Starting with the day that the weather turned cold in Rochester (what day was that… like, Aug. 30?), I began to feel uneasy venturing outside around dusk. No, it wasn’t because the sun had gone down and it was even colder outside, nor did it have anything to do with this city’s safety ratings. It was because of the crows. I have a friend who has a huge, irrational phobia of birds, but I swear on my life that my uneasiness doesn’t stem from standing in solidarity with her on that front. It also isn’t because I am hallucinating Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” on a regular basis (thank God).
Every day at 4:40 p.m. on the dot, the sky becomes infiltrated with a swarm of thousands of crows that seem to come out of nowhere and proceed to envelop the entire campus in an ominous, dark cloud, moving in a seamless current toward downtown Rochester. I suppose I would have been indifferent to them had I not been taking one class first semester that ended at 4:40 p.m. twice a week and another that started at 4:50 p.m. the other three days. But, because a group of crows is worryingly called a “murder,” and because five days a week I was guaranteed to cross paths with this ridiculous situation, I began to dread seeing them. I mean, let’s be real, if you left a building to be greeted by a dense, black and squawking cloud wouldn’t you be kind of unsettled as well?
Naively, the first time I witnessed this spectacle, I thought it was just the normal crowd of birds that sometimes appears to rise out of a tree or other resting spot when the whole lot of them is scared or threatened by something in the area. As the days went on, however, the sight became routine, and especially when I noticed the current-like aspect of their behavior, I realized it must be more than just a bunch of scared crows taking flight.
Once I finally decided there could be nothing normal about the birds’ behavior, and that they must be announcing the quickly approaching demise of the world, I did what all faithful citizens of the 21st century do in a moment of ignorance and turned to Google for answers. What I learned was not only fascinating but also intensely comforting (so in case you weren’t planning on reading until the end of the article: no, I don’t still feel any sort of unease going outside around dusk).
I found out that the crows are participating in an annual winter activity called roosting. Roosting is a behavior specific to crows (and a few other related bird species) that entails large gatherings of these non-migratory birds coming together just as the sun is setting after a day of hunting and foraging for food in many nearby regions. The congregation is a very social process that invokes especially loud squawking, but as soon as the sun sets, the birds cease their yammering and fall asleep, huddled together in trees both to keep themselves warm and to protect against predators.
The crows, in a sense, go into a light hibernation each winter night, where their movements and reaction rates are slowed to help conserve energy and keep them warm. The drawback of this, though, is that in the face of a threat, each crow on its own wouldn’t be able to protect itself. Thus, they huddle in clumps of thousands at night.
What particularly struck me about the birds’ ritual is that it’s not something that happens everywhere in the country — at least not in this magnitude. The Rochester roost is apparently one of the largest in the U.S. — the most recent count was taken in December 2009 and reported that it contains a whopping 23,500 birds.
So, when I looked up into the sky and felt as though there were several thousand birds swarming overhead, there literally were. Crow roosts are special in that they convene in the same general area for decades. The Rochester roost has been documented as far back as 1914 and has grown significantly over the years. Even as recently as the winter of 1962–1963 the roost amounted to 13,705, which is still quite a large number of birds, but nowhere near the almost 24,000 birds that now inhabit the sky and trees at night.
Roosting is a two-step process that essentially boils down to pregaming before the real party, crow-style. Crows gather to “preroost” and share leftover food they found during the day with any fellow crows who were less fortunate in their day’s work. After the preroost, the murder picks up and flies a little further to reach their final resting place for the night.
Rochester’s roost has been in this general area for a while, but used to congregate in Mt. Hope Cemetery for their preroost and the heart of downtown Rochester for their final roost. A few years ago, however, there was apparently a particularly raucous New Year’s fireworks display, which caused the roost to relocate a bit farther south to, you guessed it, our humble little campus for their pre-roost — it would be too good to be true if they found somewhere else to have their meeting, but alas, they chose a cluster of trees near Gilbert Hall and the Goergen Athletic Center. All along the eastern side of the Genessee River to Mt. Hope Cemetery, until you’re right outside the city, is the final roosting place for these crows.
Call me an ornithologist and get me some binoculars, because I feel like the unofficial expert on crow roosts now. I’m glad to say that the process of gathering vast information on a somewhat random topic has at least enabled me to appreciate, and even look forward to, this sight, as I now know the crows are merely doing what they do every year, not foreshadowing an early 2012 apocalypse.
Sklar is a member of the class of 2014.