It happened at dusk, on a cold winter’s day.
The sky went black. Piercing screams grew louder and louder, as a murder of crows, soaring high above the sky like a moving black cloud, flew to their roost in the woods behind the Akron Zoo.
There were hundreds of them.
“It was deafening,” says Debra Swank, an education specialist at the zoo who has a bachelor’s degree in zoology from Ohio State University.
Though the 33-year-old was more fascinated than frightened (she works with crows for a living), a scene like this would cause most of us to run screaming for cover. (Does Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” mean anything to you?)
Associating crows with “creepy” has been kind of ingrained in us. All sorts of myths and superstitions surround this enigmatic creature, most often depicted as representing bad luck, revenge or death. (It has been said that if you see a crow caw, death is near, and that a group of crows will fly around in a circle right above an area where an animal or a person is about to die.) Adding to the creepy, crows have long been associated with battlefields, execution sites and cemeteries — where they’d be seen scavenging on human carcasses.
According to Greek mythology, Apollo owned a snow-white crow that he charged with watching over his wife, Coronis. When the crow discovered that Apollo’s wife had fallen in love with another man and told Apollo the news, Apollo turned the crow’s feathers black in an act of rage. Ever since, so the story goes, crows have been creatures of the night, representing the spirit of revenge and bringing back those who’ve been wronged, much like the story of Brandon Lee’s character in “The Crow.”
“One of the reasons why [crow superstitions are] so common in pop culture is because crows are kind of mystical in some way,” says Swank. “People sort of associate a magical quality to them.”
Magical or not, they are intelligent. They’re one of the smartest animals on the planet and, according to Swank, can learn to mimic the human voice, just like parrots. (And she should know; she worked with a crow several years ago that couldn’t keep its mouth shut during her animal show. He would say things like, “Hello” and “My name is Pete,” even when he wasn’t supposed to be talking!)
Less amusing and more terrifying, crows can recognize you. Swank remembers a research study in Seattle where a group of scientists captured seven crows while wearing something similar to the Michael Myers mask from “Halloween.” Once the crows were tagged and released, the men went back out a week later, wearing the same masks. Not only did they attract the initial seven crows, but the scientists learned that crows can actually hold a grudge because, within minutes, a flock of angry crows were dive-bombing them. The initial seven crows had communicated with their flock that these men were a threat.
And the crows weren’t just telling each other to “get the guy with the mask.” The test was repeated with multiple people wearing multiple masks, and without fail, the crows only went crazy on the mask that’d been worn when they were captured. (Researchers believe the ability to recognize humans is an extension of the crow’s ability to recognize each other, helping them to warn one other about potential predators.)
Crows roost in huge numbers (in the thousands) to protect themselves and use at least 250 different calls, including a distress call that brings other crows to their aid, since crows will defend unrelated crows. (This same type of communication happens when you see a murder of crows feeding on a dead animal carcass.) Scientists debate whether or not crows actually have what we consider a language, yet those same scientists readily acknowledge that crows have regional dialects.
Though the number of crows has taken a big hit in recent years — the West Nile Virus has killed 45 percent of American crows since 1999 — they’ve begun to rebound. And they’re not just a fair-weather bird; you can find them all year round in Akron, especially in the city. (Living near a lot of people is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for crows, since they’re both predators and scavengers and will eat practically anything — from road kill to McDonald’s French fries.)
Whether it’s a hot, humid day in July or a spooky October evening, “a crow’s not a bird you have to go looking for,” says Swank. “All you have to do is open your eyes, and they’re there.”
/ Writer Jackie McLean recently graduated from Kent State University with a bachelor’s in journalism.
Want more crows? Check out these movie clips, which might make you feel a bit differently the next time you come face to face with a crow. Although it’s unlikely you’ll ever be viciously attacked by this bird, it’s not entirely impossible …
#1: “The Birds,” 1963: In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film, a murder of crows chases and dive-bombs a group of school children. It’s one of the most terrifying and memorable bird-attack scenes in the film, with the crows furiously pecking the children from behind. Although the special effects in this scene may seem outdated to some, the premise is still terrifying.
#2: “Resident Evil: Extinction,” 2007: Based on the popular video game, “Resident Evil,” this crow scene shows hundreds of giant crows with red bloodshot eyes attacking the survivors of Raccoon City. Since getting infected with the T-virus from feeding on contaminated flesh, these crows are stronger and more powerful than ever before. The humans try to fight back with flame throwers, but the crows aren’t defeated until Alice uses her psychic abilities to amplify the flame and send these angry birds straight to hell.
#3: “The Messengers,” 2009: A man is unloading sunflower seeds from his car, when he’s suddenly startled by a loud “caw.” As he looks up, he sees seven crows sitting on top of the trunk. In the blink of an eye, a flock of angry birds flies toward his face, cawing louder and louder. He tries to protect himself, but there are too many. Just when you think it’s too late for this poor guy, another man scares the birds away with three gun shots.
#4: Where a clip from “The Crow” should have gone: Although I love this movie (and Brandon Lee was a total babe), it’s an R-rated film — and all the clips out there that I located reflected that rating.