As sunset tinged its clouds light pink, beneath a falling orange sun, the trees darkened thick above the silver, where the Wabash River runs.

‘Twas the coming of the crows.

“They are so huge,” Brittany Higginbotham said, clutching her jacket tight against the cold as she stood with classmates on the river’s dock Wednesday evening in Fairbanks Park. “They’re frightening,” the Indiana State University senior biology major added.

Classmate James Yates, a junior biology major, said he’s seen crows kill a squirrel and noted he’s not a big fan of the bird, either.

But according to trends noted by ISU students since 1994, as many as 90,000 crows might be coming to town tonight, as they do each night, from their gathering spots in the trees of the Wabash River’s western banks.

Peter Scott, Ph.D., took students from his Biology 350 course, Ecology and Evolution, to various spots along the river about 5 p.m. Wednesday as the group tried to count the crows for a population study. The group will return for another session Monday.

“This is a very important vantage point,” he said earlier in the evening by the former Icon building at First and Chestnut streets. “The crows aggregate here.”

Why crows by the thousands choose that row of trees between Chestnut Street south to Fairbanks Park, and why they cross into town in unison for the nightly rest, is the subject of many studies.

“There’s all kinds of trees here they could spend the night in,” Scott told the students. “But they want to come to town.”

Cook told students he feels the higher temperatures of city buildings might be what attracts the birds, but Ph.D. candidate Jenny Bodwell said there are other possibilities as well.

“They are incredibly intelligent birds,” she said, noting that within city limits the crows are safe from shooters, whereas outside the river’s edge people can shoot at will. “They’ve learned that,” she said, noting her interest in the crows’ behavior.

Justin St. Juliana, also a Ph.D. candidate within the department, noted that Terre Haute’s crow population was about 10,000 when tracking began in 1994.

Last year the count was about 80,000, and if trends have continued, it could be as high as 90,000 now, he said.

“We should pick up another 5,000 to 10,000,” he said.

Terre Haute is a “city surrounded by corn fields,” he said, explaining that crows can forage throughout the surrounding farmland by day before meeting up to roost in the trees around sunset, then cross over the river into town for the night.

“Crows eat anything,” he said, noting the intelligence of the corvid family with examples of members using “tools to dig up grubs” and their ability to communicate the location of their feeding grounds.

And bigger cities such as Indianapolis and Fort Wayne have a greater distance between surrounding fields and the inner city’s warm rooftops, making the Wabash Valley an attractive place to stay.

“We haven’t seen a lot of dead crows lying around so they’re all fat and healthy,” he said.

Lacking an abundance of local predators such as hawks and owls, and given a constant supply of local grain and roadkill, the population could continue to grow at the same pace it has over the past 14 years, he said.

And for other bird species, the sheer number and size of the crows can be intimidating.

Smaller birds fled in flocks with fright as crows by the thousands took their dusk-borne flight.

And the chorus of squawkers sang along the river’s edge, as hordes of crows waited their turn to cross, sitting in the trees, communicating about their day’s food finds like soccer moms perched in the grandstands discussing Kroger corn specials.

“I like the class,” Yates said, binoculars in hand. “But I don’t like those crows.”

Brian Boyce can be reached at 812-231-4253 or brian.boyce@tribstar.com.

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