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Crows prove far too cagey to be thwarted in Illinois town

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013 9:41 a.m. CST • Updated: Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013 9:53 a.m. CST

(MCT) — DANVILLE, Ill. — In this Vermilion County town known for having what just might be North America’s largest winter crow roost, there are half the number of black birds there were a year ago.

That said, when the tallying was done at the annual Middlefork River Valley Christmas Bird Count on Jan. 1, the crows still outnumbered the humans nearly 4-to-1.

This season, more than 100,000 crows have roosted here at night, in the trees and on the rooftops, eaves, awnings, fence posts, parking garage, traffic lights and telephone wires. And folks in this town 35 miles east of Champaign don’t like to — what’s the word? — crow about it.

There are no souvenir shirts to advertise this “Crow Capital” claim to fame, but through the years, there have been plenty of sidewalks and store awnings splattered with droppings, residents complaining of being bombarded, and a whole lot of people who get increasingly tired of stepping around “it.”

“It is the largest winter roost of crows that we know about in the U.S. and Canada,” said Steve Bailey, of Mundelein, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Danville-area volunteers led by Bailey counted 121,500 crows during the bird census on New Year’s Day. A year ago, the count was 238,000. In the winter of 1999-2000, there were 267,000, the highest number recorded.

The numbers fluctuate from year to year, and the recent numbers aren’t unusually low, but the reasons for the decline over the past 12 months weren’t hard to determine: West Nile virus and drought.

Crows and blue jays are the birds most vulnerable to the mosquito-borne West Nile, and the drought not only cut down on the seed, nuts and berries available for wildlife, but it caused a big resurgence of West Nile, said Mike Ward, professor of wildlife ecology for the Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “West Nile thrives in hot, dry weather,” he said.

Despite their vulnerability, crows seem to “rebound very well” from West Nile, Bailey said. That might not be good news to the humans in this town of 33,000, whose past attempts to keep the birds away have mostly proved fruitless.

Bob Jones, owner of the Danville Dairy Queen and mayor from 1987 to 2003, when the roost was its largest, tried to wage war on the crows.

Jones had two of the city’s white pickups outfitted with “cannons” that sounded like a gunshot when fired. City workers drove through the streets shooting the cannons to scare the crows away. And it worked. Temporarily. Soon the intelligent birds got to know the trucks and would leave before any shots were fired, Jones said. Inevitably, they’d return.

Marilyn Campbell, editor of Illinois Audubon Magazine and a resident of nearby Georgetown, expected that.

“The mayor gave it a try, but the crows just moved from place to place,” she said. “Crows are pretty smart, and when I heard the mayor was going up against the crows, I bet on the crows.”

About 4 p.m. on a day earlier this month, small gatherings of crows started landing in and around Danville after feeding all day in the surrounding grain fields and landfill. Soon the treetops in town became speckled with black silhouettes. By 5 p.m., a striking pink sunset was offset by ribbons of black as the crows came in from all directions, and later when the sky was black, the trees limbs dipped with the weight of the large birds.

The hoarse cawing of the social creatures was penetrated only by the sounds of people in the distance shooting off fireworks or a pop bottle rocket, trying to scare them away. Noise is effective, but again, just a temporary fix.

Later, around 7 p.m., local bird-watchers say, large flocks numbering in the thousands respond to the call of a few, and swoop off to their main roost for the night. They may settle downtown, or near it, but they don’t always sleep in the same place. Some days they’re more visible than others.

Crows typically migrate this far south in early autumn, then stay put until late February or early March, when they fly north again into Wisconsin and Michigan, and possibly Canada, Bailey said.

While neighboring Champaign County attracts only a couple of thousand crows, Bailey said, Danville has the large roost because it offers a smorgasbord to meet the crows’ winter needs. The town is nestled in a warm valley, surrounded by grain and soybean fields, and home to the Vermilion River. A well-lighted downtown allows the birds to watch for their enemy, the great horned owl, and tall old brick buildings with poor insulation offer warm roofs for sleeping overnight.

At pre-dawn, the crows will move out to the fields, the cottonwood trees along the river, the large local corn mill, and the nearby landfill again to feed. Scientists say they will eat anything, including roadkill.

“I don’t like them, but I’m also awed by them. They’re very intelligent creatures,” said Shelly Larson, Danville superintendent of community improvements. “The problem is that these are not little birds, and these are not little drops they leave behind. They’re big, slimy and disgusting.”

A challenging part of Larson’s job is keeping downtown clean. That means getting her crews to power-wash sidewalks.

Store owners like Dan Duncheon, who owns Kids Kloset, a downtown children’s shop, said he and his wife slam the back gate before they leave the shop at night to scare the crows off. It’s their way to avoid getting hit by “white rain” as they run for the car. They say the crows relieve themselves right after takeoff, so timing is crucial for people who need to walk under them.

Down the block, Java Hut owner Don Pribble lives above his coffeehouse and has to wash his car every day when the birds are roosting in his neighborhood. He doesn’t have a garage.

“There’s nothing good about them. They are just a pain in the rear,” he said, laughing.

Larson said she has done her homework on crows and accepts that she cannot win this battle.

“The only thing I can do is to power-wash, and the next day it’s going to look the same,” she said. “When they roost downtown, there is not a space that is not covered in black birds. I’ve come to work in the evening and they cover every inch of every top of every building. It’s eerie.”

“We’re not going to get rid of them,” she said. “The goal is to communicate to the town why we have what we have, and then to deal with it.”

Residents also had trouble with the crows ripping open garbage bags along the street and feeding off the contents. Folks say they have seen the birds flying through the air with pizza, even a pizza box.

The city appears to have licked that problem by switching to large garbage containers, or “toters” with lids, said Cindy Parson, Danville’s recreation manager. “But occasionally I’ll see them sitting on top of the toters,” she said. “It seems to be only a matter of time before they learn how to open them.”

Many residents go the old-fashioned route of banging pots together, explained Larry Thomason, Danville director of public safety. Others have mounted plastic owls to frighten the birds, but biologists say the birds quickly get the trick and ignore it.

Some larger places, like St. James United Methodist Church, broadcast an electronic call imitating predators. Others use flashing lights. The latest attempt is to place rubber versions of dead crows on the ground. It’s not attractive, but somewhat effective, Thomason said.

And, some residents continue to just shoot off fireworks or bottle rockets.

Although shooting firearms in town is illegal, licensed hunters can shoot crows in designated areas until the state’s hunting season for migratory game birds ends on Feb. 28. But according to Illinois Department of Natural Resources reports, not many people are hunting crow. The statewide crow hunting harvest dropped 76 percent over the last 10 years.

If you can’t beat them, people in Danville thought, maybe you can celebrate them. In 2001 and a few years after, the town had a summer crow festival with bands, food and events like decorating large plastic birds — similar to Chicago decorating cows. The festival didn’t really fly.

Dana Schaumburg, executive director of Downtown Danville Inc., had some jewelry with a crow design that was left from the festival. She could hardly give it away, Schaumburg said. “People want nothing, nothing that reminds them of crows.”

One popular event did survive and is now part of the city’s annual Vermilion River Fall Festival in September. Parson said more than 500 rubber ducks are painted black to look like crows. Festival-goers buy a crow for $5 and hope theirs is the first to float to the other side of the river. Last year’s winner got $1,000.

“There’s pretty good evidence that crows are probably the most intelligent bird, right below parrots,” said Ward, with the Natural History Survey. “They can do higher reasoning, learn how to count, how to talk.

“They can recognize people and vehicles, so they are difficult to catch and to study,” he said. “They’re so social and such an intelligent bird that they’re fascinating. But I understand. If I had 100 crows in my front yard, I can see why I wouldn’t like them.”

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