hundreds of them in the trees on First Night.”

It’s not like crows are tracking all those “Best of” ratings, but they do enjoy the amenities Burlington offers — especially food, water and shelter.

Winfield points out that “food gets harder to find this time of year, and humans are a great source of food for adaptable, intelligent creatures like crows.” We can be relied on to provide “road kill, garbage and bird feeders,” she says.

Carrion is a crow’s favorite dish, Winfield notes, but adds, “They’ll eat anything: mice, fruit, vegetables, French fries.” That probably explains the noisy scene at Intervale Compost, where hundreds of crows and seagulls squawk hysterically while circling mounds of decomposing organic matter.

The comparative scarcity of predators is another big reason why crows prefer urban life, Newman notes. There aren’t nearly as many great horned owls — Crow Enemy No. 1 — on the Church Street Marketplace as in, say, the Green Mountain Audubon Center in Huntington. And it’s wise for crows to stay well away from owls these days, because “owls are pretty hungry now, too,” Winfield says.

Even if a starving predator should be prowling the Intervale, crows know there’s safety in numbers, she continues. “If you’re out on your own, and an owl does come along, you’re history,” Winfield says. “You want to nudge your way into the middle of the flock, not be out on the edges.”

Burlington is also a warmer place, literally, than the ’burbs. “It’s 5 to 10 degrees warmer near the waterfront before the broad lake freezes,” Newman notes.

Despite all these comforts of civilization, crows, like other wild animals, don’t really like to hang out around humans, Winfield adds. “Birds actually get just a fraction of their sustenance from bird feeders,” she notes. So, once summer comes and rural living gets easier, many crows are outta here.

The comparative harshness of the current winter may be forcing more crows than usual to come to town, both the ornithologists suggest. They also point to the possibility of a baby boom among local crows this past spring. But neither Newman nor Winfield reports hearing in birding chat rooms about any crow eruptions in Burlington or elsewhere in Vermont.

Those tweeting so excitedly about crowds of crows congregating downtown and in the neighorhoods “might be flatlanders unaccustomed to what’s a regular occurrence,” Winfield says. She recalls recent arrivals telling her with amazement of all the crows in their neighborhood. “They were in the neighborhood before you were,” Winfield says she informs the newcomers.

Crows do attract attention, she adds — “They’re big and they’re noisy.” Someone just becoming aware of Vermont’s fauna might first alight on crows, Newman says, because “they’re the most common wild species of animal that people encounter.”

Maybe, too, proposes Mark LaBarr, conservation biologist and land steward for Audubon Vermont, the phenomenon has more to do with social media than with Corvus brachyrhynchos (the American crow) itself. “What now becomes a widely circulated rumor would in the past have stopped with just a couple of people,” LaBarr says.

It’s true that crows creep out some humans. They’re associated in legends and literature with death and despair (think of Poe’s poem about the crow’s close cousin, “The Raven”). Consider also that, while scientists speak of a “flock” of crows, folklorists refer to a crow gathering as a “murder.”

Their fondness for dead meat may largely account for this linkage in the popular imagination, as may crows’ discomfiting call and their funereal plumage.

Whatever their rep, crows are clearly unwelcome in Watertown, N.Y., where an honest-to-God eruption does seem to have occurred. The upstate city has been exploding fireworks and blaring recordings of crow distress calls in an effort to shoo away the estimated 15,000 of them roosting in Watertown nightly.

Eruptions have also been reported in Syracuse, Utica and Auburn, N.Y. The last locale has gone so far as to stage a crow-shooting contest.

Newman doesn’t endorse such extreme measures, but he acknowledges that poop can be a problem. “All those crows up in the trees can plop a lot of guano on cars below,” he observes. “It’s pretty amazing.”

The online version of this story has been corrected. The original version of the story used the term "eruption," instead of the correction "irruption."

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