The Murdering Crows

This is the first post of a series on everyday animal behavior. I grew up in woodland, so deer, foxes, and owls were normal visitors to my backyard. And they were always up to something worth wondering about, living their own dramas. Now I live in Baltimore city—and the rats and roaches I meet here are really no less interesting than mighty black bears. Any city has plenty of wildlife to be found. This is my journal of the animals I meet in my day to day, the odd things they do, and my attempts—aided by whatever scientific litrature I can find—to figure out what the hell they’re up to. I’ll start with a story describing some weird incidence of animal behavior, and then I’ll move on to a discussion about what it might mean—for the animals, for us, and for the general experience of living a life on Earth.

Corvids have always written collective dot-dash sky-code. They are past scornfully enjoying the obliviousness of human observers. They no longer shape out rude slogans or rococo aerial slanders. No provocation ever provoked. There is a mournful air to their more recent, equally unread, messages.

China Miéville

I decided to go on an aimless walk today after a long and relaxing spell of procrastinating on my master’s thesis. After wandering through the low-slung dog park up the street (beautiful, but fragrant), I found myself following a narrow red-brick path toward the stately red-brick buildings of the Johns Hopkins main campus. I don’t belong at this school per se, and I always expect someone will detect me as an interloper and throw me off the hallowed academic grounds. This will never happen: I am a young white woman, clad in cut-up t-shirts, squint-eyed and pale from endlessly procrastinating on my own graduate work—albeit for a lab at a distant and much less impressive institution. I may not belong at Johns Hopkins, but everyone assumes that I do. My privileges solidly intact, I followed the red brick road.IMG_4779_editied

I was plotting a new running route past the water fountains and dining halls when a stirring in the air caught my attention. I slowed down and looked up, to the forest lining the campus. The tops of the trees were letting loose a raucous noise, and as I came to a stop their feathered black bodies pelted through the air.

I have never seen so many crows, I thought. They were leaping and flying from tree to tree, tens and hundreds of them—the treetops bent with the weight of crows. They were raising such a croaking ruckus that people began poking their heads out of doorways to peer up at the sky. When one flew, others followed, and the air grew thick with crows. Read the rest of this entry »