By Jill Radwin
Although wildlife on campus may appear to be limited to the squirrels that dart in and out of trash cans, Union has become a major site for roosting crows, which gather together during the evening in packs of thousands. Union is host to the common crow, otherwise known as the American crow.
According to Professor Emeritus Carl George, “the roosting of crows is primarily a cold weather phenomenon.”
The crows’ presence on campus seems especially visible this year, more than during other winter seasons.
“I have never in the eleven years I have been here seen this many crows,” said Director of Student Activities Matt Milless. “I photograph a lot of birds and crows are the birds I see most in the Capital District, by far.”
Unfortunately, due to the low lighting in the evenings when the crows are roosting, a camera cannot always capture the sheer number of them.
While it seems that the crow phenomenon on campus has grown at an exponential pace, there is no standard from which to judge the exact variation in crows’ roosting patterns throughout Union’s history.
“I have also noticed the murder of crows frequented our campus. Since I am a relatively new faculty, this is my second year here, I don’t have a baseline in order to judge whether or not their distribution is extraordinary. One thing I can comment on is that ornithologists have noticed crows using more urban locations for their roosting sites,” said Biology Professor Jennifer Bishop.
There is great speculation as to why crows have moved their roosting sites to more urban locations. According to Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab, these birds’ fear of humans has diminished as a result of the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which was extended in 1972 to severely limit the hunting of crows. Furthermore, cities strongly prohibit the discharge of firearms, further diminishing the shooting of these birds. From the crows’ perspective, the benefits of living in cities include: fewer predators like the Great Horned Owl, more artificial light to spot these predators, a warmer climate, and large trees, often protected in city parks. Crows change their roosting patterns, which reveals their incredibly high level of intelligence.
According to George, it is speculated that crows transfer information from bird to bird and maybe even between flocks. “There may be very interesting things going on during these aggregations,” he says. This potential communication between flocks may attribute to the number of birds roosting together in urban locations.
“Some years are worse than others. There have been articles in the local papers about the large flocks that have been all over the Capital District so Union is just one spot that they are stopping at. As far as what we in Facilities can do about them—they are difficult to get rid of. We have sounded off air horns as they begin to roost to try to get them to move on, but there is no real solution to permanently keep them away,” said Director of Facilities and Planning Loren Rucinsky.
In mythology, crows represent doom or death and are known for being noisy and leaving odorous bird droppings. Sometimes crows are destructive and rip up trash bags or disrupt agriculture in more rural locations. Scientists have also expressed concern that crows can cause the spread of disease.
“I’ve noticed the crows and they sort of freak me out. When they flock together it kind of reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds and that’s a scary movie,” said Freddie Dantus ‘11.
In Amsterdam, New York, the inundation of crows has become a major problem particularly this past year when several dozen crows were dropping dead from the sky. Meanwhile, Union has offered more of a haven to the birds, which have caused a few problems on campus over the years.
“I lived in Golub House last year and heard the crows all the time. I’m not sure if this year is a phenomenon, but we definitely do get a visitor once and awhile at our Student Forum meetings. Overall, I’m a pretty big crow advocate. I think they add a little texture to this campus,” said Student Forum President Andrew Churchill.
Student Forum members are no strangers to the crows, as these birds gather in flocks outside the window at the top of Reamer Campus Center often during their meeting times. Student Trustee, Randy Miller says, “They make a good bit of noise and their large movements can be distracting.”
During the warmer seasons of the year, crows are much more spread out over a distance of about three hundred to four hundred square miles. There are ways to try to limit the birds during the winter when, for some areas, they become problematic. Nonlethal methods include using pyrotechnics or propane cannons to scare them away. Union has no plans to utilize such methods, as the crows remain a friendly, if not harmless presence on campus.