Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Crows of Syracuse, NY

I have never been afraid of crows, but a recent experience made me very thankful that I have never seen the Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Birds.

I was visiting Syracuse, NY, on business, and I was walking back to my hotel after a long day at work; I was exhausted, and I just wanted to go to sleep. On that cold and calm night where I wanted nothing more than to be safe in my bed, I looked up. I'm not exactly sure why I looked up at that point, but I'll never forget what I saw.

It was mid January, so all of the trees should have been bare, yet they all seemed to bare some strange dark fruit about the size and shape of a papaya. I continued to walk, puzzled by this sight. Just as I was beginning to piece things together, I heard the telltale caw of a crow, and I spun around to see a murder of about 200 crows take flight from a nearby tree.

"Okay," I thought to myself, "they are just crows." Then I did the math. With about 15 trees in a one square block area and each tree housing 100-200 birds, there were roughly two thousand crows crowded around where I stood. That's a whole lot of eyes that could be staring straight at you, a sight that will likely cause a twinge of concern for anyone but the most dedicated bird watchers.

After safely making it back to my hotel, I decided that there must be some reason for such a large concentration of crows. Clearly a little investigation was in order. Asking the hotel desk jockey proved to be as fruitless as usual, so I went to sleep.

The next morning I asked several people about the crows, but they were new to the area and didn't know much about it. It wasn't until 4:30 am on the morning of my departure that I began to get some answers.

On the way to the airport, I offhandedly I asked my taxi driver, "What's up with the crows?" Within minutes, I had my the bulk of information.

About 5 years ago, the nearby town of Auburn had a terrible crow problem. The town had resorted to shooting the birds until animal rights activists put a stop to the practice. In search of a non-lethal solution to their crow problem, the town of Auburn opted for pyrotechnic cannons, which, while they won't kill the birds, will create a noise that crows simply can't stand. The town of Auburn had solved its crow problem, but the crows did not simply disappear?

The crows had to go someplace, and the surrounding towns, including Syracuse, are now their home. Crows are found in these areas year round, but during the fall and the spring, they gather in eerily large numbers, and they are a great annoyance to many residents.

The mess that crows leave beneath their roosts is nearly universally despised, and I'm told that if you hear a large rape of crows approaching, it is best to seek shelter because their droppings can come down like rain.

In addition to the many haters of crows, there are those that love the crows, such as Holly, my taxi driver and a self described "feeder of crows." Some of her family members think she's crazy to feed crows, but she has no plans to change her behavior anytime soon.

As for me, I don't mind crows as long as they don't wake me up too early and if they refrain from using me for target practice.

I will admit that the experience of encountering such large group of crows was more than a little unsettling at first, but the more that I watched them, attempted to photograph them and talked about them, the more I realized that they were as much a part of what makes Syracuse a unique place as the buildings, restaurants and people. Hopefully, when my travels to take me back to Syracuse, I'll get another chance to see and appreciate the crows.

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  1. wow!! I loved your article... unique topic and very interesting one... :)

  2. Are you engaging in neologism, with "rape of crows"?

    I've only ever heard the terms "flock", "murder", "muster", and "storytelling", as collective terms for crows.

    I like it, mind you.

    Interesting link to collective nouns:

  3. Bristi: Thanks, it was a story that I just kind of fell into, and I kind of got wrapped up in it.

    Tom: I could have sworn that I've heard the term rape of crows someplace. It must have been murder that I was thinking of. Someone must have said it some place and I've been using it ever since. I always thought it sounded right so I've kept using it.