Archived Story

Birds may be a force of nature

Published 10:32am Friday, March 4, 2011

“Crows are not evil, and they are not purposely trying to torment you. They are just being crows.”

So says a Cornell University web site devoted to the large, black, noisy, annoying birds.

While I believe that crows aren’t tormenting us, it is sometimes hard to remember. Particularly this spring when they seem to be passing over the city in unusually large flocks en route to and from evening roosts. And particularly when they decide to make downtown Austin their roosting spot, fouling sidewalks and buildings with droppings.

Last summer, the county spent about $10,000 to have a row of ash trees removed, and replaced with a smaller, less bird-friendly variety. The problem, which quite a few people at the time found amusing, was that crows and perhaps some other birds were slathering sidewalks under the trees — and near the new jail — with their droppings.

Then in February, the city Parks, Recreation and Forestry Board authorized removing four trees from the downtown plaza because — you guessed it — crows and other birds were roosting there and piling up droppings.

The problem was so bad that pedestrians were tracking droppings into the entryways of nearby businesses – and warm, deteriorating bird droppings were not enhancing anybody’s business opportunities.

Was it the same crows, uprooted from the Justice Center area, simply moving to the next nearby trees? Hard to say. But crow problems seem to be everywhere these days.

Some are trying to fight the messy birds by firing a starter’s gun which will temporarily scare them off.

Crows, however, are smart – perhaps the smartest birds in North America — and they quickly learn the difference between real danger and fake danger. They know that moving cars present no danger, but that people getting out of cars might be dangerous. They reportedly learn over time the difference between people carrying buns and people carrying other long, gun-shaped objects.

Good eyesight and hearing are a big help to them.

Decoys, such as plastic owls and the traditional scarecrow, work well… for a few minutes.

But for the most part, crows that decide to roost someplace are going to roost there about as long as they want to – or until, as Austin has shown, the roost is removed.

The trouble is, there are lots of nice trees for the birds to choose, and replacing them all doesn’t seem like a very practical approach.

The Herald building has a row of trees along its north side that has also been hosting crows, so my interest is not simply reportorial or academic. I would like them gone, because otherwise we’re going to have to spend most of the summer scrubbing droppings off the building.

My research did find one interesting suggestion: Instead of trying to change crows’ behavior, change you own. In other words, learn to love and live with the birds. Easier said than done. But when dealing with a force of nature, it might be the only way.

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