A bounty no one is crowing over

Birds: Millions of noisy, messy crows have become unwelcome winter occupants.

February 10, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

LANCASTER, PA. -- Crows -- tens of thousands of pecking, squabbling crows -- flap in from the countryside every night and jam the trees, wires, roofs and parking lots around Lancaster's Park City Center mall.

In Hagerstown, Department of Public Works Manager Douglas H. Stull compares the mess beneath his city's crow roosts to the floor of a chicken house. It's also slippery when wet, which means it's no good for cars or pedestrians.

In Chatham, Ontario, east of Detroit, Mayor Bill Erikson has tried almost everything to drive off 30,000 crows. This year he's chosen shotguns.

Across the continent this winter, millions of crows are gathering in raucous nighttime roosts that can look like some sort of biblical plague. And exasperated urban residents are demanding action to end the noise, the droppings and the Hitchcockian creepiness of it all.

No one is sure why this once-rural phenomenon is happening more and more in towns and cities. Kevin McGowan, a crow researcher at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, says crows may have gradually become more comfortable around humans. Once routinely shot by farmers, crows got some seasonal protection from the 1972 Migratory Bird Treaty. Urban settings preclude year-round shooting and also provide several degrees more warmth in winter.

"My favorite explanation has to do with the night-light hypothesis," McGowan says. "They're afraid of great horned owls, and owls definitely have an advantage in the dark." Cities and suburban malls offer plenty of light.

People also provide crows with an all-season smorgasbord of garbage, and parks and suburbs offer lots of large roosting trees. Big roosts can be found in many parts of the Baltimore region this winter, including a particularly large gathering at the Seton Business Park in Northwest Baltimore.

Why the crows evolved this roosting behavior is not well understood, McGowan says. Large numbers may offer protection from predators. The gathered birds may also exchange information on the whereabouts of scarce winter foods.

But McGowan thinks it's more about social interaction. All of the noisy calling and skirmishing could be the birds' way of testing their strength and readiness to breed and defend territory.

Crows might be more comfortable with people, but the reverse is rarely true. Big roosts bring trouble.

In Lancaster, the crows' persistent pecking at the rubber membrane that seals the Park City mall's roof has caused thousands of dollars in damage and leaks in at least 25 stores. Their feces foul cars and customers alike.

About 100,000 crows arrived in downtown Hagerstown in October. As they flew off each morning to forage, the city Public Works Department moved in with pressure washers to clean the sidewalks and sweepers to scrub the streets. Residents and car owners were on their own.

An attack with soap and water in the 1970s killed the birds by stripping their feathers of the oils they need to stay warm. But the decaying birds, feces and broken branches left a terrible mess.

Propane cannons

This year, the department drove the roosts from the downtown area with volleys from propane cannons, a noxious grape spray and "bird screamer" fire crackers launched into the trees.

But "it's not the solution. We just keep moving them to different locations," Stull says.

In Chatham, Erikson won legislative support for his drive to shoot his town's crows. Bird lovers immediately branded him a murderer.

"We're not exterminating anything. We just want to move them," he told the local newspaper. "Killing and wounding a few birds gives these intelligent birds the message, and they say, `Hey baby, we're out of here.' "

If people can clean up after cats, dogs and horses, why do so many find crows so intolerable?

"Superstition," says Steve Johnson, an Auburn, N.Y., county planner. He founded a Web site (www.savethecrows.org) two years ago after 75,000 crows wintering in Auburn triggered cries for their eradication.

"The crow's gotten a bad rap," he says. Crows have long been associated with death, perhaps because they eat carrion. To some traditional cultures, crows were gossips, messengers of death, bad omens.

Indians in the Northwest saw them as the divine deliverers of light and culture, the creators of wind and thunder. But other cultures branded them as thieves, adept at stealing grain and garden sprouts (hence the invention of scarecrows), songbird eggs and garbage.

Crows also catch bugs, mice and snakes, but they rarely catch a break. When goldfinches gather, it's termed a charm. But a bunch of crows is called a murder.

Dead crows in New York and Baltimore have been linked to the West Nile-like virus blamed for human encephalitis deaths in New York City last summer. But crows and people are both victims of the mosquito-borne virus.

The experts get calls every winter from people desperate for advice on how to get rid of crows. They often suggest noisemakers, used early and often.

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