Split the crow's tongue to unleash legends


It was late in the afternoon, actually, just the beginning of dusk, when I first saw the flock. Viewed through the car's windshield, the specks in the sky were originally dismissed as dried road salt stuck to the glass, but as I travelled closer it became apparent that the specks were moving of their own accord.

The specks were crows. Oodles of crows. So many crows that their column stretched from the dim brightness of the west to the gloomy darkness of the east. A first estimate put the tally at 1,000 birds, but then I reestimated and doubled the count. The ribbon of birds flowed evenly, no obvious attempts of passing or flight deviation, all just carried on in an orderly fashion.

About the only other time one might see a mob of crows (but never this many) is when they get together to bully an owl. Crows have made it great sport to harass sleeping great horned owls, and many a birdwatcher has found an owl simply by homing in on the boisterous crows.

During autumn (and we are still, technically, in that season) crows group together apparently for social reasons. These huge flocks will roost in special areas, such as large tracts of secluded evergreens; locally in areas, such as Hawkestone Swamp and Minesing Swamp. There is a report from the New England states area of more than 100,000 crows gathering in a roost site. While not all winter flocks are that big, the one I saw was impressive just the same.

Each morning, the birds leave the roosts to forage in the fields and woodlots, at times travelling more than 200 kilometres during the day before returning to roost. By late afternoon, they are regrouping in areas called pre-roost sites. Our valley, out Coulson way, used to be such a place, but for whatever reason the crows haven't congregated here for a couple years.

These pre-roost sites are often quite noisy, as those already in position caw loudly to others just arriving. Suddenly they all go silent and the now rather large flock leaves to enter the main roost, a secret place that may be several kilometres away.

The crow is a rather interesting species, full of unique behaviours, and has been the subject of a great many myths, legends and misconstrued facts. About 2,000 years ago, Roman author Pliney the Elder wrote that splitting the tongue of a crow would enable it to talk. Several thousand crows later, we realize that tongue-splitting only ruins a perfectly good crow; some legends die hard.

Roman mythology has the crow (and raven) with white feathers, at least up until the time it had to deliver some bad news to Apollo. Whatever that news was, it upset him so much that he cursed, "Blackened the raven o'er, and bid him prate in his white plumes no more." And that, dear readers, is as good an explanation as any as to why crows are black.

Today, all species of crows (and there are several) look very much alike except for their size. To paraphrase Henry Ford, crows come in a great range of colours but black is the only one you'll ever see.

Crows and their kin are very intelligent birds, with ornithologists speculating that they are the final product of several eons of testing. Ravens failed the first test, of course, by not bringing back to Noah a sign of new life. However, some argue that the raven did find land, it was just smart enough not to go back to the over-crowded ark.

As mentioned, it is a common sight to see crows mobbing an unfortunate owl. Since the great horned owl and the crow share the same habitat (large secluded woodlots), there seems to be a "dog-eat-dog" mentality at work here. The crows pester the owl so that it will be tired and unable to hunt at night, allowing the crows a good night's sleep. However, the owl that does hunt at night will take roosting crows, probably because it's grumpy at being woken up earlier. But I'm not sure how much truth there is in that one.

Perhaps I can catch a young crow next spring, split its tongue, and make it reveal all the crow secrets. Meanwhile, the flock I was observing finally disappeared over the horizon, and I mused that it would take more than one owl to make a dent in that flock.

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