Collectives: A Murder of Crows

When creatures come together, they form a group, an aggregate, a gathering. The words that are used to describe the collectives of any particular type of creature are whimsical, and often delightful.

Crows didn’t actually murder Vincent van Gogh (he did that himself, with a revolver), but they surely didn’t help his depressed mood (here, Wheat Field with Crows, painted shortly before his death).

They certainly murder sleep, these flocks of bold, fat, sleek, coal-black, aggressive crows that congregate in our woods and greet the dawn with their hoarse loud cawwwwwwwwws. They carry on their raucous mocking conversations all day long, and only subside when the flocks at twilight reassemble in their roosts.

When we first moved here, cheerful chirps and trills of songbirds made a pleasant start to the day. They’re gone now, driven off by these bigger, tougher, smarter invaders from the family Corvidae, which includes crows and ravens and bluejays, a quarrelsome tribe all, and bad-tempered. But smart!

The American crow is considered to be the most intelligent bird on the continent. Only man is its significant enemy. There’s a Sioux legend which tells how the crow, which began life as a shiny white bird, came to be black. It seems that the crows would warn the buffalo when the Sioux set out on hunting parties, and so the hunters would return empty-handed and hungry. Finally one hunter, furious, grabbed a crow and tossed it into the campfire, and from that time on, all crows have been black. (The legend doesn’t mention the effect on the buffalo hunts.)

There are some pretty interesting crow facts I didn’t know:

They can weigh over a pound, and have a wingspan up to 3 feet. (I’ll back our crows against any to break those records.) They can fly 30 mph, and up to 60 mph in short bursts. Sure, we all know they have really keen eyesight and hearing; but did you also know they sexually mature at two but often postpone breeding until they’re four (for graduate school?). They’re among the few bird species to exhibit “cooperative breeding behavior,” that is, male crows help feed incubating mammas, nestlings, and fledglings and defend the nest, and they mate for life.

Well, that’s nicely responsible of them. Nevertheless, like Macbeth, they still do murder sleep, and their collective title, A Murder of Crows, is truly earned.

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