In recent weeks, I’ve spent some time in Rochester in southern Minnesota. A scenic and beautiful city, Rochester is home to more than just scenery, good people and the Mayo Clinic. Rochester is also home to the American crow. Yes, that’s right -- crows. And lots of them.
I awoke in my downtown motel room at daybreak to what seemed to be an endless clamor of crow-talk. So alarmingly loud was the crow cacophony, that I jumped out of bed and pulled open the window curtains to have a look.
And what I observed was astounding. Thousands of crows filling the early morning sky were flying from somewhere downtown to parts unknown. Where exactly they were coming from or going to I could only guess. Never, however, have I observed more crows together at any one time at any one place.
It didn’t take me long to learn that Rochester has, well, a crow problem. This species of bird, though considered by most people as a rural species, has in recent times begun utilizing urban centers more and more as nighttime sanctuaries.
In the case of the city of Rochester, daytime countryside crows use the city as their nocturnal retreat. Roosting in prime locations near the world renowned Mayo Clinic, the sight of crows everywhere is hard to believe until observed with one’s own eyes.
Theories abound as to why crows descend upon Rochester and other towns each night to spend the night. Warmth and safety are likely the primary factors, but so, too, are the many large trees that grow in urban “forests.”
In places like Rochester where parks and cemeteries provide large canopy trees for roosting, one need not look far to see that the surrounding agricultural landscape offers less shelter and space than some urban environments do. It’s a paradox, really; that a once wild creature has adapted itself to humankind’s urban environments so well.
In the case of crows, it’s also testament to the species' high intelligence and adaptability.
Despite the crow’s omnipresence and its reputation as a marauding crop damaging, nest-robber and egg thief, I can think of few other native birds more adaptable and widespread. Here’s a bird as at home in the Deep South as it is in the Far North in both rural and urban settings.
Crows are distributed throughout most of North America except for Alaska and Canada’s northernmost provinces. And as communities such as Rochester have learned, crows can easily adapt to life in the city.
Interesting of crow behavior is their sense of community with one another. It’s no mystery to anyone familiar with crows that these birds tend to form large and noisy flocks. But what might not be common knowledge is how cooperative some populations or “family groups” of crows tend to be when it comes to brood rearing.
For instance, research has shown that even though crows become reproductively mature at around two years of age, they don’t necessarily form pair-bonds, mate and raise their own offspring immediately.
It turns out that some crows will help raise their own siblings, staying within their parents’ territory for five years or longer while assisting with parental duties such as feeding nestlings and acting as sentinels. It’s believed that strategies such as these help increase nestling survival, though some research suggests that the social system does not increase brood survivorship any more than when a pair of crows raise their offspring alone.
Still, the social system of crows is something to be admired. Crows that are related are known to preen one another, for example. Other obvious benefits of a highly developed social order are protection from both predators and the elements, as well as finding food sources -- all of which are benefits found in urban areas.
The city of Rochester employs a “Crow Patrol.” These dedicated people, who act as real-life scarecrows, patrol the city streets and downtown locations where the crows roost. They are armed with devices such as lasers and blank-shooting pistols to frighten roosting crows from rooftops and other roosting locales.
Understanding that the tactics won’t permanently rid the city of crows, the action is designed to keep crows from becoming too complacent. In actuality, Rochester’s crows are never going to leave.
The American crow is an adaptable bird to be sure. That they’ve taken up residence in our busiest towns is, in a way, assuring. Yes, during these trying times it’s comforting to know that there are species of wildlife willing to live side-by-side with us as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
For more information about Rochester’s “Crow Patrol,” check out this video on YouTube: https://youtu.be/4bKILLehScc
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.