Thursday, December 10, 2009

solving a murder mystery

let's be honest: i wrote this article for the weekly news primarily for the punning opportunity.

msvu's canny pr people came up with the murder mystery angle, but i have to eat crow for the rest of them. ps: click on the link to see darrell oake's superb pictures of the birds. if you go to the SmartEdition and flip through the Halifax West edition, you'll see all three pics.

Murder of Crows
Mount Saint Vincent University prof solves campus bird mystery

Halifax News Net

By Jon Tattrie – The Weekly News
A Mount Saint Vincent University professor is crowing after solving a campus murder mystery last week.
Fred Harrington, a psychology prof who specializes in animal behaviour, was intrigued when he noticed the skies over the Mount turning black at dusk. As the sun sets and just before the stars poke through the paling sky, thousands of birds descend on the trees around the demolished mother house.
Over the next hour, brave birds break rank from the staging posts and make the final approach to the sheltered confines of Evaristus Hall, where they bunk in for the night, filling the trees with their uneasy sleep.
In all, some 4,000 crows — a “murder” of crows by anyone’s count — make the Mount their home. That’s a rural hamlet compared to other crow metropolises, he says, noting those who like counting crows have recorded gatherings of 250,000, or even up to a million.
On the night Harrington explained the mystery to The Weekly News, a fat orange moon beamed silvery light across the Bedford Basin, causing the crows to delay turning in for the night. Their silhouettes filled the skeletal trees.
“I don’t know why they do it like that,” he says of the staging posts. “Maybe it’s to delay the inevitable, like little kids being sent to bed.”
In daylight, the crows disperse over their territory around the Mount. Each individual or family hunts in its own space.
“If you’re a crow, you’ve got things to do and you do them in daylight,” Harrington explains. “Unlike us, they don’t have deeds to their territory and they’ve got to maintain them actively every day.”
If they take a sick day, another crow might steal their turf, but the daytime rivals become allies at night, finding safety in numbers.
“Night’s not a great time to be a crow because you can’t see as well as your predators (owls) can. They can probably even get you by sound, so you’ve got to sit there quietly through the night,” he says.
Harrington thinks the crows flock to the Mount, bypassing Hemlock Ravine, because of the nuns who lived in the mother house for half a century.
“Maybe the sisters dumped out food at one time and they got a few crows, then a few more. Those sort of things grow,” he speculates. “They certainly weren’t shooting crows, so it was a safe haven.”
But perhaps the campus life just appeals to them.
“A lot of the younger birds are looking for mates and this is the perfect place,” he says.
That’s especially true in the summer, when the gatherings are mostly singletons who don’t yet have offspring or territory, although there are a few widowed old crows hanging around too.
The adult birds, enjoying the empty nest period of their lives, tend to stay on their hunting territories around the clock in the summer.
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