A “Murder” Of Crows? Crow Roosting at the UWB Campus

Written by: Madeleine Jenness

The University of Washington Bothell is home to a flock of some 15,000 crows that sleep in the nearby wetlands during fall, winter and spring. University of Washington

“My first day on campus, I was blessed by a gift from the crows.

And no, I don’t mean like Gabi Mann, the Seattle native who crows her presents. 

In the midst of a Welcome Week event, I was given a gift of the bird-poop variety. 

Right on my favorite sweater.”

I would go on however to think of this moment as a sign of good-luck for the coming year, as I learned more about the nearly 16,000 crows that roost here in the UW Bothell Wetlands.

Every night, around sunset, hundreds of crows fly over the campus for the night to rest in the North Creek Wetlands. It’s truly a sight to behold. This nightly routine is called their roosting. According to the UW Bothell website, “UW Bothell became a roost around 2009, possibly because the trees in the restored campus wetlands reached the right size for nighttime protection.” 

But what point does roosting serve for the crows? Dr. Douglas Wacker, an assistant professor here at UWB in the Biology department says that “crows are thought to communally roost for a few reasons, for safety from predators (it only takes one crow to see a predator and sound the alarm), for warmth (though that can’t be the only reason because birds still use the communal roost when it isn’t cold), to share information, to find potential mates, etc.”

Wacker, along with Dr. Shima Abadi, another assistant professor at UWB, have been researching alongside undergraduate students on the crows different calls in an attempt to try and understand what they mean. They are currently in the process of submitting the work for publication, which he is happy to say, includes many student authors. Dr. Wacker also states that there is currently a paper in review, with UWB undergraduate authors, looking at how crow roosts change song sparrow behavior. What this tells us, is that this one species of bird can impact our entire environment, including other animals. It makes one wonder how our behavior has an impact on the world.

With the research team, they have  found some interesting patterns in the way crows call together in groups, which changes when they find themselves in different contexts or situations.  Wacker hopes to have more concrete findings to report in a few months.

Studying the crows is a wonderful opportunity for undergraduate students, who may not have been able to conduct research if not for the unique nature of this project. Especially as this is primarily an undergraduate campus, Wacker states that faculty need to find research projects that engage students who are also carrying full class loads. As a bird behavior researcher with an undergraduate that can’t travel to the far ends of Washington and beyond, Wacker feels as though it seems logical to study a bird that visits the UW Bothell campus in such great numbers.

But why did the crows choose UWB? Before the Bothell campus was built, the North Creek Wetlands had been deforested and used for grazing and farming. Then, in 1993, the University of Washington had bought the land and began to restore it while building the Bothell campus. Restoration and planting began in 1998, and now, more than 20 years later, the North Creek Wetlands have grown an impressive forest, perfect for crows to roost in.  

“I think that at around 2009-10 the roost was still in Kenmore,” says Dr. Ursula Valdez, a professor at UWB. “The recovery of the wetland ecosystem and mainly the riparian forest associated with it seems to have attracted thousands of the birds that arrive on campus daily.”

The UWB campus sits on Coast Salish land and the Coast Salish people are just one of the many Indigenous tribes native to the Pacific Northwest. Coast Salish people speak many languages one being Lushootseed in which crow is “K̓aʔk̓aʔ”. Indigenous stories also depict the crow differently than Western countries.

Valdez explains that corvids, crow family, represents wisdom, change and transformation for the First People. Which is much different to the ideas of Western societies who usually associate crows to much darker concepts. Nowadays, lots of people are annoyed by crows or mainly afraid of them. Common misconceptions and dark pop culture ideas continue to influence people on their perception of crows as well as ravens. However, for Indigenous people, these birds have a completely different significance.

Valdez goes on, “ravens existed when the world was still dark, but they were smart enough to steal the sun and brought it to the Earth and that was the beginning of life.”

According to the Gifts of the Crows by UW Seattle Professor John Marzluff and Tony Angell, “You can think of these birds as having mental toolkits on par with our closest relatives, the monkeys and apes. Like humans, they possess complex cognitive abilities.” Experiments have shown that crows have the ability to use tools, recognize faces, and communicate information to other crows. 

In the “Gifts of the Crows” Professor Marzluff and Angell share that [the crow’s] brain allows the bird to learn quickly, to accurately associate rewards and dangers with environmental cues, and to then combine what it knows with what it senses and to draw conclusions leading to a more informed response.

Dr. Wacker shared some fun facts about crows, they can be nest predators and eat seeds then disperse those seeds in their waste. They are synanthropes, animals that benefit from living near humans, who interact with people. They can change soil chemistry under their roosts, which may alter plant distributions and abundances, etc.

If you would like to learn more about the crows and how they relate to humans as well as the natural world, Valdez teaches a class that focuses solely on crows… called “All things….crows!!” which focuses on a comprehensive introduction to the connections of crows with humans. Valdez is very ecstatic that she will be teaching this class in the winter quarter of 2020.

If you’d like to experience the nightly roost for yourself, find a good spot on campus around half an hour before sunset and kick back to watch the crows, though heed this warning, you may want to bring an umbrella.

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