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Migrating crows make Charleston a murder scene

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Crows are not uncommon birds. For proof, just look to the sky around dusk in Charleston's Fort Hill neighborhood.

These days, as many as 12,000 crows flock together each night at twilight, gathering over Fort Hill and then making their way to the sycamore trees along the river on the city's south side.

It's typical crow behavior: every fall, after a solitary summer spent mating, they come together to form large flocks - also known as "murders" in the case of crows - for the winter months, usually November through February.

Their impressive-looking, ritualized way of gathering each evening is called "staging." They gather in an appointed spot and then move together to another area where they'll roost for the night - in this case, in those sycamore trees along the river.

Scientists aren't exactly sure why crows behave this way, but they think it has something to do with social hierarchy. Russ Young, a 20-year member of the Handlan Chapter of the Brooks Bird Club, based in Charleston, said the general idea is that the birds fly together to sort out pecking order before they roost.

"It's probably more desirable to be further up in the tree," he said. "If you get there early, you can see them just coming from all directions . . . it gets pretty dense in there."

The Handlan Chapter of the Brooks Bird Club holds a yearly bird count in Charleston, and Young said the club first documented the crows' appearance in 1996, although they could have been roosting here before that.

That first flock had an estimated 1,000 birds. The number grew gradually until 2008, when it peaked at about 12,000. The numbers have stayed consistent since then, maybe decreasing slightly, Young said.

That's a lot of birds, but not nearly as many as in some flocks - in the Midwest they're sometimes composed of hundreds of thousands.

The unique thing about Charleston's flock isn't its size, but the fact that it's in Charleston at all. Usually, crows congregate in rural, not urban settings.  

"It's amazing that they seem to have adapted to all these human activities," Young said. "The railroad train goes by and blows the horn; there's interstate traffic and boats and all this human activity. As long as it's all sort of status quo, they seem fine."

That many birds so near so many people could cause friction, but Young said it's unlikely to be a substantial issue. They create a lot of droppings and noise, but there aren't many homes near the roost, so it hasn't been much of an issue. Occasionally, when joggers pass the spot they cross the street to avoid the smell, but that's the biggest inconvenience the birds have caused, as far as Young has heard.

And Dave Pollard, chairman of the New River Birding and Nature Festival, suggested it's a nice opportunity for the humans in the area to observe the birds. They're common, he said, "but they're still interesting.

"You're not going to travel to see birds," he said. "But they're fairly intelligent birds and they're fun to watch."

Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886.


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