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A Cawful Examination Of Connecticut's Crows

Patrick Skahill
Hartford's crows roosting around Stop and Shop on New Park Avenue.

At twilight in late fall, thousands of crows take wing above highways running through Hartford. These crow “commuters” are headed home to roost, but where, exactly, do they go?

It’s something I’ve wondered for a while. Every fall, going back several years -- if I look outside my office at dusk, I see crows flying south.

“The numbers can be amazing,” said Chris Vann, a wildlife biologist with the state.

We found the roost where every night thousands of crows return to sleep. It’s right next to Interstate 84 just a few blocks from my office as the crow flies.

“They seem to concentrate here in a relatively small area,” Vann said. “They’ll stay here all night. They’ll be 25-30 feet up in trees. And people -- and cars -- walking by them. It’s just so odd.”

As I look up with a closed mouth thousands of birds swirl above, plopping like spooky ornaments onto leafless branches.

Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR
A sampling of the thousands of crows roosting every night near a supermarket, Burger King, and car wash off of Interstate 84 in Hartford.

Patrick Comins, executive director of The Connecticut Audubon Society, said there are actually two species of crow up there: the American crow and the fish crow.

Here’s how to tell the difference.

“The American crow is the typical caw caw caw whereas the fish crow are a ee-ah, ee-ah, ee-ah. Very nasally call,” Comins said. “The fish crows are a little bit smaller. They have a little bit faster wing beats -- smaller build.”

Crows are a type of corvid, just like blue jays or the common raven.

The birds were hit hard by West Nile Virus in Connecticut around 2000, but Comins said numbers appear to be bouncing back.

He said if there’s one thing you know about crows it’s probably this, they’re really clever.

“They’re among the smartest animals in North America,” Comins said. “They’re gregarious. They form family groups or tribes. So they cooperate with one another. They communicate with one another. They can figure out all sorts of puzzles.”

They can even remember human faces.

And as thousands of birds swirl above us Chris Vann said it’s easy to imagine how the sudden arrival of Hartford’s crows in the mid-'90s took a lot of people by surprise.

“Why here? Can anybody explain this? We got birds that are right on the streets. They’re unafraid of anything -- and they’re pooping on all the walkways. We can’t coexist like this.”

Vann said that was the attitude when the birds descended on spots like Aetna’s downtown campus. Federal wildlife officials were called in to deal with the problem. But Vann said the solution actually turned out to be pretty simple. They just played tape of a distressed crow.

Vann sets up a speaker and demonstrates the technique. Listen as all the cawing stops.

As Vann clapped, hundreds of birds blew off the tree, circling above us.

It was eerie. And mesmerizing. Dark shadows silently gliding against a dusty-pink twilight.

The crows were alarmed, but not outsmarted.

“It’s like, ‘Well, we’re not that scared of this anymore,’” Vann said. “We might move over a few properties. But you can see, the birds already, are like ‘Well, there’s nothing really here chasing us.’”

The following day, I went back. And sure enough the crows were all pretty much in the same spot.

As they circled, the sun set, and there I was, surrounded by birds in darkness.

I snapped a few photos as the crows continued to talk. And as I looked up, I couldn’t help but wonder, do they remember me? 

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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