Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

1988. Annual Report Nebraska State Board of Agriculture for the Year 1887. State Journal Company, Lincoln. Pages 119-120.

Nebraska Crow Roosts.

W. Edgar Taylor, State Normal, Peru, Nebraska.

It was our thought, when we first thought of preparing this paper, to speak of the birds of Nebraska is a general way, and add a provisional list of the birds of the state in the nomenclature of the American Ornithological Union. But owing to the incompleteness of our list we have changed our original plan, and refer those interested to a series of notes on Nebraska birds by the writer and Mr. A.H. VanFleet, now being published in the Oologist and Ornithologist. At the request of several interested, and also owning to the interest now taken by ornithologists in the study of the habits and migration of the Crow, and the scarcity of literature on the western birds of this species, we will give the results of our observations on the American Crows (Corvus Americanus), roosting near Peru, Nebraska.

Some twenty-five or thirty years ago, in the early settlement of Nebraska, this bird was a rare species even on the Missouri, where it is now so very abundant as to attract the attention of the most careless observer. It is claimed by many old residents that the Crow began to appear in Eastern Nebraska about twenty-five years ago, when the American Raven (Corvus corax sinuatus), and the American magpie (Pica hudsonica), began to disappear, and has been continually increasing along the Missouri until they have become extremely plentiful. They, as has been their habit in other parts of the United States, about the last of September select some suitable point for roosting in this state, usually some grove of willows on an island in or near the Missouri river. They retain this roosting place till about the first of May, when they again disperse till the coming September or October.

I has been my pleasure to have an opportunity for observing their roosting habits from a roost near Peru, Nebraska. The principal part of this roost is on an island, commonly known as McKissick's Island, located on the Missouri side of the Missouri river, between this river and the Nishnabotana, and about two miles above Peru. Also another roost exists on Hogthief island, some five miles above Peru, as well as a smaller roost on the Nebraska side of the Missouri, and about a mile above Peru. Another roost is said to exist ten miles north of Hogthief island. How many others along the Missouri from the north to south state line, we do not know, but have reason to believe that others are to be found.

All the roosts in Nebraska, so far as we have been able to learn definitely, are in willows sufficiently large to sustain the weight of the crows. We have heard of several probable roosts which were thought to be in trees, perhaps oak and other species.

The vegetation composing the roost of the fourteen eastern Crow roosts reported, is as follows: Roosting in pines, nine; oak, three; reeds of several species, two.

In the American Naturalist for December, 1887, we estimated the number of Crows at these roosts at not less than 50,000. We are still of the opinion that not less than that number, if not a larger number, roost at the places mentioned. The ground covered by these different roosts is estimated variously as follows: Roost one mile north of Peru, from two to three acres; Hogthief island, from for to five acres; McKissick's island, from fifteen to forty acres; grove, ten miles north of Hogthief island, where roost is said to exist, estimate not known. Of the various Crow roosts on record, the lowest estimate of the number of Crows roosting per acre, is 5,000; 10,000 being the average estimate. Taking the lowest estimate of the size of the three roosts near Peru, and estimating at 5,000 per acre, we have over 100,000 Crows roosting at the three roosts, namely, near Peru, Hogthief island, and McKissick's island. On account of the difficulty in estimated the number of Crows, from the size of their roosting place, this estimate may still be too large, but it might be added that the Missouri and its tributaries from Nebraska City to the state line on the north, not considered, and where the Crows at some seasons are very abundant, will more than make up for any deficiency in this respect in the number of Crows in the Iowa-Nebraska Missouri river section.

Why the Crows annually flock to these places to roost we can not explain. It is in accord with observations made by American ornithologists on eastern Crows. It is quite common for sportsmen and others to visit the roosts about dusk, and even after dark, shooting many of them, knocking them right and left with clubs and sticks, and otherwise disturbing their roosts.

From a somewhat careful investigation, we are confident many of these birds make a journey of forty to fifty miles and return each day. From daylight to sunrise on a bright morning, they may be seen flying in long flocks in various directions from their roost, only to begin their return about three o'clock in the afternoon, which is kept up till dark, and sometimes later. Before retiring for the night's repose, they collect on the sandbars along the banks of the river, where they remain till about dark, when they rise in flocks and fly to their roost. Many play along the river, dark not unfrequently overtaking them five or six miles away, but they invariably come to one point on the river before taking their night's rest. The writer has spent hours watching their aerial evolutions on the evening return. In their morning flight but few special exploits are observable, all flying in direct line for the desired feeding ground, many remaining around during the day. Such is not the case on the bright afternoon, when they may be seen making many indescribable movements and flights, all of which seem to be for mutual amusement. Sometimes they collect on a hill or peak south-east of Peru, where their favorite maneuver seems to be to rise several hundred feet into the air and chase each other in a perpendicular descent almost to the ground, when they again rise for another headlong pitch. Some of the students of the State Normal claim that this daring exploit is practiced just before a change in the weather. We have observed the same apparent fact ourselves, but are not ready to state that it indicates a change in weather, even subject to the usual exceptions, but will say, without fear of successful contradiction, that the Crows are fully as reliable as the Signal Weather Service at Peru. The noise made in taking flight for the day's journey, has been heard three, four, and even five miles, depending on the condition of the atmosphere.

As has been stated, about the first of May these roosts are completely deserted, and not re-occupied till the coming fall. Where do they go? Beyond a doubt many of them breed in the winter-feeding territory. Their nests have been found by students of the State Normal, and others we have questioned on the subject. Their nesting habits are reported as substantially the same as given by Col. N.S. Goss, in "Kansas Birds:" "Nests in forks of trees, in groves, and on timbered bottom lands, thirty to seventy-five feet from the ground, composed of sticks, and lined with grasses, hair, and fibrous strippings from plants and vines." But from what information we have been able to gather, there are not a sufficient number of Crows breeding in Eastern Nebraska and Western Iowa and North-western Missouri to account for all the crows roosting on the Missouri during the winter. Ornithologists differ somewhat as to the migration of the Crow. Some are inclined to doubt their migration entirely, but from our association with students who live in different parts of Nebraska, we have obtained evidence sufficient to cause us to believe that many Crows from these roosts migrate west and north-west, if not in other directions also, in the spring to return in the fall. At many places in nebraska, in the spring and fall, the Crow is seen in flying flocks, while at other season he is seldom seen. It is claimed by other residents that the Crows are becoming more plentiful each winter in Nebraska. Such is not the case in older states. Mr. Samuel N. Rhoades, in the American Naturalist, speaking of the eastern Crow, says: "The experience of the older residents of the country justifies the belief that great diminution has been made among the myriads, and probably a census would show that the Crow population of to-day is to that of 1830 as one to two." Mr. Rhoads ascribes this "diminution" to their destruction by the people, but considering the Crows "partiality for the haunts of men," may he not have migrated to other states as they became settled? In this way we may account for the increase of Crows in Nebraska from adjoining states, perhaps, in connection with the increase of settlement.

The Nebraska Crow is much tamer than his eastern or souther brother, coming into yards, and in severe winter even to the doors of dwellings, eating with chickens and from buckets setting near back doors, in many instances staying around the house all day, and otherwise making a great nuisance of himself. The Crow elsewhere is known to be destructive to the eggs of other birds, and to be an eater of anything he can get. The Nebraska Crow fully sustains its reputation, and in many instances has been known to peck holes in the back of live hogs. Owing to their starved condition in severe winter, their greed frequently compels the feeder to watch his stock pens, or put up a scarecrow in the form of a dead Crow with out-stretched wings.