Bay Nature: Flying in for the Crow Funeral: Can crows help explain human interest and rituals surrounding death? by Anne Marshall-Chalmers October 29, 2020
A crow funeral can happen at any time. Farmers bear witness after shooting unwanted crows in their fields. Powerline workers see them should an unlucky bird zap itself and drop. Occasionally, the funerals occur in a city park. All it takes is one dead American crow plus one fellow crow to spot it and release an alert, harsh and urgent — Caw! Caw! Within moments, a mob of crows arrives. Sometimes it’s only a handful, other times up to 60 or 70 birds settle onto branches or whatever aerial perch allows good viewing of the corpse and the surrounding scene.
For a short time, the birds remain quiet and still, only to break into a chorus of shrill calls. Back and forth, silence and aggravation for about 15 to 20 minutes until nearly all at once the ink-black birds launch and disperse, leaving branches to quiver.
Crow populations have ballooned in many urban areas including the Bay Area in the last 40 years. Annual bird counts conducted by the Golden Gate Audubon Society used to turn up a couple dozen crows in the 1980s. In 2018, the count estimated 2,500 crows in the Oakland skies and 900 in San Francisco. It’s common to see the birds exploiting the habitat we’ve created, like picking through food in a Berkeley dumpster or congregating at a large community garden near the Albany Bulb or enjoying the twilight near Lake Merritt. Crow funerals, though, that’s a rare sight.
Kaeli Swift, an avian behavioral ecologist, has watched hundreds of them. About seven years ago, as a graduate student at the University of Washington, Swift started manufacturing the events. With a taxidermied crow in her backpack, and a clipboard for notetaking, she set out to find out if the birds internalized a dead crow as a danger cue. Perhaps, she thought, the funerals functioned as a mass gathering of evidence, the attending crows seeking out clues for what killed the ill-fated bird before them.