I’ve been counting crows this winter. Not bird by bird, but handful by handful — noticing a glut of crows around my new home in Mercer County, NJ. It started last fall while I was working in the garden. Late one afternoon, I became aware of a steady stream of crows flying overhead. First, it was ten in a group, then twenty, then literally dozens of birds — all heading south. The next day it was the same thing; a late day crow-commute toward Trenton. Mostly American Crows, but a few Fish Crows were thrown in. After a week or so, I realized this was “a thing” and started looking for crows in other parts of the region as well. Sure enough, the late afternoon spectacle was taking place all over the area. As night approached, crows were flying in to Trenton from all directions. Then in January, as I was driving in Trenton to pick up a friend from the train station, I saw them. Thousands and thousands of crows, gathered in a raucous roost in a cemetery, just north and west of the station.
Seems the crows of Trenton have been “a thing” for years. I googled “crows, Trenton” and found articles dating back to 2001, and the phenomenon goes back much further than that. I learned that the crows of Central New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania have gathered in Trenton for a winter-long Crow Convention for decades. Theories are that the tall buildings provide some protection against the wind and the birds enjoy the ambient heat of the city. Estimates of 4,000 - 5,000 birds gather in a few hot-spots like the island behind the State House, the War Museum and the old trees around the Mercer Cemetery near the train station. The Trenton birds aren’t doing anything unusual. Crows around the world gather to spend the night together.
The birds are considered pests (by non-birders) because of their droppings. You can imagine how much manure 5,000 birds generate. They also love to chow down on poison ivy berries, so crow-guano is a double-edged sword spreading the seeds of the nasty vine all over the city of Trenton.
One news article talked about an assault on the crows in the late 1990’s by the city and state Fish, Game and Wildlife Department:
Sound systems were put up around the cemetery and the Trenton police building, and during heavy crow season the noise of a crow in distress was played in an effort to scare the birds away. Flood lights were attached to trees to try and deter large groups of birds from roosting in them and firecrackers were let off to scare the birds away. These techniques are still in use today, but obviously aren’t effective since Trenton’s crow population remains strong.
(Pelner, Laura, The Trentonian, “For the Birds”, 4/21/2003)
I’m a fan of crows. Sure, they’re the bad-boys of the bird world, but they’re smarter than the average bear (yogi bear notwithstanding). They know the difference between a real threat and a lame scare-tactic. They’re members of the corvid family, which also includes blue jays and ravens in North America (ravens are another well-documented highly intelligent species). They are extremely social birds amongst themselves, but don’t really care for anyone else. You might say they’re a little tribal. In addition to their smarts, they’re also known for harassing raptors, picking on road kill and squawking boisterously. When they get together, the noise can be deafening. I wonder what they’re talking about:
“Hey Charlie. How was your day?”
“Not bad, Phil. I harassed a red-tail for a few hours. How about you?”
“Mine was pretty good too. Found a delicious road-kill possum up in Pennington. ”
“Hey, don’t look now… but I think those black and shiny babes over there are checking us out!”
There's an awful lot of interaction going on in these crow roosts. Perhaps I’m selling crows short. Maybe they’re deeper than that…maybe they get together and discuss the mystery of life.
I heard the Counting Crows song “A Long December” yesterday. You can listen too, if you want:
The last line of the song is this: “It’s been so long since I’ve seen the ocean… I guess I should.” That made me think of Little Egg Harbor and how I lived there for ten years. And even though I was only a couple miles from the ocean, as the crow flies, I would often go months without actually seeing it. When a friend of mine came for a visit, we ate at a restaurant with a view of the bay and the ocean beyond. She said that if she lived near the ocean, she’d make a point to see it every day. I guess I ate a little crow for lunch that day.
I think the song is about a string of bad luck, some regrets and also some hopes that things will get better. I just wiki’d it and found out that Adam Duritz (who wrote it) said, “It’s a song about looking back on your life and seeing changes happening, and looking forward and thinking…things are gonna change for the better ‘maybe this year will be better than the last’… and so it’s not about everything turning out great, but it at least is about hope…and the possibilities …” It’s an old song from 1996, but it resonated with me yesterday. Funny how music can do that.