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The secret roost of crows

Rush-hour traffic isn't bad in the Rogue Valley.

I hear complaints, but only from those who have forgotten or never known the traffic of a city like Portland or Los Angeles. But it’s not only humans in their Toyotas and Fords creating crowded travel conditions. Some birds experience rush-hour traffic, too.

Each evening as shadows stretch out across the valley floor, flocks of commuters head home from “work.” I have often watched Ashland’s population of crows — tired from a day of parading around lawns and fields searching for edibles — take off and fly high over the Southern Oregon University campus. They head up into the hills in the general direction of Lithia Park.

There are a limited number of roosts scattered across the valley. I recently learned of a roost in the vicinity of Phoenix. I’m sure there are at least a couple more.

The Rogue Valley has its common ravens, but ravens are very different birds despite their similarity in appearance with crows. Ravens are much less social and do not form communal roosts. They seldom occur in flocks larger than a family group of 6-8 birds and then usually only in summer before the young strike out on their own. On rare occasions, an exceptional flock of 50 to 100 ravens will gather, but typically ravens are solitary or travel as a pair unless dining at a particularly tasty roadkill.

I have never known the exact location of a crow roost in the valley, but they appear to be traditional and may harbor in excess of 100 birds. I have watched the crows head in the same direction over campus in the evening for more than 20 years. Despite this mass behavior, they are quite secretive when it comes time to settle down for a night’s rest. They mill around until the vast vestige of light fades before dropping into the roost.

I have personal experience with one roost in the coast range of Northern California, and it was not entirely pleasant. My wife and I were camping among a grove of redwoods. As we finished dinner and retired to the tent for a night’s sleep, we didn’t have a hint of what was in store. Soon there was a plop on the tent, a gooey pat that oozed down the side of the nylon. Then there was another plop. And another. Most unusual, but it was not enough to get me out of the sleeping bag to investigate. Besides, I might have ended up a target, too. Throughout the night the steady rain of splats on the tent continued.

In the morning we awoke to a tent covered with what appeared to be purple fruit leather. And in a sense it was. The crows that had silently assembled high above our tent in the darkness had apparently feasted on blackberries the day before. They had entered the roost without so much as a “caw!”

After the unpleasant task of cleaning the tent, we have crossed that park off our list for future visits. Is this why a flock is referred to as a “murder of crows?” I was certainly tempted. Maybe you will understand my preference for ravens.

— Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

Crows often form traffic jams on their way to a roost, while ravens are solitary, rarely traveling in groups. Flickr photo