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Wharton: Murders (of crows) increase in northern Utah

Published March 14, 2013 2:23 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Murders seem to be increasing in northern Utah these days.

That would be murders of crows.

The ubiquitous black birds were once usually only seen in the winter in northern Utah when they migrated through the state.

Bird experts say that has changed.

"Fifteen years ago, a pair of crows stayed in downtown Ogden and nested there," said Bill Fenimore, owner of the Wild About Birds Nature Center in Layton and an avid bird expert and watcher. "From that pairing, you have what we have today. They are here year-round. They are showing up in Provo, but Davis and Weber County have the biggest population."

Jim Parrish, native terrestrial wildlife program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said the agency does not have hard data on the number of crows inhabiting the northern part of the state. But field observations lead him to believe that the numbers are increasing.

"When I first came to Utah in 1982, there was a small little group in Utah County," he said. "Overall, statewide, crows are on the upswing. We are seeing more and more of them. If there is an open slot, they are going to fill it. They don't have competition in urban areas for food. They are generalists. They take a variety of food and eat a lot of different things. There is plenty of food at landfills, the side of the road or McDonald's. There are plenty of opportunities and not much competition."

Fenimore tells the story of seeing crows pick walnuts off a tree and take them to a busy intersection where they drop the nuts in the middle of the road when the light is red. They then fly to a roost and wait for a green light so cars can run over the walnuts. They swoop down to pick up the nut pieces when the next red light happens.

"My daughter-in-law works for the county in Layton," said the veteran birder. "There are big cottonwood trees by the city complex. At night, they stick up there. She sees hundreds and hundreds of crows flying into the cottonwood trees. There are flocks lined up in the roost."

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, American crows are social and can be seen in flocks in the millions.

"Inquisitive and sometimes mischievous, crows are good problem learners and problem-solvers, often raiding garbage cans and picking over discarded food containers," read the Cornell description. "They're also aggressive and often chase away larger birds including hawks, owls and herons."

The birds might even scare off a small dog or cat, especially when trying to steal food that might have been left out.

Fenimore said crows travel in family groups with the young learning from parents and extended families, often spending more than a year with family groups, learning how to make a living.

Fenimore thinks the changing human use of the land in Davis County might be helping crows increase their numbers. In Davis County, land that used to be agricultural has been converted into subdivisions and shopping centers.

"That provides resource food for the crows," he said. "They are adept at utilizing human disturbances and settlements to make a living. They hang out with us and utilize our scraps."

It is sometimes easy to mistake a crow and a raven. Ravens, another smart black bird, are the larger of the two species. Parrish said ravens tend to stay in higher elevations than crows, though it is not unusual to see a raven in town as well.

So, if you are a northern Utah resident and you think you are seeing more murders of crows in than in the past, chances are your observations are correct.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter @tribtomwharton