A front row seat to a murder mystery
In Springfield, Patti Steinman leads an urban safari to observe crows in all their glory

SPRINGFIELD — At 4 p.m. on a sun-showered Saturday, Patti Steinman scans the bare trees between the interstate and the Albany Street railroad tracks.

A cracked parking lot in an industrial area off 291 South is not the kind of neighborhood that inspires thoughts of nature, but make no mistake: Steinman, senior teacher and naturalist at Mass Audubon Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary in Easthampton, is on safari — an experience she shares with interested parties via Mass Audubon programming — stalking a winter crow roost, the nightly gathering of hundreds, sometimes thousands of crows from November to March.

The Springfield roost is one of the largest in Massachusetts (Lawrence and Worcester also boast sizable winter roosts), with an estimated 7,000 birds flocking together at sunset. They come from as far as 50 or so miles away to locations that vary from year to year — even from night to night — though, according to Steinman, those locations share some general characteristics: city lights for protection from predators (mainly owls), warmer ambient temperatures, and . . . a burger joint?

“Believe it or not, one of the big things is McDonald’s,’’ Steinman says, noting that most crow roosts are not far from a fast food place.

Crows, despite eating everything from cat food to lizards to sparrow eggs (and fledglings), like an abundance of easily accessible chow. Their ability to “exploit urban riches,’’ as one 2001 avian ecology paper titled “Causes and consequences of expanding American Crow populations’’ described their capacity to optimize a good dumpster deal, will not surprise fans of #CrowTok, who are treated to daily videos of crows eating french fries, partaking of crowcuterie boards, or enjoying chicken nuggets.

Corvids — a group of birds that includes crows, ravens, blue jays, and magpies — are legendary for their intelligence. Crows have been known to solve puzzles, recognize (and punish) humans who have wronged them, and even hold “funerals’’ for their dead.

Right now, however, not a single crow graces the chain-link horizon. Steinman, who has 25 years of crow roost observation under her belt, had warned that this whole trip could be “a wild goose chase’’; nature, unlike the internet, is not designed to serve up what you want when you want it. We hop back in the car and continue driving, guided by wing flickers rather than GPS. Movement down the street causes brief excitement: nope, robins. The trees above the road quiver: nope, dead leaves.

But as we turn onto Walnut Street, a black flurry angles across the road, and suddenly the sky darkens with crows, wheeling and darting overhead before settling inside the barbed-wire-topped fence of a welding yard.

Despite the seemingly huge numbers, this, Steinman says, is not the roost proper but only a staging area, where smaller groups of crows — 50 to 150 — congregate to feed and drink on their way to join the larger nighttime roost nearby. And despite the mesmerizing, Hitchcockesque uniformity of bird bodies picking along the grounds, there are actually several different species involved: the American crow and the more gregarious fish crow, the latter distinguishable mainly by its more nasal, often doubled caw-caw. (Visually, they’re almost identical.)

At some unseen signal, the crows all lift off and head west, following a far-off cacophony of cawing that echoes down the lanes of traffic: The biggest bird party, it seems, is always where you are not.

But Steinman eventually locates the main roost several blocks away — in the Springfield Cemetery, appropriately enough. The association of crows with death has existed for centuries due to their black color and pre-McDonald’s era penchant for carrion, according to Daniel Compora, an English professor at the University of Toledo who has studied folklore and popular culture.

In an email, Compora noted that events like Brandon Lee’s death while filming “The Crow’’ in 1993 have only reinforced that dark reputation, while urban legends like that of the Melon Heads, in which “a sinister doctor named Dr. Crowe allegedly performed horrible experiments resulting in mutated children with misshapen heads,’’ have reflected it.

Through the lens of Steinman’s binoculars, though, there’s nothing ominous about the crows in the trees overhead. One preens the feathers of what is presumably its partner; others make a soft rattling sound that Steinman identifies as a call between mates. Crows — “socially monogamous but genetically promiscuous,’’ in the words of crow researcher Kaeli Swift — pair off socially for life but are not above a little polyamory on the side.

And according to Steinman, the winter roost, besides offering protection and a chance for crows to trade knowledge about food sources, also serves as a “singles bar’’ for unpaired crows, where bachelors can meet potential mates before the roost breaks up into individual family units for the spring and summer.

Florence resident Valerie Schumacher has had a front row view of crow social dynamics for years. She first established a relationship with the crows in her yard a decade ago, when she began leaving unsalted, unshelled peanuts out in her garden.

“I think they were psyched to have a favorite food hand-delivered to them,’’ she wrote in an email. Within a few months, the crows became demanding, with one sentry crow doing most of the “yelling.’’ If Schumacher “obeyed’’ by throwing peanuts for him, he would call for the rest to join him. On one occasion, the crows lined up on the telephone wire outside her bedroom. (“I was convinced they’d figured out where I slept,’’ she said.) They also left her gifts: once a doll’s hair comb, another time “half a toy plastic human skull.’’

Befriending crows is not without its heartaches. Schumacher notes that one summer about five years ago, her number of crow visitors dwindled; those who did show up appeared weak and sick. Eventually that crow crew of about seven regulars disappeared entirely. She doesn’t know what happened to them, but thinks that one potential culprit is West Nile virus, which has struck crow populations particularly hard since its outbreak in New York City in 1999.

The knowledge of her original gang, however, appears to have survived. She says that the new leader, who arrives with a younger crow she named Quacky, lands in her big oak tree and yells for her, as her old sentry used to.

“That was his thing,’’ she said.

If a tiny group of small town crows has handed down knowledge to last beyond the grave, one can only imagine what kind of information is now being amassed overhead in Springfield, as crows continue to settle thickly in the cemetery trees. By now it’s the golden hour; a man in a hoodie, crossing the street, looks up from his phone to register the river of birds swirling in the flaming sky. Even my daughter, who more often than not is glued to a screen, has spent a solid half hour with her face upturned.

“This,’’ she said, “is insane.’’

Francie Lin edits the Books section. She can be reached at francie.lin@globe.com