From Iceland — Ask An Expert: Why Are There More Conspiracies Than Murders?

Ask An Expert: Why Are There More Conspiracies Than Murders?

Published July 4, 2023

Ask An Expert: Why Are There More Conspiracies Than Murders?
Catherine Magnúsdóttir
Photo by
Art Bicnick

One of the joys of researching birds is the group names one comes across. So, while we are able to observe many conspiracies of ravens in Iceland, murders of crows are comparatively few despite the feathered fiends nesting in the same corvid family tree. Why is that? Apart from their place in Nordic folklore and mythology, what links ravens more closely to Iceland than their little cousins? We turned to wildlife ecologist Kristinn Haukur Skarphedinsson from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History for answers.

“The main reason that crows are not breeding in Iceland is that we did not have the habitat for them until recently,” Kristinn explains. “Crows are usually associated with trees – they tend to nest in trees – and they also have a strong association with agriculture, mainly corn production.” While crows are not frequent here, the birds have been seen and recorded in Iceland before.

“One of the species, the smallest one, is the Jackdaw, or Dvergkráka in Icelandic,” Kristinn elaborates. “They came here in about 1977 and sometime in the early 90s I believe, but didn’t raise young and establish themselves here. They come here almost every year now, but the ravens have probably been here since the end of the last glaciation. Ravens are one of the most widespread crow species in the world, they breed from the high arctic to central America and Africa. They are an extremely adaptable species. It’s no wonder that they actually found Iceland eventually and started breeding here.”

So, crows visit Iceland but don’t find suitable habitats to breed. Why do they come here in the first place then? Kristinn explains that that can be part of a frequent occurrence.

“There are many birds – we call them vagrants – that don’t go to the right places. Sometimes during migration periods there are wind drifts that lead to migration drift. Birds flying from Scandinavia to Southern or Western Europe fly astray because of heavy winds, so that’s the main reason we get some accidental vagrants. Sometimes these birds end up breeding here anyway, like one of the now most common birds in Reykjavík, the blackbird, or svartþröstur in Icelandic. That one only started to breed here en mass around the year 2000, when there was a large influx of the species in the spring of that year. Also, by then we had suitable habitats for them with the trees that have been growing here.”

Kristinn predicts that with the increase of trees and rising temperatures we’ll see other bird species breeding in Iceland, while others will disappear.

“Ravens are extremely adaptable and won’t be affected by those changes as much as many other species,” Kristinn explains. “They have also taken advantage of the trees that have been growing and we now have 15 or 20 pairs that nest in large trees in Reykjavík that were planted about 10 or 15 years ago. I bet their numbers will increase in the years to come.”

Being as sturdy and as clever as they are, the ravens aren’t dependent on trees. “Cliffs or rocky outcrops are also their nesting habitats,” Kristinn continues. “They nest on every continent except Antarctica. They also tend to be very brainy. Ravens and parrots tend to be the most intelligent species of birds. They can both memorize and solve problems, so that just tells you that they will be the ones to survive whatever happens.”

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