Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Corvid Infestation Shuts Down Campus

Crow at Yosemite
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash
After some 150 years of ecological balance among students, faculty, staff, birds, and squirrels, the UW campus was shaken this spring by an unprecedented surge in corvids, mostly the American crow. Early signs of an increasing corvid dominance were glimpsed last year when a pair of crows repeatedly charged at Dean Anna Endter as she walked toward Gates Hall. A bag of Doritos and other offerings propitiated them at the time, but it was clear that they had tasted their power (as well as the Doritos).

Corvids— a group that includes crows, ravens, jays, rooks, and magpies—are exceptionally intelligent animals, said Prof. John Marzluff, a renowned authority. For example, carrion crows in Japan learned to place walnuts in roads so that passing cars would crack them open. In an experiment, New Caledonia Crows figured out how to bend a wire to get food out of a jar. Crows can even recognize people and pass that information along to other crows.*

Stirrings of a corvid uprising began in February among crows nesting in a wooded area near Kirkland. By the end of the month, it was clear that they would have the whole city in their grip. President Ana Mari Cauce made the call to move classes online to protect humans from the awesome corvid onslaught. "The safety of people has to come first. By licensing Zoom for the campus, we can continue classes and minimize the risk of corvid interaction."

Students, faculty, and staff are now sheltering in their homes, while the campus is left to the corvids. Also some squirrels and rats. Just a few essential personnel are allowed in campus buildings.

The Ornithology Team at the Burke Museum (one of UW Law's closest neighbors) was unfortunately at a loss to repel the dreaded corvid menace. "We're very good with feathers and skeletons, even bird DNA," said one of the curators. "But we're not used to working with living birds. And those big black ones are scary!"

By now the corvid threat has spread across the country. New Yorkers, long used to insulting pigeons as "rats with wings" are rethinking their attitudes and giving birds a new respect—at least the corvids, if not the columbidae, or pigeons.

* I'm not making all this up. Prof. Marzluff is a renowned authority. The walnuts-in-the-highway example is from John M. Marzluff, Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Out Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife 134 (2014). You can see the New Caledonia crow experiment in his TEDx talk. Crows recognized Marzluff when he wore the mask he wore to band them many years before.
Check out the Corvid Research blog by Kaeli Swift, Ph.D., who also tweets @corvidresearch

No comments: