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Where Do Seattle Crows Go at Night?

November 24, 2015
Every night, more than 10,000 Seattle-area crows fly to the University of Washington's campus in Bothell. They seek safety in numbers, traveling as far as 50 miles to roost together. Reporter Ashley Ahearn was dispatched to investigate.

That crow you see hopping around your neighborhood? It’s probably the same crow, every day. Crows can live for more than 20 years – they mate for life and they stake out territory where they spend their days foraging and raising their young.

But every night, from miles around, they gather to roost, and tonight we’re going to follow them.

First stop: Professor John Marzluff’s office at the University of Washington. Marzluff has studied Seattle’s crows for almost 20 years. His walls are plastered with corvid memorabilia.

We get in Marzluff’s Volkswagen sedan, which he calls “The Polluter,” even though he runs it on biodiesel. Marzluff is taking me along on his nightly commute, which, it turns out, follows the same route of thousands of Seattle’s crows as they fly to their roosting spot.

Marzluff drives with one eye on the sky and one on the road. He’s been pulled over for erratic driving before, but he says cops let him off with a warning when he explains that he’s looking for birds.

We drive toward the Calvary Cemetery on 35th Avenue Northeast, a regular crow haunt.

“It’s kind of a cool site,” Marzluff says of the Roman Catholic cemetery. “We’ll see if they’re there or not.”

He calls the cemetery a “staging area.” If you’ve seen murders of crows in your neighborhood, that’s probably what it is. Crows from all around gather in smaller groups before flying to their nightly roost. They forage for food, socialize and welcome newcomers – like the Canadian crows that are currently coming down for the winter.

Crows fly from all over the Seattle region to reach their nighttime destination, where thousands upon thousands of them spend the night together.

The crows, perhaps sensing a cliché, aren’t at the cemetery tonight. Marzluff says that may be intentional. Crows have learned that if they gather regularly at the same staging areas, predators like owls and hawks will catch on.

We continue our drive north on 35th Ave. We’re seeing a few crows here and there, but no big groups yet. We drive by the Seattle Audubon Society. No crows. They’re avian non grata there, Marzluff says.

“They’re not the favorite bird of the Audubon Society. They are associated with what some perceive as more degraded lands, but really it’s just richer, more variable landscape that they really like.”

Seattle is a perfect crow habitat because of its grassy lawns and gardens, big trees, parks and homes, not to mention restaurants and dumpsters.

As the human population has grown here, crows have thrived; there are 30 to 40 times more crows in the city than there were in the 1960s.

We see more crows as we head north, passing Seattle city limits. We pull off Bothell Way at the Kenmore Park & Ride. The trees around us are loaded with crows. The 309 bus pulls up behind us. The evening rush-hour commute is in full swing. Marzluff says city crows have adapted to the noise.

“They’ll communicate at a higher pitch, and they’ll also be louder,” he says. “I’m sure the crows have raised their voices in the city, relative to the country, just to be heard over the din of our everyday life.”  

Passengers get off the bus and walk by, most of them engrossed in their smartphones, ear buds in. But a few look at the sky.

“I ride the bus most days, and I always look at people in the bus and see if they are paying attention to these thousands of crows that are gathering around now,” Marzluff says, looking out the car window.

“Just look at these people,” he says. “There’s a guy looking up, another person looking up, so two out of the five are looking and saying, ‘What the heck is going on here?’”

The park and ride is clearly a well-loved crow staging area. There are hundreds here. But they haven’t reached their destination yet.

We get back on the road, and a few minutes later, Marzluff turns left onto the University of Washington Bothell campus. The sky is deep gray, and we can see black flecks in the distance.

We park the car and head for the athletic fields. A nature preserve looms beyond, dark treetops against the fading light.

As we move closer, the noise increases and the sky darkens. Thousands upon thousands of crows spin and twirl, cawing to one another as they settle in for the night. Crows find safety in numbers. Being one of 10,000 means they're less likely to get picked off by a great horned owl, a hawk or a racoon. 

Marzluff says some crows fly 50 miles from around the region to roost here. There are probably some foreigners too. When it gets colder, Canadian crows emerge from the forests and fly south to winter in our urban heat island.

The trees around us slouch under the weight of the birds. Marzluff says there’s likely a pecking order.

“The place you don’t want to be is on the bottom layer,” he says, pointing at a willow. “Those guys are gonna have a lot of white on them in the morning.”

He says dominant birds likely roost toward the top of the tree, while younger birds stay on the lower branches, where predators may have an easier time picking them off.  

Then Marzluff spies a curious sight.

A bizarre sight: Crows lined up on a tennis court at the UW Bothell campus, all facing the same direction. Were they waiting to file into the trees?


Behind us on the tennis court hundreds of crows stand stalk still in orderly rows. Despite the chaos in the air, these crows are silently facing the same direction.

“You gotta wonder what’s going on there,” Marzluff says. “They could be giving homage to their creator right now, for all we know. They seem somewhat reverent the way they’re looking there, but I guess they’re also just getting tired and waiting for their turn.”

Story and audio by Ashley Ahearn,  KUOW/EarthFix. Video and images by Ken Christensen, KCTS9/EarthFix.

This was originally produced for KUOW's Local Wonder. What do you wonder about Seattle, the Puget Sound region or its people? Ask Local Wonder a question by clicking here.

 

 

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Crows fly from all over the Seattle region to reach their nighttime destination, where thousands upon thousands of them spend the night together.

Ken Christensen, KCTS9/EarthFix

Ken Christensen

Ken Christensen is the EarthFix associate video producer for KCTS 9, the public television station in Seattle. He began his journalism career at Crain’s New York Business, a weekly newspaper covering business and politics in the five boroughs, where he reported breaking news and wrote features on small business. Ken later helped launch the publication’s web video unit as its first producer. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.

More stories by Ken Christensen

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Obviously, these are very learned Crows!

I feed the crows on my daily walk at work in Tumwater. There is always one who is the look out and calls the others when it sees me. They follow me overhead but I don't feed then until they ask by flying or coast across my path. I don't feed them every time just every once in a while. I always talk to them. They usually follow me on my walk. Smart birds and beautiful too. Thanks for the article. 

have been feeding crows for about 5 years. At first I thought I was tricking them by feeding them cross the street. The first day I didn';t go to work on a Sat morning, I opened the door and gave a little  startled yelp and stepped back, There were at least 50 crows sitting in my front yard all staring at my door/me!  I wasn't fooling them at all, they knew where I emerged from every day and left in my car. My car was still there, so they were all crowding around waiting for me to emerge. This last year almost all have gone somewhere else and I only have two. When there were the 50-75 birds, they used to call the other ones in. Now the two just quietly either fly off with the food or hide it close by. I never see them come for their hidden food, so I don't know if they get it. I found a big one dead in my pool, so I got it out and dug a fairly deep hole in my horrible clay soil, put some lime on it and covered it up. A few days later there was what seemed like  good sized young/baby crow in my pool. I've never seen a baby crow, but it looked like a baby bird but rather big. Did they bring it to me to bury? It didn't looked like it had ever flown. I didn't want them to bring all their dead to me for burials, so this guy got put in a bag and put in a dumpster. The 2 I have left are distinquishable, there is a large one,whose feathers fluff out and he struts and gets first choice. They have become very picky, the big one is very good at whipping a hot dog out of a corn dog in one motion and fly off and the smaller one swoops down and peers through the empty hole, kinda funny. I just wonder if my birds moved closer to Seattle? They used to sleep a couple of miles from here, but I haven't been motivated to check it out. My daughter sent me this video to show me I wasn't the only weirdo in Washington (there's two of us).

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