Backyard Naturalist: Woman in Cinebar Notes Genteel Behavior of Murder of Crows

Editor’s Note: Outdoors Writer Russ Mohney died Aug. 31. The loss is staggering. His writing and insight into the outdoors of Southwest Washington was unmatched. We will be publishing his popular column each week in the coming months from his abundant body of work created throughout the past decade for The Chronicle. This column was originally published Nov. 28, 2003.

Every now and again a letter crosses my desk that causes me to embark on several weeks of fascinating behavioral and historical research about a particular bird. These letters

Russ Mohney

frequently describe an especially peculiar behavior witnessed by the observer and, more often than not, involve a murder of crows. (A “murder,” by the way, is not descriptive of an act of carnage against the familiar black corvids, but is the proper term for an associated group of them. Honest — I’m not making this up!)

Such a letter came a few weeks back from Delphine Tramm of Cinebar, who described a number of crows that appeared one morning in her yard to feast on an offering she had put out for her resident flock of assorted Steller’s and scrub jays

Rather than a noisy squabble over the bounty, the crows stood in a neat circle and used, in her terms, “perfect table manners.” They maintained this cooperative and peaceful demeanor until the scraps had been consumed, at which point they flew off together, as if by some prearranged signal. Having not seen this behavior before, she wondered if it was commonplace or a really noteworthy scene.

Her interest was heightened by the fact that she had watched a biography of Edgar Allen Poe on television the evening before, and the crows thus engaged numbered either 12 or 13. (Even though they weren’t ravens, she felt the latter count might be an omen for her to go back to bed!)

Well, this structured gathering was not as uncommon as one might expect. A family group or otherwise tight association of crows often behaves according to rather well-defined, almost ceremonial rules.

My father regularly fed the crows that congregated near his house. After years of observation, he was able to recognize the hierarchy that existed and could identify the leader, which he called the “chairman of the board.” A distinct feeding order was apparent, and his daily spread of table scraps was consumed in a methodical, civil fashion. He could almost predict which individual bird would step to the center of the ring to feed when another had taken its share.

Crows are probably the most adaptable of North American birds and once settled into a largely urban habitat seem to evolve behaviors that appear nearly ritualized in their construction.

At least one example of such remarkable behavior has been described by no less ornithological authorities as Arthur Cleveland Bent around 1910 and later by pioneer behaviorist John Torres.

Both quickly noted the incident was anecdotal and had never been replicated by behavioral researchers, but it provided a boundless opportunity for contemplation.

According to the tale, a crow had been accidentally electrocuted by a powerline in California. Within minutes, a large number of its companions had gathered around the lifeless body in a near-perfect circle. After several minutes of silence, each crow, in random order, approached their dead comrade and touched the carcass with their beak, then retired back to its original position among the supposed mourners.

When all had completed the ritual, they stood quietly for a few more moments and then simultaneously flew away, never to return to the dead bird. The event was — again, according to this engaging bit of lore — witnessed by a number of biology students from a nearby state college.

Did it really happen, or did these early biologists simply repeat a story that was, however improbable, simply too delicious to ignore? I haven’t the foggiest notion. When it comes to crows, nothing would surprise me.

Thanks to Delphine Tramm for a letter that permitted me to revisit this extraordinary account.

Russ Mohney, a fourth-generation Lewis County outdoorsman, expanded the best of his decade’s worth of “Backyard Naturalist” columns into a book. Copies of “A Simple Song: Recollections from a Backwoods County” are available for $14.99 at Book ‘n’ Brush, the Lewis County Historical Museum and at The Chronicle.