Crows add to university life
Thousands of crows at the Mount continue to give students the creeps
For fourth-year French student Rachel Carr, waiting for the bus at Mount Saint Vincent University can be a little Hitchcockian. Thousands of crows roost in the wooded areas between the buildings on campus from late fall to early spring -- mirroring the academic year.
"You can count them by the thousands coming in. You can stand there watching them when you're waiting for the bus. I usually wait for the bus around 4:30 and you just see all the crows fly. It's pretty creepy," she says.
Dr. Bob McDonald, a retired professor of chemistry at the Mount, has studied the school’s roost since he came to the Mount about 20 years ago.
“This is a crow-type behaviour...Crows tend to disperse during the day but they’re very social creatures at night and so they collect together in one location.”
The birds seem to fit in naturally with the university crowd.
Instead of heading to class, however, the crows leave the roost during the day to search for food.
A psychology professor at the school who studies animal behaviour says crows are smarter than your average bird.
“If it’s garbage day, they’ll go to that part of town to check out the resources," Dr. Fred Harrington says. "They’re smart birds so they know what day is it and they know where to go. They have a good time sense and a spatial sense so they know where to go to find the food.”
Safety in numbers
Our feathered friends are attracted to MSVU because in choosing a roost, crows typically find a location where they’re not going to be disturbed, says Harrington.
“They pick a place where they’ve got some good tall trees to roost in. Probably they prefer a patch of woods with a bunch of conifers in it rather than deciduous trees because they lose all their leaves and all the insulation value in the wintertime.”
Harrington says the crows go to the Mount out of tradition.
“This is a place that’s been good and it continues to be good. They’ll keep coming here.”
As for the large congregation of crows, Harrington says it’s a safety factor.
“If you’re in a large group, it reduces your risk to predators.”
And a large group it is. McDonald takes part in the Bedford and Sackville area Christmas Bird Count (an international bird census project), making a big contribution by counting the crows at MSVU.
“When the Christmas count takes place, I go there towards the end of the day and try to make an estimate of numbers that are flying in. Once they’re on the roost site you can’t see them. While they’re still flying in and around you can make a guesstimate. I think our guesstimate [this past year] was 6,200.”
McDonald says when he first made a “half-hearted attempt” of counting the crows in the late 1980s, he found about 1,000. In the early 2000s, he said they counted as many as 7,500 crows in the roost area. With 2,100 registered full-time students, there are more than three times as many crows.
Students at MSVU have no choice but to live amongst and walk below the league of birds. Sometimes, the mythical association these big dark birds -- a “murder” of crows -- have to tragedy and death can cause scholars to squirm.
“They all perch on top of everything and sit there for hours and it’s really, really creepy. They come in the afternoon when the sun’s going down. It’s really weird, I don’t like it at all,” laughs history student, Becky Lee.
The crows congregate behind the main campus, near the old Sisters of Charity Motherhouse. Katie Waite, a first-year arts student at the Mount, describes stories about what the crows represent.
“I’ve heard rumours that [they represent] the spirits of the nuns that used to reside here.”
“Nobody can really explain it…The old wives'tale is that all the dead nuns turn into crows. That’s what they told me when I got here. It’s just scary. I still notice [them] all the time. It never feels normal,” says second-year public relations student Mary Jane Leslie.
“And they shit everywhere,” she continues. “It’s not even just that they’re there, it’s like ‘there are 400 crows above me right now. Something’s going to happen’.”
Despite their droppings, constant cawing and sheer eerieness, the crows of Mount Saint Vincent make the average student’s university experience a little wilder.