Where Do Seattle-Area Crows Go At Night?

Nov 26, 2015

Listener Lauren Linscheid of Seattle sees crows flying every day toward Lake City Way. “I want to know where they’re going and why,” Lauren told KUOW’s Local Wonder team. We sent reporter Ashley Ahearn to investigate.

That crow you see hopping around your neighborhood, Lauren? It’s probably the same crow, every day. Crows can live for more than 20 years – they mate for life and they stake out territory where they spend their days foraging and raising their young.

But every night, from miles around, they gather to roost.

And tonight, we’re going to follow them.

First stop, Professor John Marzluff’s office at the University of Washington. Marzluff has studied Seattle’s crows for almost 20 years. His walls are plastered with corvid memorabilia.

We get in Marzluff’s Volkswagen sedan, which he calls “The Polluter,” even though he runs it on biodiesel. Marzluff is taking me along on his nightly commute, which, it turns out, follows the same route of thousands of Seattle’s crows as they fly to their roosting spot.

Marzluff drives with one eye on the sky and one on the road. He’s been pulled over for erratic driving before, but he says cops let him off with a warning when he explains that he’s looking for birds.

We drive toward the Calvary Cemetery on 35th Avenue Northeast, a regular crow haunt.

“It’s kind of a cool site,” Marzluff says of the Roman Catholic cemetery. “We’ll see if they’re there or not.”

He calls the cemetery a “staging area.” If you’ve seen murders of crows in your neighborhood, that’s probably what it is: Crows from all around gathering in smaller groups before flying to their nightly roost. They forage for food, socialize and welcome newcomers – like the Canadian crows that are currently coming down for the winter.

The crows, perhaps sensing a cliché, aren’t at the cemetery tonight. Marzluff says that may be intentional. Crows have learned that if they gather regularly at the same staging areas, predators like owls and hawks will catch on.

We continue our drive north on 35th Avenue. We’re seeing a few crows here and there, but no big groups yet. We drive by the Seattle Audubon Society. No crows. They’re avian non grata there, Marzluff says.

“They’re not the favorite bird of the Audubon Society. They are associated with what some perceive as more degraded lands, but really it’s just richer, more variable landscape that they really like.”

Seattle is a perfect crow habitat because of its grassy lawns and gardens, big trees, parks and homes, not to mention restaurants and dumpsters.

As the human population has grown here, crows have thrived; there are 30 to 40 times more crows in the city than there were in the 1960s.

We see more crows as we head north, passing Seattle city limits.

We pull off Bothell Way at the Kenmore Park & Ride. The trees around us are loaded with crows.

The 309 bus pulls up behind us. The evening rush-hour commute is in full swing. Marzluff says city crows have adapted to the noise.

“They’ll communicate at a higher pitch, and they’ll also be louder,” he says. “I’m sure the crows have raised their voices in the city, relative to the country, just to be heard over the din of our everyday life.”  

Passengers get off the bus and walk by, most of them engrossed in their smartphones, ear buds in. But a few look at the sky.

“I ride the bus most days, and I always look at people in the bus and see if they are paying attention to these thousands of crows that are gathering around now,” Marzluff says, looking out the car window.

“Just look at these people,” he says. “There’s a guy looking up, another person looking up, so two out of the five are looking and saying, ‘What the heck is going on here?’”

The park & ride is clearly a well-loved crow staging area. There are hundreds of crows here. But they haven’t reached their destination yet.

We get back on the road, and a few minutes later, Marzluff turns left onto the University of Washington Bothell campus. The sky is deep gray, and we can see black flecks in the distance.

We park the car and head for the athletic fields. A nature preserve looms beyond, dark treetops against the fading light.

As we move closer, the noise increases and the sky darkens. Thousands upon thousands of crows spin and twirl, cawing to one another as they settle in for the night.

The deafening sound of crows at their roost (12 seconds): 

Marzluff says some crows fly 50 miles from around the region to roost here.

There are probably some foreigners too. In winter, Canadian crows emerge from the forests and fly south to winter in our urban heat island.

Crows find safety in numbers. Being one of 10,000 means they’re less likely to get picked off by a great horned owl, a hawk or a raccoon.

The trees around us slouch under the weight of the birds.

Marzluff says there’s likely a pecking order.

“The place you don’t want to be is on the bottom layer,” he says, pointing at a willow. “Those guys are gonna have a lot of white on them in the morning.”

He says dominant birds likely roost toward the top of the tree, while younger birds stay on the lower branches, where predators may have an easier time of picking them off.  

Then Marzluff spies a curious sight.

A bizarre sight: Crows lined up on a tennis court at the UW Bothell campus, all facing the same direction. Were they waiting to file into the trees?
Credit KCTS9 Photo/Ken Christensen

Behind us on the tennis court hundreds of crows stand still in orderly rows. Despite the chaos in the air, these crows silently face the same direction.

“You gotta wonder what’s going on there,” Marzluff says. “They could be giving homage to their creator right now, for all we know. They seem somewhat reverent the way they’re looking there, but I guess they’re also just getting tired and waiting for their turn.”

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