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How I Faced My Terror of Crows

I’m gripped by ornithophobia in a city that loves corvids. So I went looking for a murder.

Vikki Hui 20 Jan 2022TheTyee.ca

Vikki Hui is a freelance journalist living on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh and səlilwətaɬ nations. She grew up in Hong Kong and has a passion for arts and culture. Find her on Twitter @huivikki.

I had been pedalling on a bike too big for me for 20 minutes, and when I finally caught up to the rest of the cyclists, I saw them in the distance: the crows. I had expected a terrifying cacophony of wing flutters and caws. Instead, they perched serenely on the power lines, content to be nearly home.

I had joined the Crow Roost Twilight Bike Ride, a Vancouver tradition that epitomizes the city’s love for the cawing corvids. Once a year, a few dozen people follow the crows through the day’s fading light to a tiny footbridge amidst leafy trees and silent industrial buildings on Still Creek, just beyond the city’s border with Burnaby. There, murder upon murder of crows descend at dusk to chatter and rest.

As I struggled to match the pace of seasoned cyclists, I felt completely out of place. Everyone else was so eager to ride into the swirl of black birds that they seemed to see as old friends. I, on the other hand, felt as if I was on a death march to the lair of the most repulsive and horrific creature.

A week earlier, on a typical drizzling Raincouver afternoon, I was out on a lunchtime walk to look for wild bunnies in my neighbourhood park. Instead, I found crows. I heard their wings first, flapping near my head. As I saw the bird land on a lamp post to my right, my grip tightened on my umbrella.

I have been deathly afraid of birds since I got stuck in what felt like a sacrificial circle for pigeons on a bird feeding outing when I was a toddler. When I heard the crow’s wingbeats, I drew on a lifetime of cowering in the presence of birds and immediately froze in place. Then I heard wings again. I looked around just in time to see a black shadow swoop past me and land on a lamp post to my left.

Sandwiched between the inky sentries, I had no choice but to continue forward. But every time I did, the crows flew ahead of me to the next lamp posts. Please don’t peck me, please don’t peck me, I thought, walking faster and faster. Eventually, the crows and I got to the end of the park, where I finally spotted a grazing rabbit. They landed on either side of it, their beady eyes trained on me, as if they were standing guard over it. Run, my instincts told me. And so I did.

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My abnormal and irrational fear of birds is called ornithophobia. According to Corrie Ackland, director and clinical psychologist at the Sydney Phobia Clinic in Australia, a phobia is a condition in which the normal fear response that is necessary for our survival gets excessively and illogically attached to certain environments, animals or objects. Sufferers know that these things are not usually dangerous, but a disconnect develops between that knowledge and the way they respond.

The irrational fear of birds is a common one, at least Down Under. Ackland believes that the abundance of birds on the Australian continent contributes to ornithophobia’s prevalence.

“We do see more phobia, because there’s more likelihood to have those negative experiences,” Ackland said.

I haven’t been to Australia before, but she’s right — I could never find relief from my fears because there are always so many birds around. My favourite memory of my grandfather is of him always hiding chicken heads during family dinners because he knew I would not be able to eat if I saw one. Even walking in the general vicinity of birds sends my brain into high alert, and I often take long detours just to get away from a wandering pigeon.

When I recounted my crow experience at the park to a friend in the safety of my apartment, she told me about the crow ride. It sounded to me like the worst thing one could ever witness.

The ride was supposed to be months away, in February. However when I looked it up online, I saw it had been rescheduled — it was coming up in just one week. Perhaps it was the adrenaline coursing through my veins from my near-death experience, but I felt like this was a sign. What better way to conquer ornithophobia than by cycling through the night, in the rain, to where 14,000 crows reside? I was not about to be stopped by my inability to ride a bike.

My friends were surprised. “Why are you doing this?” they asked. My reasoning was simple: Almost everyone has a phobia. Few of us do anything about it.

“But why now?” They persisted.

Because I recently moved to Vancouver and it’s a city where birds seem to be inescapable. Recently, I even saw a giant bird — the size of a small child — standing stoically in my neighbourhood park. It gave me nightmares.

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Crows are ingrained into Vancouver’s culture. Every year without fail, dozens of articles pop up about crow attacks. None vilify the crows; instead, they offer advice on how to coexist with them. When Jim O’Leary, a computer science instructor at Langara College, designed a tracking program for crow attacks as a means to promote his Global Information Systems course, it quickly became a community staple. CrowTrax is simple — users can submit reports of locations where they were attacked by crows, which are then mapped onto an interactive interface after O’Leary vets them.

According to CrowTrax data, most crow strikes occur in the city’s West End. The dense concentration of residents and the numerous restaurants catering to them make it the perfect buffet for crows. “The sidewalks in the downtown area are very narrow,” said O’Leary, “so you’ve got a lot of crow-human interactions in the springtime, which are not to the benefit of the humans.”

As random as these attacks might seem, there’s always a reason behind them. Crows are protective parents and they will rise — or more likely, dive bomb — to defend their fledglings if you get too close during nesting season. They might also come at you in retaliation for wronging them in the past, or even if you resemble someone who wronged them. Their memories are that good.

The role of crows in human societies is ever-evolving. In the past, they were often reviled and even slaughtered as pests. When scientists like John Marzluff, a University of Washington ecologist and author of In the Company of Crows and Ravens, revealed that crows were intelligent and highly adaptable, it seemed that attitudes began changing. But for many Vancouverites, the arrival of Canuck the Crow was the definitive turning point in their relationship with the black birds.

As a weak fledgling in 2015, Canuck was saved by Vancouverite Shawn Bergman’s neighbour. The soon-to-be celebrity corvid formed a bond with Bergman, who began to document his adventures with Canuck on a Facebook page. The rest is history.

“All kinds of people got intrigued by that and wanted to know more,” said retired biologist Rob Butler, who has studied Vancouver’s crows. “You actually had the poster child — the poster crow — out there showing all those clever things that you’d heard about: getting on the SkyTrain, riding on people’s cars and doing all kinds of antics.”

Based on a poll conducted by CBC journalist Justin McElroy in 2018, the train-riding and famed crime scene knife-stealing corvid was voted the city’s unofficial mascot. CrowTrax also dedicated a section for sightings of Canuck the Crow, allowing fans to track his whereabouts and post about their encounters.

Unfortunately, the beloved bird went missing in 2019 — prompting hoaxes and rumours — and Canuck has not been seen again. His fans continue to honour his memory on social media.

Butler said there’s something special about crows in general.

“A part of it is that they’re everywhere. You see them every day and they’re here all year ’round. They’re not migrating through. They’re here and you get to know them,” he said, adding that among Vancouver birds, crows clearly reign supreme.

So much so, that if users want to slander crows on O’Leary’s CrowTrax for attacking them, they might want to think twice.

“I never let any report on my website speak derogatorily of the crows — like, ‘This darn crow.’ The crow’s just being a crow,” O’Leary said.

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Before the crow ride I had no interest in learning about birds. Why would I? Any attempt would inevitably lead to photos of birds and that alone could make me recoil in a mix of fear and disgust. A few cute birds, like tits and sparrows, were fine, but the sight of pigeons, crows or even baby barn owls gave me nightmares. My phobia was debilitating not just during day-to-day life, but also for my academic pursuits.

“What do birds mean in your culture?” an English proficiency oral examiner had once asked me, to which I replied, “We… eat them.” She was not impressed.

But as I plotted my hero’s journey to the crow roost, I knew it was finally time to dig up the dirt on my worst fear. After all, I grew up reading the old adage from Sun Tzu, “Know thyself and know thy enemy, and you will never be defeated in a hundred battles.”

To make sure my plan was feasible, I checked in with Ackland. In my search for experts familiar with the treatment of phobias, I came across an article about Ackland using virtual reality to treat a patient with ornithiphobia, and I knew I had to talk to her.

She had set up her Sydney Phobia Clinic after noticing that in private practice settings, treating phobias through exposure to the source of the fear is often given as homework for clients. But that means people suffering from phobias must face the most important and anxiety-inducing part of the healing process on their own. To reduce this burden, Ackland’s clinic incorporates exposure into treatment sessions by adopting tools such as photos, videos and virtual reality.

Coincidentally, the clinic’s first client was an ornithophobe.

My plan to overcome my phobia was bare-boned — I was going to learn more about crows and just hope for the best. Ackland assured me that I was working in the right direction.

“I think a lot of animal phobias have this underlying component of unpredictability,” she said. “I don't know what [animals are] thinking, their facial expressions don't change in a way that gives me any information about what they're going to do, or where they're going to go. So the more understanding we have, the more information that we can apply that gives us a sense of predictability that can be helpful.”

In addition, Ackland’s clients learn to employ cognitive management strategies, slowly progressing through different stages of exposure. While most enter into this process expecting to be completely rid of their fears by the end, the reality is a little different.

“We know that our anxiety and threat response is normal and adaptive. So our goal is for a client to be able to accept some level of distress and discomfort, but be fully ready and willing to participate in all the areas of their life that they want,” said Ackland. “And when we try to reduce our level of discomfort, it’s essentially like training for a marathon. We need to do it over and over again until it feels comfortable. Then keep going.”

I figured I wouldn’t be befriending a crow anytime soon.

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I showed up at the meeting point for the crow ride dressed head to toe in borrowed cycling gear and clutching a friend’s bike that was designed for someone with much longer legs. Carmen Rosen, the founding artistic director of Still Moon Arts Society and organizer of the 2021 Crow Roost Twilight Bike Ride, emerged from out of the rain. Rosen had decorated her bike helmet to look like a crow’s head and she had corvids on her mind.

“It's wonderful when you arrive at the roost site,” she told me. “All the humans get very quiet, and we see all the crows arriving and swirling around us, and then just settling in for the night. It's very exciting. You just feel like you're in this energy vortex of all the crows.”

The annual crow ride was founded in 2011 by Sarah “Red Sarah” Ross, a cycling enthusiast and lover of crows. Ross wanted to get people to care about the environment by showing them where the urban crows roost. The route is simple and accessible to riders of all levels — a small group of participants ride for 30 minutes through the mostly flat Central Valley Greenway from East Vancouver to a quiet area behind Dick’s Lumber. If the timing is right, participants can even ride along with the crows as they fly from all over Metro Vancouver to the Still Creek roost.

“It’s like the crows’ commuter route following the freeway,” said Rosen, who took over hosting duties last year as Ross focuses on protesting the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Since its conception, the crow ride has become a staple of the Renfrew-Collingwood neighbourhood. It has borne witness to a shift in Vancouver’s ecological balance. Rosen has talked to locals in their 90s who said that when they were in their 30s they didn't see so many crows flying at twilight. But as the city densified, crows have thrived where other bird species have not.

The Still Creek roost has been around for 50 years and it’s not the only one in Metro Vancouver. Butler has been tracking crow roosts since his 20s and still remembers when the crows suddenly decided — on Sept. 11, 1974 — to fly east in the direction of Burnaby instead of making what was then their usual northwestward journey toward Bowyer Island near the mouth of Howe Sound.

“I followed them,” Butler said. “Instead of going out to West Vancouver, they went downtown. And we followed them to just outside of BCIT, which is just across the highway from where they are now.”

The thousands of crows that Butler saw on that day have since grown to today’s 14,000 and they haven’t shown any signs of abandoning the roost — with the exception of summer months. The Still Creek roost is sometimes too far for young fledglings who are still learning to fly, and parents opt for closer summer homes, such as a new roost along the Fraser River.

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Our convoy of cyclists sped down the trail, sleek under the drizzle of rain, an occasional caw reminding us that we were headed the right way. Bike lights blinked in and out of sight ahead of me as I gripped the handlebars of my borrowed bike. My feet slipped on the pedals and I stumbled at every light and crossing. I couldn’t help but wonder, is the roost going to be scarier than this?

When we finally arrived at the bridge on Still Creek, in awe of the murders of crows fluttering and settling in all around us, I was surprised to find that my first reaction was not fear. Rosen had reminded us to be quiet and respectful as we entered the crows’ bedroom, and that was exactly what it felt like. A blanket of serenity befell us as the crows settled in, grew quiet and blended into the darkness as night fell.

As I embarked on my precarious journey home in the darkness on a bike without bike lights, I felt upbeat. I had faced my fears… and survived. Little did I know, it wouldn’t quite be that simple.

Encouraged by the bike ride, I started to research crow behaviour and found my fears continuing to ebb away. They’re just like us, I thought. Sure, crows remember people who’ve wronged them — but I once boycotted a Shake Shack for six months because they served me cold and soggy cheese fries. Crows find comfort in numbers — and I never go to a public bathroom without a buddy. Crows are territorial and protective of their nests — so am I with the pineapple chunks on my Hawaiian pizza.

What’s more, corvids are remarkably intelligent. Marzluff has described crows and ravens as being like flying monkeys intellectually.

“This means that they are able to learn, remember and use insight to solve natural and human challenges,” he writes In the Company of Crows and Ravens. They have the same neurotransmitters as we do, and they can feel fear and recognize human faces. They’re also mostly monogamous and young crows often return year after year to help their parents raise the fledglings. When a crow dies, other crows caw and screech to make sure others know the area is dangerous.

Unbeknownst to me until my research, they also stay in their own neighbourhoods. I had cohabited with the hooligan crows in the park for more than a year without even realizing that they were my neighbours. In the hunter-gatherer days, this would have been unacceptable. The human-crow relationship was originally one of co-operation — we relied on these scavengers to find food sources and they found us to be easy marks for stealing food. But as human society becomes increasingly urbanized, this relationship has become more one-sided.

Crows still affect our behaviour as we coexist with them in an urban setting, but they have had to learn to use tools and adapt to the evolution of human cuisine in order to survive. Even as they’re doing this, we can’t take their adaptability for granted.

“They show us where we’re sloppy in our world and where we do things that are having a bigger influence on the ecosystem by affecting their populations,” said Marzluff when I spoke to him about his work with corvids.

As it turns out, the crows I encountered while searching for bunnies were not even trying to attack me. The real reason was obvious to Marzluff after I described my encounter to him.

“They were trying to get food, is what it sounds like to me. That’s how they follow people who feed them, and often they’ll even perch a little bit up ahead.”

That’s when I remembered a crucial detail about my tango with the two crows — it was lunchtime and I was clutching my meal: corn dogs fresh out of the fryer.

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When I spoke to Rosen before the crow ride, she would sometimes refer to the crows as “people” by accident. Anthropomorphizing animals is a long-standing practice in human culture and we often find ourselves clinging to the illusions painted by our imaginations, reading too much into their actions.

“These are long-lived, social, brainy animals and so I think it’s not unreasonable to think about their experiences being somewhat relatable to us,” Marzluff told me.

But we must do so with care.

“They’re not thinking about the past and considering options in the future like we are. They’re pretty much living in the here and now and responding to that.... What’s important to them is succeeding in reproduction and survival. They’re not out there trying to do better things for the world.”

Suddenly, my fear began to return with a vengeance. By aligning crow behaviour with human motivations, I had masked their lack of predictability and convinced myself that they weren’t a threat. But crows are not humans. My frail illusion was completely shattered when I started to read up on their biological traits, discovering words like “cloaca” (the orifice through which birds both reproduce and expel waste). Detailed diagrams of crows mating triggered a heartfelt disgust. Birds were still, to me, menacing voids with sharp beaks, penetrating talons and inhuman habits.

“It’s not about lying to ourselves,” said Ackland when I told her about my relapse. “It might be kind of creepy or unsettling to know about sharp beaks and mating patterns and what have you. But importantly, it’s about learning that doesn’t put you in danger.”

I decided to go back to the roost to test myself — this time alone and without a bike. I was fully in control. Daylight saving time had ended and I was soon completely lost in the dark, but the occasional caw or flutter assured me that I was going in the right direction. My heart started to beat faster when the invisible wingbeats grew louder and I wondered if I had made a grave mistake.

I worried that I was dressed like someone who had wronged the murder. I worried that they would think I was holding food and try to get closer to me. I worried that I was standing too close to a nest and they might perceive me as a threat. I was alone in the dark with no means for a quick escape. I waited around for a while until my heart rate gradually lowered, and I began my long walk back to the bus.

I embarked upon this journey in blind fear of birds, and the truth is, I am still terrified of crows. But I was also ignorant and that has changed.

I tried birdwatching and found that spotting birds and matching them to the checklist was just as fun as Pokemon Go. When I hear chirps on my walks, I stop and try to spot the flitting creatures camouflaged in the bushes. I now know that the huge, silent bird in my neighbourhood park — the one that’s as large as a small child — is a great blue heron.

Before my visit to the roost, I might have never cared enough to look up its name. This newfound appreciation of my feathery neighbours has, at least, made me feel a little more at home in this city that loves birds.  [Tyee]

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