An hour before sunset today, I was finishing my laps in the pool of my townhouse complex. I started to sprint, my arms scooping deeper into the water, and my legs kicking out harder. My head rose for air, higher than at my usual speed. And then I saw them: dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of crows plodding purposefully towards their evening roost.
This wasn’t the first time, nor even the fifty-first time that I’ve been aware of this phenomenon. I’ve known about it for years, and from a variety of angles. Thanks to triangulation and a few comments in the local free newspaper, I even know that the crows are heading to the light industrial park near Canada Way and Willingdon.
Yet it’s a sight that always uplifts me, and leaves me a little awestruck, two emotions that I wouldn’t have thought crows could inspire. After all, crows are the nuisance birds, the carrion-eaters and dwarf versions of the raven, full of themselves and their needs and disgusting habits. Watching their numbers and seeing the fixity of their intent, I might have thought of Alfred Hitchock’s The Birds, but uplift? Awe? From crows?
But the explanation is simple. As recently as a dozen decades ago, North American skies were flooded with birds. Then the Carolina parakeet, which was probably a kind of conure, became extinct, in part because its flocks would return to its dead and wounded members to help them. The passenger pigeon, which filled the skies like the buffalo once filled the plains, lasted a bit longer, but it, too, disappeared.
In such cases, a radically simplified ecosystem is left behind, full of vacant niches. In parts of the United States, these niches are partly filled by feral parrots. However, in the Vancouver area – and, I suspect, many other parts of North America – many of those empty niches have been filled by crows.
Crows are one of the few birds who are intelligent enough to thrive near human habitation. If anything, after watching them pass overhead in a parade that I know can last for over ninety minutes, they seem to have increased their numbers.
In fact, they have increased to the point where nothing can be done about them. The janitors and groundskeepers might complain about the droppings they must struggle against each day, and so might many homeowners on the routes to the roost. Yet, really, what can be done? Any effort to shoot them would be like being on a battlefield for taxpayers. Probably, the crows are too smart for poison to claim more than a handful. And they are too many to net or transport, even if crows were cute enough for our sentimental environmentalism. Besides, given their intelligence, most of them – or maybe some corvine replacements – would be back inside the month.
Individually, the crows I saw are mortal. Yet, collectively, they are more than humans can ever hope to cope with. They are living proof that, even if we were to ten times decimate the inhabitants of the wild, some of them will adopt to our cities and thrive. Amid all the highway construction and commercial buildings I see as Vancouver braces for increased density, I find the idea that we can’t win against the wild as represented by crows oddly cheering.