Flocks of crows are nothing new in most cities. In the fall and winter months, crows forage for food during the day and roost in city trees at night. The birds like cities because they’re safe and comfortable. The residents generally don’t like the crows, though. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Skye Rohde
Flocks of crows are nothing new in most cities. In the fall and winter months, crows forage for food during the day and roost in city trees at night. The birds like cities because they’re safe and comfortable. The residents generally don’t like the crows, though. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Skye Rohde reports:
(sound of crows)
There are a lot of crows here. About 63,000 of them are in the city. The trees are thick with them. At dawn and dusk, so is the sky. Bird feces coats city sidewalks and parked cars. Amy Emedon lives in town. She’s used to the crows.
“They make a lot of noise at night, or in the morning they kind of wake you up. But other than that, they don’t really bother me that much. They’re kind of gross, because their poop’s all over the place and they’re so loud and there’s so many of them. Like sometimes you can’t even see, like, the sky. It reminds me of that movie ‘The Birds.'”
Crows have been wintering in Auburn, New York for more than 100 years. Written records from as early as 1911 describe a very large roost downtown. Auburn has the largest crow roost in the state. This winter, city officials hired the U.S. Department of Agriculture to haze the crows.
(sound of distress calls and pyrotechnics)
Hazing means the eight USDA scientists drive around town using recorded crow distress calls, pyrotechnics and laser pointers – anything that will upset the birds and drive them out. Sometimes this includes shooting the birds, but not in New York state. Richard Chipman is the New York state director of the USDA’s wildlife services project. He says the idea is to move the birds to a more “natural” habitat.
“The goal is not to just relocate these birds and cause somebody else problems. The goal is to try to relocate them to a low-impact area to improve the quality of life of folks here in the city.”
The only problem with this plan is that the crows really like being in cities. The birds are smart. They’re communal. They recognize that they’re safer downtown than out-of-town. Kevin Mcgowan is an ornithologist at Cornell University who has studied crows for 16 years. He’s heard of large crow roosts in cities across the nation, ranging from 100 birds to two million. Mcgowan says it’s usually warmer in cities. Crows like that. And they like the big trees and streetlights.
“I think the lights is a big deal. Crows are scared of things that go bump in the night because those things eat them. And that’s pretty much great horned owls, okay? Great horned owl is probably the single scariest thing to a crow, because they come in at night when crows can’t see and owls can. And owls eat a lot of crows.”
Mcgowan says crows started settling in U.S. cities in much larger numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, after a change to the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
“In – I believe it was 1972 – there was an amendment to the act that afforded crows protection for the first time. What that meant was now you couldn’t just shoot crows anytime you wanted to. You had to do it under the direction of a state hunting season, which had regulations.”
As a result, people changed their behavior. They didn’t shoot crows as much, so the crows became less scared of them and moved closer. In other words, crows have realized that cities are safer habitats than their “natural” environment. Mcgowan says he’s seen it before.
“You have a big predator that scares away the smaller predator that’s the one that really bothers you, then it behooves you to hang around the big predator. Happens all the time around people. There are lots of things that come in to be around people because they’re relatively safe there.”
Whether the USDA can break that pattern in cities like Auburn remains to be seen. Scientists have surveyed this city and harrassed the remaining crows. But they might have to return next winter to do the same thing again. And Auburn officials, like those in other crow-filled cities, might need to consider changing those things that attract crows in the first place, rather than just focusing on scaring the birds away.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Skye Rohde.