Smart like a crow

The ultimate urban bird is more like us than we think.

Credit: iStock

The ultimate urban bird is more like us than we think.

Just at dusk on a chilly, cloudless day during last December’s cold snap, I watched as a young woman began her journey from her office on Still Creek Drive in Burnaby to the Gilmore SkyTrain station by first opening her umbrella. When I asked her why the umbrella, she simply pointed upward and said, “The crows.”

And indeed there were crows, Northwestern crows to be exact, one of nine distinct North American species. There were thousands of them, perched on trees, nodding, flicking their wings, lining the edges of the roofs of every building on the block, swooping in by the hundreds from as far away as Point Grey in the last bit of light.

This roost of crows, estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000, has called this site home since the early ’70s. Before that, according to local crow specialist Rob Butler, they would roost up Indian Arm or north of Bowen Island. And while the bush that surrounded Still Creek when they first established that roost has been removed to make way for office buildings, the crows have continued to return each evening undeterred.

While the heavy footprint of human habitation has threatened other species at times to the point of extinction, crows, members of the corvid family that includes ravens and jays, have thrived. In his book, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, author John Marzluff notes that when woodlands are converted to suburbs, the crow population increases by 300 per cent. Simply put, human settlement offers crows more protection from predators and more feeding opportunities. If nothing else, the explosion in the crow population is a measure of urban sprawl.

Marzluff makes the not-uncommon observation among corvid aficionados that “to a surprising extent, to know the crow is to know ourselves.” We have engaged in a cultural exchange of sorts; more than any other birds, corvids have shared an intimate history with people. In North America, crows and ravens were waiting when humans first arrived by way of the land bridge across the Bering Strait. What these scavengers saw in our forebears was a new source of food, offering far easier and more plentiful pickings than they were used to when they tracked behind four-legged carnivores. What the humans saw was a creature that would weave its way into their dreams, as it has on every continent on the planet. Crows and their relatives can be found in Norse mythology, in prehistoric cave paintings in what is now France, and in Aboriginal legend.

For the people who settled in the Pacific Northwest, the raven became part of their creation myth. Consider Bill Reid’s iconic sculpture of Raven opening a clam shell to release tiny human figures inside. To the south and southwest, it was the crow that played this role. The intelligence and wiliness of these birds caused them to be cast as tricksters and messengers of the gods. Their habits of scavenging caused them to be valued as nature’s cleanup crew.

In spite of their big brains, or maybe because of them, corvids have through history been both revered and reviled. Before the Black Death hit Europe, they were street cleaners; after they had been seen to be feasting on the bodies of plague victims, they were associated with bad luck and death.

Marzluff says corvids are unlike any other bird; in terms of intelligence, they are ranked as high as the great apes. “They are able to learn, remember and use insight to solve natural and human challenges,” he notes.

He won’t find any argument from me. Before the city removed the old chestnut tree in front of my house, I looked out one afternoon to see a crow with a crust of dry bread fly into the crotch of the tree where a rotted-out branch had left a hollow that filled with water. The crow dunked the bread in the water to soften it as deliberately as my grandfather would dunk a slice of toast in his tea to make it easier to swallow.

As for the crowd of crows that makes the daily commute to Still Creek, we consider them a mixed blessing. We will notice them more for the next few months. Adults and their teenaged offspring will forgo the commute to Still Creek while they build nests in town to raise another generation. They’ll clean out our alleyways, but get us up most mornings earlier than we would like