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If you happen to find yourself in the neighborhood of lower Broadway on a winter evening, when the darkness comes early and there is a chill in the air, then you might just stumble upon a murder.
Of crows, that is.
On some winter evenings, as dusk settles, the air around City Hall and the Kay Street neighborhood can only be described as Hitchcockian: Hundreds of noisy crows mob together and fly overhead as they prepare to roost overnight in the area’s trees. A behavior that occurs between late fall and late winter when the birds are not breeding, according to Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife biologist John Herbert.
Herbert, an ornithologist focused on non-game birds as well as threatened and endangered plants and insects in the state, said the birds are most likely a mixed flock of American crows, some fish crows, and possibly even a few ravens. “American crows and fish crows look very similar but have different vocal calls that would be hard to tell apart at night when they’re all making noise,” he said.
Crows, which are grouped in the corvid family along with ravens, jays, magpies, nutcrackers, and others, are some of the planet’s most intelligent birds and are found on every continent except Antarctica. Crows have adapted particularly well to human conditions as they are especially opportunistic foragers, and some populations have come to rely on human sources of food.
It’s this proximity to human populations and their remarkable intelligence, coupled with all-black plumage, iridescent feathers, and distinct “CaaW!-CaaW!-CaaW!” call that have made crows the subjects of human superstition and mythology around the world for centuries.
As for the ravens, comparatively larger birds with thicker beaks and shaggier-looking feathers, Herbert said he would not be shocked to find a few individuals in Broadway’s neighborhood flock. “Ravens are interesting in the northeast because they’re new [to the state] in the last decade,” he said. “They were much more rare a decade ago and now they’re breeding in the state.”
So, if winter is not breeding season, then what’s the nightly raucous all about? Herbert said it’s primarily about food, sleep, and safety. Since crows are not tied down to their nests in the wintertime, they behave differently. “They’ll forage together, compete for food, and roost together,” he said. “Sleeping in a crowd provides better protection from predators like owls and larger raptors that can hunt them during the night,” he said.
Herbert said crows even have pre-roost sites where the group meets up before moving to their final sleeping location for the night. “If they’re there from 4-5 pm and then you don’t see them later on, they probably went somewhere close by to sleep,” he said. “When you see crows flying in a line, they’re headed toward a roost. They only fly in a line during this time of year.”
And what is it about lower Broadway and the surrounding neighborhoods that make a choice roosting area for the cacophonous corvids? It’s a few things, Herbert explained. First, crows like large trees, and cities like Newport often have large ones that provide ideal roosting spots. “Big trees are especially good spots for crows to congregate,” he said. “They can stay all night or meet there before they move to their final roosting spot.”
Another reason Newport could be particularly attractive to the birds is because crows are a game species, and the city provides protection. “They’re very smart, and may have learned that they won’t be hunted within the city,” Herbert said. Additionally, better visibility to see predators in a well-lit environment, slightly warmer temperatures, and more food sources could all be reasons the birds are attracted to the City-by-the-Sea.
While the sight of a murder of crows may give you an eerie feeling, these birds are an integral species that help control populations of small rodents and other birds, and they scavenge dead animals. “Crows are very smart predators and omnivores,” Herbert said. “They eat mice and any type of smaller animals they can get. They eat invasive species like European starlings as well as native birds.”
Herbert said that although crows and ravens get a bad rap thanks to superstitions, folklore and horror films, they’re nothing to fear. “They’re native wildlife that are not looking to attack people or cause trouble,” Herbert said. “They’re just trying to survive the winter and they’re coming together because it’s safe. Giant roosts are one way to make it through the night.”