Crows are settled in for 'Happy Hour'

December 11, 1991|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Evening Sun Staff

A gathering of crows of Hitchcockian, if not biblical dimensions, has settled in over parts of northwest Baltimore.

For two or three weeks now, residents say, the big, noisy black birds have been flying in at dusk each day, settling into the tallest trees, then flying out at dawn in cacophonous swarms that fill the sky.

"I tell you, I just go out on my porch and look at them and say 'Oh my,' " said Dorrie Mednick, who lives in the 3700 block of Fords Lane. "It reminds me of [the late screen director Alfred] Hitchcock and 'The Birds.' "

The noise "wakes me up in the morning, then they're not gone until 7 or 7:30 a.m.," she said. It is the second year in a row they have picked these neighborhoods.

Between 4 and 5 p.m. late last week, the crows flew in from the northwest in a broad stream and settled in to tall trees on either side of the Reisterstown Road corridor, from just south of the Reisterstown Road Plaza to sections of Pimlico south of Northern Parkway.

Fussing and cawing, they patrolled for the tallest trees, then maneuvered among the branches for the best perches. Occasionally, large groups would suddenly take off again and fly away in search of more suitable quarters.

Where the trees were already full, they settled onto rooftops.

A count was hopeless, but scores of birds filled the high branches of many trees, and the total across that section of the city had to be in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.

And they are not potty trained.

"I have had to wash my car several times already," Mednick said. "It is just covered -- the windshield, roof, the sides. I haven't been able to get it all off, it's so encrusted."

"Even the screens of my bedroom had bird doo on it," she said.

The huge flocks of crows are apparently more of a novelty to suburbanites than to bird experts.

"In the wintertime, crows, starlings and many of their relatives roost communally in large groups," said Jane Huff, a zoologist and animal behavior expert who directs the Audubon Naturalist Society's environmental education office.

In the past, these gatherings have occurred in rural wood lots where they went pretty much unnoticed.

Scientists believe the non-migratory birds flock together in the winter, at least in part, to keep warm. "A hundred or two hundred birds with body temperatures over 100 degrees can be kind of toasty," Huff said.

"The other thing that I suspect is that it's a way of forming new social relationships for the spring," she said. "It's kind of like a Happy Hour."

The crows like the tops of deciduous trees best, and fight over the best perches. The dominant individuals get the top spots.

In recent years, however, gun-shy crows have begun to discover suburbia, and have learned that they can be around man in built-up areas without getting shot, as they had been in the country.

Once they are at ease in suburbia, Huff said, the omnivorous birds "tear into garbage bags, dead squirrels or . . . hang out behind McDonald's. There's plenty of food, human habitats being what they are," she said.

And, with plenty to eat, "the size of the flocks has gotten larger," Huff said.

Another large flock, estimated at 100,000 to 200,000 birds, has been roosting lately southwest of Rockville, near Rockville Pike (Md. 355) and Montrose Road.

After foraging for food all day, the birds fly back over long distances to their nighttime roosts. Some in the Rockville flock are flying in from as far away as Frederick, 30 miles away, Huff said.

Homeowners hoping to get rid of the birds can try to discourage them by making their roosts seem dangerous, Huff said.

"Although they've moved into suburbia, they are still pretty shy from being shot at for so many hundreds of years," she said. They are intelligent creatures, and "the older birds can teach the younger ones."

But "they seem easily put off by activity," she said. Put the dogs out and let them bark, or shine a spotlight into the trees.

"You can make a lot of noise at the point where they are settling down, or disturb them late at night," Huff said. "Ultimately, of course, you can cut the tree down."

The crows will continue to flock until March, although they may move their roosts, Huff said. But the chances are good they'll be back again late next October.

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