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The urban crow: highly visible, noisy and street smart

By Stuart Tomlinson
The Oregonian

The gathering begins shortly before dusk as friends and relatives fly in from the north – a black waterfall cascading from the sky.

The gathering begins shortly before dusk as friends and relatives fly in from the north – a black waterfall cascading from the sky.

Youngsters wheel and turn, darting between stately elms in ecstatic play, while the grownups chortle, bark and caw, bobbing up and down high above the ground on claw-like black branches that dip beneath their weight.
 
It's happy hour for hundreds, perhaps 1,000 urban crows, and there's a lot of new information they have to share – places to find food, dangers to avoid, humans to fear.
 
Above the screech of the streetcar, the rumble of passing cars and the chatter of Portland State students on Southwest Clay Street, the cacophony of caws, guttural vocalizations, grating coos and rattles blends into a crow symphony.

At dark, the music ends, and as a group, the "murder of crows" lifts into the sky as one, flocking to perhaps the same roost as the night before, or an entirely new roost.
 
Meet the urban crow. They've been called "feathered apes" and are generally regarded as ranking high with intelligent members of the animal kingdom, including primates, dolphins and elephants.
 
Because of their incredibly complex social interactions, crows -- and especially large flocks of the birds -- move from place to place, month to month and year to year; where once there were no crows, suddenly there are hundreds.
 
Which may explain the recent increase in calls to the Audubon Society of Portland from people with crow questions and complaints.
 
A popular roost is just down the street at Southwest Fifth Avenue and Salmon Street. Hundreds of crows -- which are federally protected -- gather in the trees between the Standard Insurance Center and the Multnomah County Courthouse, and as the day breaks, the sound reaches a crescendo, echoing off buildings in a deafening roar. Like a scene out of Hitchcock's "The Birds," the crows scatter into the sky, filling the dawn sky.
 
By spring, crows will pair off and disperse into smaller groups to mate. Young crows often stay for up to a year or even two years with their parents. By late summer, flocks of juvenile crows will congregate near open fields with large trees, their favored terrain.
   
Some types of crow (not to be confused with its much larger cousin, the Raven) make and use tools. They have been known to mourn their dead by gathering silently in trees above their fallen comrades, and then teach their young and other crows to avoid areas where their brethren had been shot or trapped.
 
Professor John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, conducted research that found crows not only recognize humans that have wronged or threatened them, but that they retain the knowledge for up to five years and can pass that information along to their young.

The research comes to life in PBS "Nature" series documentary "A Murder of Crows," and in the book "Gifts of the Crow: How Perception, Emotion, and Thought Allow Smart Birds to Behave Like Humans" that Marzluff wrote with artist Tony Angell.

In 20 years of studying the corvid family (which includes jays, ravens, magpies and nutcrackers), Marzluff found crows to be "mischievous, playful, social, and passionate."

"I am still amazed by them--every time I look I see something different," Marzluff said.

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