The clock strikes (or beeps on a smartphone or smart watch) five, and the sun begins to set over the Hudson River. As the light starts to fade away in my disheveled bedroom on Delano Street, cacophonies of caws start to rise into the air.
In what seems like an instant, the caws peak in volume and hundreds of crows begin circling the street. Some of them attach their talons to the light posts and electrical wires up above. Others travel in an unruffled V-formation, swooping and diving down, pulling up just before they reach the ground.
I’m afraid to go outside, worried that if I open my door the flesh eating avian army will rip me to shreds. Had I been transported into Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film The Birds?
It turns out, after doing the research that makes me a quasi-journalist, that my fears were quite misplaced…
In fact, this almost unbelievable influx of birds is not a Stranger Things-esque phenomenon, but part of an annual occurrence rooted in environmental science. Throughout the winter season, American crows participate in a migration gathering known as the “Winter Roost.” In either late November or early December, thousands of crows from various northern climates fly south to forage for food throughout the harsh cold of winter.
The crows will travel from as far north as Canadian provinces like Ontario and Québec. In a migration pattern that has become tradition, many of the crows choose the town of Poughkeepsie as an ideal feasting place.
“The Poughkeepsie roost is far and away the area’s largest,” said Mark DeDea, member of the John Burroughs Natural History Society. “Here in Kingston, we have a much smaller roost only numbering in the hundreds. Poughkeepsie’s roost typically is in the thousands.”
Like DeDea, Dr. Douglas Robinson notes that the gathering of the crows in Poughkeepsie is the largest roost within hundreds of miles. “[Crows] only will fly as far South as they really need to, and Poughkeepsie ends up being an ideal location,” said Dr. Robinson, who is in his seventh year as an Associate Professor of Science at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. He received his PhD in 2009 from his work studying the social behavior of crows and how the mortality rates brought about by the West Nile Virus affected the birds.
Every day, the crows gather at a designated “staging area” right before sunset. The “staging area” is generally only a handful of miles from the roosting site. In Poughkeepsie, it is located on an open, uninhabited stretch of land below sophisticated dining hotspot Shadows on the Hudson.
As the sun sets, the roost commences. All at once, like an avifauna ballet, the crows rise from the ground and flock towards the mainland. Typically, you can find them resting above Route 9 or pouring in near the Poughkeepsie train station (just a few miles from my Delano Street bedroom). They will stay here for about an hour or two, feeding where they can before going their separate ways until the next day’s roost. The roost lasts until the beginning of the spring season.
Dr. Robinson estimates about half of the roosting crows in Poughkeepsie come from local areas, whereas the other half is from out of state. Like unspoken word-of-mouth, the crows follow each other inland.
“They take safety in numbers, and they rely on the information that they’ve gathered from others,” said Dr. Robinson. “It’s almost like the crows see a flight pattern and go, ‘Well hey! Where are you going?’ ‘Oh, I’m going to this great place called Poughkeepsie!’”
According to the U.S. climate database, the average temperature in a Poughkeepsie winter falls within the range of 35–38°F. On top of that, the area gets about 33 inches of snowfall each winter. So if the crows were trying to escape the cold, why would they go to Poughkeepsie, where the temperatures are nearly below freezing.
As it turns out, those numbers are actually misleading when talking about an inhabitable climate for the crows. The density of Poughkeepsie’s population helps provide a thermal atmosphere that attracts the crows. So while the temperature may be cold outside, human body heat emission and the internal heating of our homes partially cancel out the frigid temperatures. The crow’s natural survival adaptations take care of any other troubles that the Poughkeepsie winters may introduce.
“Despite any efforts we may make to scare the crows off, it’s useless,” said Dr. Robinson. “It’s become tradition to come here because we’ve made it inviting for them.”
The Edgar Allen Poe-evoking imagery of thousands of crows watching over incoming traffic may seem intimidating, but Dr. Robinson is quick to note that the birds are much more afraid of us then we are of them.
“In the 16 years that I’ve worked with crows, I’ve never been even close to being hit,” said Dr. Robinson. “The only time they even approach being vicious is when they’ll dive down on you when you’re threatening their babies. Birds such as blackbirds and blue jays are much more vicious.”
Comparing Dr. Robinson’s sixteen years of experience versus my one day down by the “staging area” is not entirely fair, but it did give this reporter a sense of calm. Surrounded by all of these crows, unable to run away if I wanted to because of the depth of the snow surrounding my legs, I wasn’t afraid. I no longer saw this as a horror movie, but rather as an environmental tradition vital to the survival of a species.
“People have to respect the fact that the crows are taking advantage of the thermal environment we’ve created,” says Dr. Robinson. “They aren’t here to harm us, but we’ve eliminated some of their other cover areas. They just want protection.”