I heard the bird in the middle of the night. It was past two o’clock in the dead of the night when I thought I heard the ‘caw-caw-caw’ of a crow. There had been so many about lately in the neighborhood. In the early part of the morning when the inky blackness was still against the eastern sky towards the ocean I had seen flocks of noisy black birds seeming to have some kind of raucous meet-up.
I posted some pictures and also put them on Twitter in the last month or so. I wondered if anyone else was up and looking up and listening to the raven crowd in the skies above Dorchester. What did they think?
The Eastern North American Crow is probably what I am seeing in the heavens in the late night and early morning. Some Canadian birds fly south during winter time, so, perhaps these birds are newly arrived Canadians. Are they having a reunion and meet-and-greet for all the Canadians spending the season in the warmth of Massachusetts in January? The encyclopedia says that ‘Outside of the nesting season these birds often gather in large (thousands or even millions) communal roosts at night.’
But, at a little after two o’clock at night, I thought I must have been mistaken about hearing a bird. I stepped out into the back hall and looked out the window of the back door. The birds were outside; a flock of crows were right above my head in the branches of the large tree. There looked like hundreds. The ‘caw-caw-caw’ would start up with one bird and dozens more would take up the chant. I opened the door as quietly as I could and marveled at the dark shapes perched on the branches all around me.
Some birds took off into the air as the screen door creaked a little. Others followed, and hundreds remained. I went back in the kitchen to put a tea bag in a cup of hot water. I sat down and looked at a news story on my computer screen as my tea brewed and the cup was warm in my hands.
I thought again of the hundreds of dark birds in the tree in the backyard. I got up and went out in the back hall and lifted the curtain to see the tree. The birds were all quiet and seemed to number hundreds and hundreds. I opened the back door as quietly as I could, but a little squeak sounded. Dozens of wings flapped in a kind of Hitchcockian chorus. Some birds took to the air. Most stayed perched on the branches. ‘If these birds were organized or determined,’ I thought,’They could come down in a group and attack me.’ I had the slightest apprehension.
I saw a troop of crows last evening after the sun set and darkness had fallen at five o’clock. ‘Caw-caw-caw.’ What are they doing? Building group solidarity? Finding vocal mates? PartyIng?
The American crow mates and raises young. The birds form family groups and the juvenile members often help take care of younger birds in the family. They live in groups that might be a dozen family members. So the night time meetings might be a chance for all these close crow families to meet other families and have group interaction. The birds are intelligent and live seven or eight years in the wild and captive birds have lived up to age thirty.
In past cultures Crows were believed to be messengers of the gods, bringing grief and death. To please them and prevent bad events from happening, people offer treats like sweets and leave them on the roof for crows to take in the morning. There is enough left over food in Dorchester’s trash barrels to feed thousands of crows in the middle of winter so the birds can have cold noisy parties in the dead of the night.
A video from Washington state shows some of the night time activities of crows.