The murder of crows

Is Corvus brachyrhynchosis more intelligent than Barry Coulter? The debate continues.

Over recent days a murder of crows has taken up residence in my neighbourhood. One thing I’ve learned about Corvus brachyrhynchosis in this time is that they’re not shrinking violet types, especially when they’re gadding about ensemble.

The neighbourhood murder is up with the chickens. Now, usually my yard is host to all manner of birds — robins, chickadees, sparrows and swallows, warblers, flickers come through, even hummingbirds … It’s quite pleasant to drift slowly awake in the pre-dawn light as the benign chirp and chatter of these smaller birds begins. But when the crows stop in, it’s a different story.

The other morning, the crows flew in at dawn’s early light, perched in the Rocky Mountain juniper just outside my bedroom window, and began the most murderous brouhawhaw, shouting at each other like some parliamentary debate gone out of control. The caw-caw-cawing jolted me awake like a bucket of water dumped on me.

“My gawd,” I groaned, “Shut up! Shut up!” But they did not shut up. I got up and went outside to remonstrate with the crows, but I could not shoo them away. I threw a frisbee into the tree (the only projectile I could find close to hand), but that didn’t faze the crows at all. Defeated, I went back to bed, and lay there with a pillow over my head until they flew away.

The next morning I heard them again, but they were a couple of blocks away, and the sound was muted. I woke up and heard them faintly, caw-caw-cawing away like mad by some unlucky neighbour’s house. “Hee hee,” I chuckled to myself unkindly. “We all have to take our turn.”

And so the murder of crows circulated around the neighbourhood, making an endless racket, especially at dawn and dusk.

Crows are reputed to be among the world’s most intelligent animals. I don’t doubt it. For example, the region of their brains that perform some types of executive functions and other higher cognitive tasks — the nidopallium — has been found to have the same relative size as the neocortex in humans. A crow could actually be smarter than I am. I’m not going to rule it out. But regardless of their cleverness, crows are subject to the same possible misadventures as the rest of us.

On Sunday evening I was engrossed in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” when I heard a loud ka-boom! from outside. The power immediately went out, and a clangor of caw-caw-cawing began. “I bet I know what that was,” I said to myself as I went outside. And I was right. There at the foot of a power pole lay a crow, dead as a doornail. At the top of the power pole was the transformer, which looked askew. I called BC Hydro and went over and looked at the crow. It looked smaller up close, especially its head. It was hard to imagine this animal could theoretically match my own relative executive functions and some other higher cognitive tasks. My brain is obviously bigger, therefore I must be smarter, no? Then again, maybe not. If I tried to rewire my kitchen I would probably meet with the same fate as the smoking crow at my feet. “Rest in Peace,” I said to it.

All this time the murder of crows had gathered in the trees nearby, caw-caw-cawing and shrieking over their lost fellow. Occasionally they would lift off and fly around in lazy concentric circles, cawing away.

BC Hydro, I must say, was Johnny on the Spot. A unit pulled in and had the power back on within minutes. They even took the dead crow away.

On Monday morning, the neighbourhood trees were silent, except for the chirp and chatter of small birds. After the death of their flockmate, the murder had left, to seek a new beginning.