It’s late. You’re walking home from somewhere on campus, maybe Mason Hall or the Michigan League. Walking through the cold, wintery night air, you hear drops on the ground and movements in the trees. You look up and see dozens — even hundreds — of American black crows peppering the branches. You bolt, hearing more drops, while covering your head and ducking. If you’ve seen the Alfred Hitchcock film, “Birds”, you let out a yell, causing the birds to take off into the night sky. Hopefully you’ve made a daring escape from the crows, averting a crisis … for now.
I’ve found myself in this scenario more than a few times. I want to be clear, though: I am not afraid of birds. As a child, I would go birdwatching with my dad, and still today our shelves are filled with many editions of “The Sibley Guide to Birds.” Rather, I find that birds have a mystique about them. My friends and I were once confronted by a man in Washington, D.C. who claimed that birds aren’t real. The basis for his theory was that none of us have touched a bird so, therefore, birds can’t possibly be real. Now even ads on my social media have been trying to sell me “Birds Aren’t Real” t-shirts. But these murders of crows in Ann Arbor certainly are real (yes, the term “murder” to refer to a group of crows is also real).
Assistant Professor Ben Winger, the University of Michigan’s curator of birds, had the answers to all my burning questions concerning the crows. The best way to avoid them is in the daylight. The only trace of the crows during the daytime is their “whitewash,” which is a “polite term” for bird poop used by Winger during our interview. He also told me that the American crow, known scientifically as Corvus brachyrhynchos, tends to become more social in the winter.
“A lot of (crow) species form these big roosts in the winter. They’re not unique to Ann Arbor,” Winger said. “… Basically during the wintertime, when there’s not much food and it’s colder in a lot of places, crows will just form these enormous nighttime roosts and they’ll become very social.”
These roosts can be seen in Ann Arbor in the nighttime, as leafless trees become covered with black tops. While the exact reason for this roosting is not known, Winger gave a number of ideas.
“One idea is, first of all, it’s a safety in numbers type thing so they can better avoid predators when they’re in flocks,” Winger said. “Another idea is that food is really scarce in the winter, but crows are very smart and they’re very social and they can probably exchange a lot of information amongst each other about where food is.”
The city of Ann Arbor, compared to woods or fields, seems to be a haven for crows due to its warmth and light sources, which is to the advantage of crows, according to Winger.
“And as for why Ann Arbor, it’s actually not uncommon for them to be around towns … It’s probably a combination of it being a little bit warmer than the surrounding environment but also I think the light, since the campus is pretty well lit at night,” Winger said. “So in some contexts, artificial light is bad for birds but in this context, the crows might prefer it because they can more easily spot owls and other predators.”
Unlike Hitchcock’s 1963 horror classic, the crows will not be attacking humans anytime soon.
“I don’t think they’re a threat to other species and they’re not a threat to humans either, I should add,” Winger said.
Though it’s slightly disappointing to know that it’s unnecessary to run from the crows in terms of avoiding attack, some people in the past have gone to extreme measures to avoid them. According to the Audubon Society, the United States’ eminent association of birders, one extermination effort in the past has included the “dynamiting of winter roosts.”
Engineering freshman Vanya Lazarevic is quite familiar with the crows at Helen Newberry Residence Hall. She thought the birds — which she initially mistook to be geese — were just passing through for a day or two. Now, Lazarevic is struggling to get a good night’s sleep with the crows roosting outside for months.
“I feel like it was fine the first two weeks but the fact that they just keep returning is just very annoying.” Lazarevic said. “I actually slept with earbuds in and it helped. Light sleepers don’t have it easy.”
While the crows have disturbed her sleeping, the whitewash left behind is also unpleasant. Often patches of campus will be covered in white splotches from the crows roosting above, coloring anything from the sidewalks to cars a shade of white with specks of brown.
“Just stepping in bird poop in the morning is not a mood,” Lazarevic said. “You can’t just get rid of the crows.”
The presence of crow feces across campus is unpleasant, and there’s some speculation that it could drive away prospective students and visitors to campus.
With this being my fourth winter at the University, I told Lazarevic that this is not a one-time deal: The crows are a wintertime staple in Ann Arbor. Her response: “I hate that.”
In my research about the crows, I came across an article published by The Daily in 2011. Robert Payne, a former University professor, estimated a count of 10,000 crows in Ann Arbor while the Washtenaw County Audubon Society chapter counted 30,000 in their annual Christmas bird count. I interviewed Sherri Smith, an Audobon Society member since the 1980s and a former president of the chapter, to hear the thoughts of a true local birder.
Smith finds the crows fascinating because of their intelligence and unique behavior. When I asked about the numbers from the annual bird count, she said they weren’t able to get a good count because of the sheer size and the movement of the crows, but she did offer an estimate.
“I’d guess there’s 11,000 or 12,000,” Smith said.
Smith provided the best analogy for when the crows can be seen flying at dusk.
“They all take off like a tornado going to wherever they’re going to spend the night.”
I’ve witnessed the site a number of times, always whipping my phone out to film the spectacle. Looking through my Snapchat memories, I find videos from across campus filming the crows covering the night sky. Most recently, seemingly hundreds came flying over the Intramural Sports Building.
The crows were the subject of an op-ed to The Daily last year, calling for sustainable practices to control the crow population. There have been efforts in the past, though some were illegal and not very sustainable — such as the mass poisoning of crows in 2008 and 2009, which was investigated by the Department of Natural Resources. An article published by Michigan News, the University-run media service, informed the public that flare guns were being used to scare off the crows. Smith also mentioned that in the past, a University employee told her they used firecrackers to scare off the crows. In 2016, the LSA Student Government passed a resolution calling on the Ann Arbor government to investigate the crow population (you can read the full text of the resolution here).
The fact of the matter is that crows like Ann Arbor for the lights, trees and warmth. No, they aren’t going to fly down and peck at you. I find the hundreds of crows flying reminiscent of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth, almost like the crows are some exotic species flying in the thousands to evade predators. This isn’t to say I — like the majority of campus — don’t have a distaste for the crows, I certainly do, but they’re not the boring creature one might presume them to be. So, when you’re strolling home after a long day and the sidewalks are quiet and deserted, look up. You might find some friendly faces dropping gifts for you as you pass by.