Caws for alarm: Swooping crows descend on passersby as they protect their young

It's not death from above, but it sure is murder. Crows are swooping and diving at people all around Vancouver and beyond as they seek to keep possible danger away from their vulnerable fledglings. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
It's not death from above, but it sure is murder. Crows are swooping and diving at people all around Vancouver and beyond as they seek to keep possible danger away from their vulnerable fledglings. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

If she were back home in Ireland, Aiofe Bagnall says she would never have to worry about walking down the street —  minding her own business — and being swooped from behind in an unprovoked attack by a ticked-off crow.

But she's in Vancouver now.

"It was so intense. I was terrified," Bagnall said, describing a seemingly random crow attack from a week earlier.

"They just dived down, like, got the back of my neck and then it's wings are, like, flapping in my hair."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

In Metro Vancouver and beyond, crow swoopings are a common, if Hitchcockian, springtime experience.

The reason? These passerines are just protective parents. It's fledgling season and the birds are trying to scare away anything that could threaten their vulnerable young.

The problem for many humans is crows tend to see almost anyone as a threat.

'Those crows are busy'

For years, Jim O'Leary, an instructor at Vancouver's Langara College, has been watching the skies without watching the skies.

A geographic information system (GIS) expert, O'Leary developed a website several years ago called Crowtrax.

It allows people who have been attacked by crows to report details of the swooping: location, time, the scale of aggressiveness. You can even report if it involved the now-vanished Canuck the Crow.

O'Leary says reports started trickling in about a month ago, but now they're flying in.

"Those crows are busy out there. [Swoopings] can be very traumatic and people need to express 'What has happened to me,' so there's sort of that therapeutic aspect to it," O'Leary said of his website.

"The other thing that's interesting is how people anthropomorphize these attacks … it's easy to do because crows are very smart."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

The hot spot for attacks? Vancouver's West End, O'Leary says.

"Where you find tall leafy trees and a lot of people and a lot of restaurants, you're going to find crow-human interactions," he said. "Lots of them."

Parenting can be murder

Erin Ryan, a wild animal expert with the B.C. SPCA, says it's understandable for crows to be on edge this time of year.

Fledglings are just starting to leave the nest and learning to fly. That leaves them exposed.

"There's a lot that can go wrong, so I think it's fair that they're pretty worried," Ryan said.

WATCH | Why terrorizing humans makes swooping crows good parents

"So they'll often swoop down, they'll fly very close. They may even brush the back of your head, but they're really just trying to say, 'Stay away.'"

Ryan has experienced it firsthand. At least one nest is near her Kitsilano home.

It's leading to lots of welcome entertainment for her cats and lots of unwelcome swoopings for the neighbourhood.

As she walked around the block to her usual coffee shop Wednesday, one crow started to aerially intimidate her with dive-bombing manoeuvres around her head.

But she's not upset.

"I'm thinking about it from their perspective as an anxious parent," Ryan said. "They're repeatedly telling me to stay away from their babies and I keep coming back. You can imagine how frustrating that must be for them."

Young birds face threats

For crows, fledgling season can be downright dangerous, said Jackie McQuillan with the Wildlife Rescue Association of B.C.

Their animal hospital is taking care of several injured and orphaned fledglings.

Jackie McQuillan
Jackie McQuillan

"They're easily picked up by cats and dogs will grab them, give them a good shake," McQuillan said. "Sometimes they'll hop out into traffic and get clipped by a car or even stepped on."

When being cared for by humans, she explained, efforts must be made to avoid having the birds associate humans with food. That means staff have to cover their faces as they slowly make finding food an increasingly realistic challenge for fledglings.

"Because crows are so intelligent, they learn a lot from their parents, which means that they are more difficult for a rehabilitator to care for," she said.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

McQuillan, Ryan and O'Leary all said anyone being swooped in their day-to-day activities should consider changing their routines to avoid nesting areas. Or, like many in the province, carry an umbrella to provide a visual barrier for the crow.

And have a thought for these stressed-out parents.

"They're animals looking after their young," Bagnall said.

The SPCA says fledgling season ends in July.