In urban areas, crows are roosting en masse

Development is tearing away at birds' sheltering woodlands and farms

March 18, 2001|By Ramona Smith | Ramona Smith,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - The raucous cries rose into the night as hundreds of crows swept suddenly, like an ominous cloud, into the North Philadelphia trees.

Circling and flapping, the black birds filled the sky and the tree-tops outside Albert Einstein Medical Center.

"Where is Alfred Hitchcock?" critical-care worker Gabriel Beasley asked.

"All them birds," said a man visiting the hospital. "There's something going on."

Night after night, the dense gathering of crows has been roosting this winter in the tall trees at the Old York Road medical center and in the Logan neighborhood nearby.

"We've lived here for years," said Joanne White, of Somerville Avenue. "And I don't know anywhere in Philadelphia where anybody has seen hundreds of birds come in every single night."

Change in crow culture

What's happening in North Philadelphia is happening in cities and suburbs across America - part of a widespread change in crow culture, experts say.

The once-rural birds are flocking by hundreds of thousands into urban and suburban areas because development is tearing away their sheltering woodlands and farms.

They're mobbing the trees around the train station in downtown Trenton, N.J., roosting comfortably in New Jersey's Camden County and flying high over Chestnut Hill, Pa., as they stream toward some nightly hangout.

They've been run out of the state Capitol complex in Harrisburg but have flapped their way into other cities and towns across Pennsylvania, New Jersey and upstate New York.

And gathering at a big "roost" on winter nights is just normal crow behavior.

"We don't know why they do it, exactly. We just know that they do," says crow expert Kevin McGowan of Cornell University.

Ominous and dirty

The crows in Logan have created a spectacle both amazing and maddening to residents.

White and her family often see hundreds of crows landing on the roost.

"I've seen them fly in at 2:30 a.m.," she says.

Her grandsons have hurried into the house after putting out the trash or shooting basketball early in the evening. Cats and squirrels scurry away when they spot the circling birds, which also have swooped down near nightfall around Girls High School, Germantown Hospital and other spots.

But for the past few weeks, Einstein has been their prime campground.

"It reminds me of [the movie] `The Birds.' That is so scary," medical secretary Denise Rogers said as nearly 400 crows massed in the dark trees overhead.

Not only are the big birds ominous, but they can be dirty. When they rise flapping from the trees, they seem to defecate in unison, splattering the ground, the branches and unfortunate passers-by.

"The benches out here are completely saturated," said another hospital worker. "This is just one third of them. One night, the whole park was filled."

Unnerving as they can be, the crows and their droppings aren't dangerous, health officials say.

And though thousands of crows have died across the northeastern states from the West Nile virus, the disease is spread to humans and birds by mosquitoes. It hasn't been a problem this time of year.

The roosting birds aren't doing anything unusual.

"Basically, crows everywhere in the world just gather up ... and spend the night together," McGowan said.

They may be comparing notes on where to find food, protecting themselves in a group, or showing off and finding a mate for springtime. "But it's really hard to know," says McGowan. "There's an awful lot of interaction going on in these crow roosts."

The roost in Logan is a mere chat room compared to the gathering of more than 5,000 crows near the Trenton train station.

"It's a huge roost in the trees around the train station," said Frank Gill, the National Audubon Society's vice president for science.

Big roosts in New York

The really big roosts run to tens of thousands - even hundreds of thousands of birds.

Several in New York state dwarf those in the Philadelphia area, such as the one at Cooper River Park off Route 70 near Collingswood, N.J.

More than 50,000 crows turn up every October at a widely known roost in Auburn, N.Y., where they've gathered for decades. Guards at the local prison tried flashing their searchlights on the birds to scare them. But unfortunately for the guards' vehicles, said McGowan, "when you disturb them, they defecate as they go."

In Syracuse, N.Y., a roost forms every winter near the Syracuse University campus. In Utica, the birds gather outside a hospital. Colleges, hospitals, cemeteries and old town centers often have tall trees that draw the birds.

Thousands of roosting crows mobbed Pennsylvania's state Capitol at Harrisburg in the fall of 1998. The Ridge administration began scaring them with "exploding devices" and whistling cartridges. After one barrage, crows turned up suddenly in Erie.

But McGowan said the frightened upstate crows haven't shown up in Philly - "that's too far."

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