Stalked by a Murder of Crows


It was a little like Hitchcock; an unconventional dark encounter on an unremarkable monochrome day. My dachshund and I were trailing down the same belt of green lawn, mud, and concrete as the summery day before, and the day and days before that. The skies were cast over with thick clouds, so we didn’t bother to rush under the trees for shade. Instead, we strolled along with a slow, broken pace. I walked in a daydream, pausing every number of yards to wait for the dog to catch up. This was our routine. I walked, I paused; the dog patrolled in circles around me, sniffing the taller patches of grass.

Slowly strolling and daydreaming, I almost missed the breaking of stillness in the shallow waters below; a streak of iridescent, neon blue, rushing past with a murmur. I caught only a glimpse of that streak from the corner of my eye. Perhaps I would have returned to my daydream, but the second blur of azure and hum made me turn my head.

A pair of dragonflies skittered around the concrete ditch at the bottom of the greenbelt, brushing the surface of the water. As I watched, the pair launched into a strange battle. For a while, it seemed to be a game of chase, until the aggressor finally caught up with its victim and landed on its back. The caught dragonfly sunk down through the air, nearly landing in the water. Then, rather quickly, the pair reached a suitable altitude for cruising, and began to fly in broad arcs around the stream. Finally, the pair, taking a sharp swerve to one side, landed on a small island of muck, one dragonfly still tightly in the grasp of the other.

I was fascinated. I glanced at the dog, still a few yards a way checking the messages, and leaving a few. I figured he was fine, and by extension, so was I, free to watch dragonflies mate. I simply didn’t realize that I was being watched as well. I took a step closer, halfway down the hill from a grove of trees to the drainage ditch below. Then I heard it. The rush, the flapping of wings, and the piercing cries: "Caw! Caw! Caw!"

I started to turn and saw the crow, flying straight for my head. I gasped and ducked. The crow flew just above me, close enough that the wind from his wings flapped my long hair around. I stumbled backwards, forgetting completely about the dragonflies.

What is that dog doing? I thought, looking around to see if he was aggravating the crows in some manner. He wasn’t; he was sniffing about the trees as usual. The crows seemed completely unconcerned with him. No, they were watching me. Three crows sat in the branches above, cocking their heads and peering down at me with a menacing gaze. Then one swooped again. "Caw! Caw!" The crow, again, aimed right at me, as if he was going in for the kill. Again, I ducked, and again, the crow swooped just above my head.

Startled, I called to the dog. "C’mon, let’s go. The crows are going nuts here." The pup dutifully turned and leapt up the path ahead. I followed. Then, so did the crows. As soon as we reached the next set of trees, the crows flew at me again, swooping, threatening with their cries. First one, then the others, till they all landed in branches just above my head. There, they glared and cawed, plucking leaves and throwing them at my head.

I turned, and decided to head back towards home. The dog, oblivious to my plight, obediently came along. The crows, too, decided to follow. Other dog-walkers and passers-by came down the path, and I realized I must look a bit silly, rushing along, looking frightened by the trees and ducking at random. "The crows... they’re acting weird. They’re chasing me for some reason."

i-fabd9835b69834424c958d8c5d60b765-crows-003.jpg"That is strange," said the jogger. "I’ve never heard of them doing anything like that." When the jogger passed, I expected the crows to follow her, swooping down at her as they had to me. They didn’t. They kept watching me. Another family passed, with a big, cheerful golden retriever and stroller in tow. Still the crows ignored the strangers, and kept their careful watch on me. As soon as we were all alone on the path, the crows returned to their threatening dives.

"What is going on?" I called to the crows.

"Caw! Caw! Caw!" They shouted back.

"Caw! Caw! Caw!" I shouted back at them.

I guess that meant, "come and get me mother#%&$*@!" because the response was another sweeping dive. By this time, I was nearly home. No one will believe this, I thought. (That’s why I grabbed my camera, and filmed their near attacks with shaky hands, leading to the video you saw above.) I was fuming, yet fascinated. "The crows have it out for me," I mumbled. ME. Not anyone else. How can they even distinguish me from others? That’s when I realized these crows had far more intelligence than I’d ever given them credit for.

Of course, I knew from reading about bird cognition that crows were some of the smartest animals around. There was the one New Caledonian crow that figured out how to make a wire into a hook, in order to get a treat out of a bottle. Or the Japanese crows that learned how to crack nuts by dropping them in heavy city traffic, then waiting for the crosswalk signal to fetch their prize. Then there was that guy who taught a bunch of crows to bring in coins in exchange for peanuts. I knew they were smart, especially in groups. Groups... flocks... murders. A murder of crows.

I’d always wondered why they called a flock of crows a murder. Was the person that coined the phrase stalked like this? Or was it just their dark plumage and propensity for snacking on carcasses? Whatever the case, it seemed fitting now. I was getting death threats from a murder of crows. Rather than feeling frightened, however, I was fascinated. These fantastic creatures and their keen eyes made dragonfly sex look dull.

Whatever the game was that we were playing, it must have come to a draw. As I stopped ducking as much, the crows stopped flying so low. Eventually, they stopped flying at me altogether, and seemed content to caw at me from the trees. I still don’t know why they were chasing me in the first place. They’d practically driven me home, and certainly made their presence known to me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the crows were trying to train me. Here, I was already thinking of ways to lure them closer to my house, bribing them with goodies like peanuts and shiny things.

Today, the crows and I have sort of a mutual acquaintance going. I’ve added a crow feeder to my garden, a big hexagonal platform that holds a pile of peanuts. The crows stop by to visit on occasion, along with blue jays and squirrels. Sometimes, when I’m out by the greenbelt, I caw to them, and they’ll fly into a tall tree nearby and respond.

"Caw! Caw! Caw!"

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Nice account and video, Karmen! I've had this happen to me as well. I suspect that you were near a nest-tree, and that crows which persecuted you were a family flock made up of a mother and her grown progeny.

Read John James Audubon's account of his pet crow; it's quite fascinating.

Larry, to be honest, I'm not sure how many crows I'm dealing with at this point. The greenbelt stretches for miles in either direction, and you can find crows just about anywhere along it. I've seen a nest some distance down"stream" from the spot where I was originally attacked, but that could belong to a different family. I'll be keeping my eyes peeled after the leaves fall, to see what's near that spot.

Thanks for the recommendation, too... it does sound like something I'd enjoy!

(Edit: Er, I'd enjoy it if I knew how to find it... any tips on what volume to look in?)

There are ravens in San Marino, California, that drop the acorns of live oaks on the crosswalks (marked or not) at intersections in residential areas. Why not between intersections? Because there the cars move faster and the acorns may shatter. At the crosswalks, the tires are moving slowly.

I had a friend who'd been jogging in a mixed residential and industrial area. A raven on a distant rooftop started calling out to him, not to another bird, but to him. The closer he got, the more worried the raven acted. When he turned the corner, there was a big black dog running loose. Apparently the raven meant to warn potential prey to stay clear of the predator so as to encourage the predator to try his luck elsewhere.

6EQUJ5, that's pretty cool. I've always heard that the ravens were as smart as the crows, but less social. Interesting that the one warning your friend wasn't entirely altruistic.

Karmen, the essay is in the Library of America edition of Audubon's writings. I once found it reprinted on the web, but the link seems to have become inactive.

I've had crows attack me twice like that. The first time was when I inadvertently chose a path beneath a nest tree. The second was when they spotted me out walking the cat; in that case, the cat was what worried them. It's a nuisance to walk a city block being attacked by a crow, so now I pay attention to where the nest trees are and walk the cat at night.

But I still think crows are fascinating.

Crows will vanish if you have a gun or something similar. Maybe carry a toy rifle.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 10 Sep 2008 #permalink

When did this attack occur? If it was during the spring you might have walked near a hidden baby crow. They spend a couple weeks on the ground after they get their adult feathers. I've seen several "attacks" like the one you describe mostly due to babies on the ground, but once they were protecting a dead crow. The crows where I used to work were so tame from people feeding them you could get very close. But they were still fearsome if you came near one of the babies.

Here is a radio show from our local NPR station on crows. I enjoyed it very much when it first aired. They interview the authors of "In the Company of Crows and Ravens" and discuss crows mobbing people.

JSB, it wasn't spring, but late July. I looked all around to see if there was anything on the ground nearby, and never identified the cause. Thanks for the NPR link, too... those are always welcome!

Karen, as I said above, I've considered the possibility that I was under their nest. What seems weird is that they didn't start to swoop until I walked away from the trees, towards the ditch.

And Jim, I know this is really weird... but I sort of want them to chase me.

There were some recent news stories (can't recall the link -- npr maybe?) that crows can distinguish individual humans and faces, can remember them for long periods of time (weeks, perhaps months even?), and can learn from other crows.

Some of this research happens at Cornell, I know, with our crow research people. One anecdote the researchers told involved having to put on Halloween costumes and masks whenever doing research that involved capturing crows. Otherwise crows would fuss and attack them all over campus, even crows that could not have witnessed the actual events. Reagan, presumably, would now get a not very nice reception from Cornell's crows.

Kevin, I remember hearing about that too. I wondered briefly if I'd have to start walking the dog in costume. I haven't listened to the NPR link yet, but I'm pretty sure it was mentioned in the "TED" talk with Joshua Klein that I liked to above. (He's the guy who trained crows to bring coins to the peanut vending machine.)

I've seen this happen, but not to a human, to my cat. The crows literally followed him 3 blocks while he was following me.
Crows are extremely intelligent. They can tell a toy gun from a real one (speaking with the voice of experience here...)

And "a murder of crows" comes from the fact that because crows are so intelligent, it would be murder to kill them, or so I've been told...

Stone the crows!!


Ashkara, that's pretty interesting - can you elaborate on them being able to tell the difference between a toy and real gun?

By Thomas M. (not verified) on 11 Sep 2008 #permalink

Sounds like they didn't care about you until you left the path. They are no longer defending nests or even nest sites that late in the year. I'd guess that either there was an injured family member on the ground and you started moving toward it, or they remembered you--or your dog--from past similar incident.

By Sven DiMilo (not verified) on 13 Sep 2008 #permalink

Crows will vanish if you have a gun or something similar.

This comment is too amusing to be spam. But, since all of your other comments were obviously spam, I deleted them, along with the link in this comment. If you disagree, please contact me directly. -Karmen