Backyardsafari's Blog

Environmental Inspiration in Your Own Backyard

Crow Funeral June 12, 2011

[Note: This post contains pictures of a dead bird. I never like when an animal dies, but I do like to use the opportunity to look more closely at the beautiful details an animal otherwise seen from a distance.]

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This morning I awoke early, around 6:30, and just couldn’t go back to sleep. Now, I love sleeping, and usually spend Sundays sleeping until the afternoon, so this is a rare event for me. On impulse, I decided to walk downtown to a coffee shop. I set off, without headphones or music, just enjoying the sleepy streets and early bird songs.

I spent about an hour reading a book and drinking coffee, and then headed home again.  I was intending to make a blog post of different bits I had seen on my walk–a broken robins egg, a painting of the solar system across a sidewalk. As I neared home, however, something much more interesting occurred.

First, I noticed something black near the edge of the path. I couldn’t make out the details of it and assumed it was a piece of tarp or plastic. Of course I just  had to find out for sure, and just as I was making fun of myself for always checking bits of nothing on the ground, I made out the soft edge of a bird’s wing. It turned out what I had thought was plastic was in fact a dead crow.

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(Note: I couldn’t help but be reminded here of the fossil of the earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx. Magnificent!)

(Image by Gareth Dyke)

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I racked my brain trying to remember if it was there when I first passed. I feel sure I would have noticed it, which means it got there somehow in the hour I had been gone. But how? Had an animal dragged it there? Had it just fallen from the sky? Why was it splayed out like that? Rigor mortis? Something else?

It was then that I noticed the sounds coming from the surrounding trees. Other crows.. many of them. They were cawing and cawing. It seemed I could make out the sound of some younger crows punctuated by the low gravel of the adults.

I went back to the dead crow to take a closer look.

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This time as I stepped close one of the crows broke out of the trees, flying over my head and then taking post in a single tree that stood nearby.

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I stood watching for a long time–the crow never stopped cawing at me, as if telling me to mind my own business. I tried to record the other sounds coming from the trees but unfortunately they were too far away to be picked up on my phone.

While it may sound strange, crow “funerals” are actually fairly well documented. There are many accounts of dozens–sometimes hundreds–of crows gathering around a fallen fellow. You can read some of them herehere, and here. This behavior has also been seen in magpies. The question is, why?  Mourning? Reverence? To let everyone know there is a change in the social structure? To eat it as food later? To let everyone know that whatever this crow did was dangerous and they should not repeat its behavior? Maybe they even killed this crow in the first place?

Regardless of what the answer is, it was a really wonderful experience. I never cease to be amazed at the complexity of the animal kingdom, and while I do not know the reason for these crow gatherings for sure, I would certainly not be surprised if the answer involved some attributes that we tend to assume are only human.

Fellow blogger Go Explore Nature told me she and her son also recently saw a crow funeral after a crow died in the front yard of his elementary school. Have any of you readers ever experienced a gathering like this? Under what circumstances? What did you see?

This experience was also a good reminder about all of the exciting things happening in the natural world around me. For a brief moment I thought that maybe the crow funeral was some sort of fate–a reward for the unusual circumstance of getting up and out early. I know, however, that the truth is amazing things are always happening out there all around us! Whether we are there to see them or not is a different matter.

I hope everyone is having a good weekend! As always, I’ll see you out there!

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