For many years, from about mid-October and through the winter, thousands of crows leave their communal roost behind the campus at dawn and return at sunset. The sight can leave a casual observer stuck in his tracks, fixated with both the daily exodus and return.
Sylvia Gallagher, the Bird Information Chairman for the Sea and Sage Audubon Society confirmed this is normal behavior.
“It’s normal for crows to roost communally and then spread out all over the place in the daytime,” Gallagher said. “Then they go back there in the evening.”
If one has braved the dark, the cold, and the ungodly early hour to take a 6 a.m. class at Saddleback College, he or she has undoubtedly met with an awesome spectacle in the sky as the sun peaked over the eastern horizon. On the other hand, for those students who attend early evening classes, the same scene is repeated, only in reverse.
Upon their return in the evening, about 20 minutes before sunset, a steady flow of black birds fly over the campus from their daily foraging grounds and gather in the large trees, mostly sycamores, pines and eucalyptus, behind the buildings on the backside of the campus in what is sort of a “crow pep-rally.” If they cannot be seen, they can certainly be heard. Their calls create a raucous cacophony that is heard throughout the campus until the sun sets.
During the day, the crows spread out in small groups to forage for food. As they are omnivores, they will eat just about anything. In a study done by Rutgers University in 1990, observations showed that during the day, crows stayed in small groups of three to seven within a territory for up to several years.
Expert and casual observers sat that the crows come from throughout the Saddleback Valley area to as far away as the north part of Orange County.
“They will split into small groups—likely family groups—of two to a half dozen birds,” Gallagher said. “Then they’ll forage everywhere they can find food…trash cans, dumps, and where people are eating.”
Paul Gorenzel from the University of California, Davis, studies urban crow roosts in California. His research shows that crows gather in communal roosts in fall and winter. Some large roosts may exceed a million birds, who return to the same location year after year.
“The crows even roosted there when I began as a student at Saddleback in 1977,” said naturalist Bob Allen, an adjunct biology professor at Irvine Valley College.
Why the birds chose this particular location for a roost fits the characteristics of what crows traditionally select. They prefer tall trees so they can keep a close eye on predators. On the campus, there are plenty of very tall pine, eucalyptus and sycamore trees. There is also plenty of trash around campus, so it is a convenient food source.
“Big trees, lots of food on the ground, and, my personal favorite, it’s hip to be on a college campus,” was the explanation from Allen.
Professor Kevin McGowan, associate curator of birds and mammals at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, offers some hypotheses as to why crows prefer a communal roost.
“Birds get some protection from predators by being in a large group. This is the ‘wagon train’ analogy: safety in numbers. Crows are most afraid of large owls, and sleeping with a bunch of other crows could afford some protection for an individual crow,” writes McGowan on his Web page about crows.
The American crow, the species that have chosen Saddleback College’s grounds as their communal roost, is a member of the Corvus genus that also includes the larger raven.
Historically, crows have symbolized power, evil, and death as portrayed Greek and Norse mythology and Native American folklore. Shakespeare and Poe wove them into their plays and poetry. Franz Schubert applied crows’ melancholy into his music and rock bands are named after them.
Although poets refer to a crow gathering as a “murder of crows”, scientists show that these birds are quite the opposite. They are family-oriented, social and intelligent creatures.
Crows appear to stay with the same mate for life. Relationships with their own kind are important. Their tight family unit is partial evidence of this. Not only will crows defend and protect their own family, but also they will come to the aid of unrelated crows in need or distress.
Possibly the most intelligent of all birds, crows have extremely good memory. “A crow never forgets”, especially when it comes to something they fear, or where they placed their reserve of food to eat later.
“Crows do have one endearing characteristic that is apparently not shared by other birds. They will get to know human beings as individuals,” writes McGowan. “If you toss them peanuts on a regular basis, they will wait and watch for you. Not just any person, but you. If you do this often enough, they will follow you down the street to get more.”
Not known to be a quiet species, crows are excellent communicators. Their most common call is a harsh “caw” but their vocalizations include a variety of rattles, coos, and clear notes.
They are also great imitators and are capable of imitating human speech. However, they are more likely to learn sounds from their environment or from one another. In addition, the blending of their vocabularies seems to be very important in their social relationships with one another.
Another hypothesis of McGowan as to why these birds choose a communal roosting spot is because information about superior foraging areas is shared among the crows.
“The idea is that an individual that did poorly foraging for itself on one day can watch for other individuals coming in to the roost that look fat and happy, that obviously found some rich source of food. Then the hungry individual can either backtrack the happy ones’ flight paths, or follow them out first thing in the morning to the good food source,” writes McGowan.
Next time you are lucky enough to be on campus to see this spectacle, don’t think of these beautiful birds as something horrible and Hitchcockian. These are intelligent and vocal members of our Saddleback community; the other genus of alumni who choose to return each fall and winter to seek safety, warmth, and to find out the best places to eat around town.