‘They’re just crows:’ Researcher says the birds don’t deserve their bad rep
In Vancouver, known as a city of crows, the mystery and intelligence of crows fascinates a wide swath of city dwellers.
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Vancouver is a city of crows. From a tamed bird that’s become a local celebrity, to a vast flock that locals watch heading eastward every evening, the mystery and intelligence of crows fascinates a wide swath of city dwellers.
According to Derek Matthews, founder of the Vancouver Avian Research Centre, Vancouver is especially well-suited to crows because of “the availability of food and nesting habitat resources, combined with a temperate climate.”
Crow-wise, Vancouver is perhaps most famous for the Burnaby roost where between 3,000 and 6,000 crows on average, covering a block and a half around Still Creek, have been gathering at twilight since the 1970s.
According to Matthews, “Crows congregate in large numbers in winter to sleep in communal roosts. These roosts can be a few hundred up to two million crows. The Burnaby roost has been estimated at up to 20,000 birds.
"These roosts have been forming in the same general area for more than 100 years, but in the last few decades some of these roosts have moved into urban areas. In all likelihood, the crows were roosting here before the urban sprawl expanded to those areas.”
Vancouverites are so drawn to the roost that an annual bike ride has sprung up around the phenomenon. Still Moon Arts Society hosts the Crow Roost Twilight Bike Ride, which follows the crows along the Central Valley Greenway to their roost in Burnaby.
Still, urban crows are no stranger to controversy.
They “get blamed for everything from songbird declines to attacks on humans and theft of murder weapons.”
But Matthews explained crows are “not a problem to most songbird populations and they’re not evil – they’re just crows, trying to live their lives and feed their families – just like us.“
Central to the appeal of crows is their intelligence. As Matthews pointed out, studies of facial recognition in crows show that evolutionarily, crows have learned to focus both on people who feed them and those who threaten them. “If you toss them unsalted peanuts in the shell on a regular basis, they will wait and watch for you. Not just any person, but you.” They will follow a person to get more, but they’ll do the same if they think someone is harassing them.
Matthews noted that a recent UK study showed that crows are the “ultimate problem solvers.”
A test was set up with separate stages which “had to be completed in a specific order for the crow to solve the puzzle and get the food reward – it was a world-first and one of the most complex tests of the animal mind ever constructed. Scientists have never seen this level of problem solving in any animal before.”
Local celebrity Canuck the crow is a case in point.
Shawn Bergman bonded with Canuck after he fell out of a tree as a chick. Since then, the two have been inseparable, riding the Skytrain to work and sharing meal times. Despite some iffy moments involving Canuck’s response to postal carriers, the city has embraced him. He’s even been granted honourable status at the PNE where he regularly interacts with both patrons and employees, and also stars in a documentary.
Matthews encourages people to learn more about crows, “fascinating animals in their own right.”
He acknowledged that “they’re not brightly coloured, they get up too early in the morning, and they are loud. But no other bird has such a human-like personality and social system. I try to get people to understand that it is not a gang of crows in their backyard, but a family.”