LAWRENCE — They arrive, every evening, by the thousands, descending upon a quiet stretch of riverbank near a noisy highway overpass.
Crows resting on tree branches. Crows circling high above the Merrimack River. Crows relieving themselves on the footpaths near the water.
It is like something Alfred Hitchcock would’ve dreamed up, some residents say, except that it is real and — as those who have stumbled upon the birds’ bizarre nightly roosting ritual can attest — somehow even stranger than it sounds.
“You can’t explain it,” says Craig Gibson, a Catholic chaplain at Lawrence General Hospital and regular observer of the crows’ behavior. “You just gotta see it.”
Crows have been flocking to the city of Lawrence for years. Some residents say it’s been 20 years. Others are certain they saw clusters of them as far back as 75 years ago, stalking nearby cornfields on winter afternoons.
But as their prominence has grown in recent years — estimates put the current Lawrence roost at around 20,000 strong — the phenomenon has become impossible to ignore, capturing the attention of previously unaware residents and befuddling nearby business owners along the Merrimack.
“No idea,” says Michael Agricola, owner of Salvatore’s Riverwalk, when asked what he thought might’ve drawn the birds. “None whatsoever.”
Experts attribute the annual winter roost to a number of factors. For the birds, most of whom have traveled south from Canada or northern New England for the winter, the large numbers offer both protection and an easy way to make a friend ahead of the spring mating season.
But why this nondescript patch of riverbank near a highway overpass rather than some pastoral farmstead?
“Why they’ve selected Lawrence,” says Wayne Petersen, director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas program for Mass Audubon, “is only for the crows to know.”
The phenomenon isn’t entirely unique to this former mill city.
A handful of urban areas across the Northeast annually report vast congregations of crows during the winter months, a development that has oftentimes caused problems.
In Albany a few years back, city officials, citing crows’ droppings and “the ruckus they create," used a combination of pyrotechnics, spotlights, lasers, and “recorded crow distress calls” to disperse the birds in populated areas. Similar efforts were undertaken when a mob began to congregate at Springfield College, annoying students and faculty with their grating caws.
But here in Lawrence, for reasons — again — not entirely clear, the crows have not just been tolerated, but celebrated.
Over at Spicket River, a trendy new brewery stationed along the Merrimack, bartenders have been serving up Crowpocalypse on tap since last fall, in honor of the birds.
“It’s a nice dark, rich Irish stout that finishes really nice,” explains owner John Cornejo.
The Essex Art Center has not one, but three crow-inspired exhibits.
And last November, in what might’ve been the Lawrence crows’ biggest break yet, they were featured on the cover of “Massachusetts Wildlife," the magazine published four times a year by the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (though, to be fair, the crows shared the cover with a pair of brown bats).
“They’ve become a fixture," explains Peter Morse, programs and operations manager at Essex Art Center in Lawrence. “The fact that Lawrence hasn’t had some kind of citywide or government reaction trying to clean them up or get rid of them ... it just [shows] that they’ve become a fixture.”
Much of the credit for their warm welcome can be traced to Gibson.
A longtime bird enthusiast and photographer, the chaplain first had his interest piqued about two-and-a-half years ago, when he was asked to photograph the annual winter roost. He knew little about crows at the time, but within a week of shooting, he was smitten.
Since then, he has become the city’s unofficial crow liaison, singing the crow’s praises across town and co-founding the “Crow Patrol," a group of area residents who regularly gather on the Merrimack to observe what Gibson describes as a “giant, avian slumber party.”
“Every night, how it happens is a little different,” says Gibson, who as part of the Crow Patrol has taken to leading regular crow tours by the river, some of which have drawn 50 people. “And it’s mesmerizing.”
On a recent weekday night, the Crow Patrol gathered a little before 5, on a dirt path along the south bank of the Merrimack River.
The evening’s group included an older couple from nearby Salem and a 20-something woman from North Andover whose interest in the birds had been roused after continually hearing about the nightly phenomenon from friends and acquaintances.
“I sent Craig a message on Instagram, and he told me to call him, and I did," explained the woman, Sydney O’Neil. "And now I’m here.”
As sunset approached, Gibson was in the middle of providing a rundown of what first-time observers could expect to see when suddenly he stopped mid-sentence, and promptly took off toward the water line.
A half-mile down river, a wave of crows suddenly rose from the treeline, and was now heading toward the 495 bridge — the official start to the evening’s show.
In the ensuing minutes, thousands more crows would arrive from all directions, swirling above the Merrimack, settling in trees, their caws creating a buzzing soundtrack.
On the river bank, Gibson rushed from spot to spot, camera at his eye, bubbling with excitement at the spectacle unfolding in front of him.
“Oh my goodness, look at that!" he exclaimed.
And that was how it continued for the next 20 minutes or so, as rush-hour traffic sped past on the bridge and the moon cut a small sliver through the night sky.
At one point, Gibson stopped, shook his head, and gushed, to no one in particular, “They’re really putting on a show tonight...”
Dugan Arnett can be reached at email@example.com.