A murder of crows

I slowed, stopped, then sat in my car watching. And as I watched I thought about the term for such a flock, a murder, and why the crows had collected along that stretch of road.

Crows are killers. They kill and eat nestlings of smaller birds. They kill and eat young field mice. They kill and eat small snakes and frogs and even fish when they can catch them.

Crows eat carrion too and I looked for a carcass, perhaps of a deer, in or along the road.  But I didn’t see a dead animal.  Besides, these crows weren’t bunched together as they would be at a carcass nor were they picking at the ground as those in the road and on the ground would if they were feeding on spilled corn or other grain.

These crows weren’t harassing one of their own either. I’ve read, though I’ve never seen, that crows sometimes take a dislike to one of their kind, mob it, fly over and dive on it, drive it to the ground, then continue to dive on it, hit it repeatedly with their bills and eventually kill it.

The American, or common crow as it is often called, is one of the most widespread and well-known birds of America. Everyone who recognizes a robin must also recognize the crow. It nests from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from as far north as trees grow tall in Canada south into Florida, to the Gulf Coast and into Mexico.

The crow is wide-spread and well-known but it’s frequently not popular. Crows will eat anything edible. But they have a special fancy for corn and for fruit. A murder of crows, such as the crows in the road before me or even more of them, a thousand, two thousand, several thousand alighting in a corn field or an orchard is a disaster to the farmer. Hence there was a time when efforts were made to eradicate them. They were shot.  They were poisoned. They were even dynamited.

Sticks of dynamite were put in cans with pieces of metal, the cans were hung in trees where crows roosted at night and wired so the dynamite could all be set off at once. I have an account of a place in Illinois where this was done and the morning after the blast people estimated 100,000 crows had been killed.

In spite of all the efforts to exterminate them, however, crows are perhaps as numerous as ever. They are, after all, among the most intelligent of birds, the most intelligent some people claim. They quickly learn to recognize scarecrows, noisemakers and places where people have set traps of various kinds. They ignore the scarecrows and noisemakers and stay away from places where traps, including dynamite sets, have been rigged.

Crows are now classed as songbirds and protected by federal law though they are also considered game birds and hunting seasons are permitted. But crows are with us to stay, in fact and in our language. Consider as the crow flies, to eat crow and something to crow about. But I still don’t know why they’re designated a murder.

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