Cities Take Aim at Roosting Crows

  • Crows are roosting in huge groups in cities all over the country. The USDA is trying to find ways to get them to go back to their natural habitat. (Photo by Paige Foster)

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.

Related Links

Sadness on the Peace Train

The terrible events in New York City and Washington have left a legacy of personal tragedies. For Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Suzanne Elston, the story of September 11th began as a journey of peace:


The terrible events in New York City and Washington D.C. have left a legacy of personal tragedies. For Great Lakes Radio Consortium commentator, Suzanne Elston, the story of September 11th, began as a journey of peace.

I’ve never been to New York City. So when we got an invitation to visit the Big Apple and participate in a children’s peace festival, we jumped at the chance. My husband Brian and two of our kids, Peter and Sarah, were going to be part of a church service marking the opening of the 56th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
Sarah was going to carry the Canadian flag and Peter was going to give a reading. The kids were wired and so were we.

Our plan was to leave Toronto Tuesday morning by train. The daylong trip would take us to New York City. We’d have all day Wednesday to do touristy things before the service on Thursday. We’d even managed to get tickets to a Broadway play. It all sounded so exciting that I couldn’t believe that it was actually going to happen.

We’d been on the train for about an hour when we first heard the news. Our traveling companions were 18 members of the Toronto Children’s Peace Theatre, also en route to the peace festival. The director of the company received a cell phone call that gave us sketchy details of the initial attack on the World Trade Center.

At first I refused to believe it. Here we were heading for an international children’s peace festival.

It felt like we were on the voyage of the damned. We continued on our journey, barreling down the tracks to a destination that we knew we would never reach. We heard rumors – the border was closed, there was shooting in the streets. People with cell phones were frantically trying to get a hold of somebody they knew who could give us an update.

The children from the theatre group were particularly upset. For most of them it was their first time away from home, and they were scared. As we discussed the latest details that we’d heard, one of the kids started to throw-up.

We moved to another car and tried to explain to a group of university students from England that they wouldn’t be flying home the next day from New York. As the news continued to filter in, we soon realized that they wouldn’t be flying home from anywhere. An elderly couple at the back of the car sat in stony silence. Their daughter worked at the World Trade Center and they were frozen in fear.

The conductor was stuck like a moose in headlights. Most of the passengers still didn’t know what was going on. My husband finally took him aside and explained that he had to make an announcement. People needed to make arrangements, to talk to their families. But he was just a kid and as scared as the rest of us. He wanted to wait until he had something official from Amtrak’s head office.

Finally, at 11:00 a.m., he made a formal announcement. The border was closed and we all would be disembarking at Niagara Falls. It was Tuesday evening by the time we got home and saw the horrific images of what had happened.

It wasn’t until then, when we were safe and home and together that we had a shocking revelation. The first stop on our sightseeing trip was going to be the World Trade Center. For the sake of a mere 24 hours we could have been buried at the bottom of that rubble like so many others.

Our great journey of peace ended with many prayers. We prayed for the victims and their families, we prayed for peace. Finally, we gave a prayer of thanks that we’d all made it home safely. After witnessing Tuesday’s horror – that was a gift beyond measure.