The Birds

Photo by Mark SavageEvery morning for the past several months, the pre-dawn silence of eastside Costa Mesa has been broken by the squawking of dozens of excited crows. Angry residents have done everything to scare the birds away, but to no avail. Last week, city officials unveiled a lethal weapon in what promises to be a long-term war of attrition against the noisy birds: police officers armed with pellet guns.

So far, the Costa Mesa Police Department's animal-control division has shot about one dozen specimens of Corvus brachyrhynchos, better known as the common North American crow. But there's no reason to believe the campaign will solve the city's growing crow problem. Or that it should try.

“People have been taking potshots at crows for a couple of hundred years,” explained biologist Kevin McGowan, curator of birds and mammals at Cornell University. Make that white people: according to McGowan, unlike Native Americans—whose traditions hold that crows are fire-givers or spiritual messengers —white settlers brought to North America the Europeans' disdain for crows.

“There were no vultures in northern Europe, so crows always had that kind of negative connotation,” McGowan said. “Besides, they are big and black. It's easy to see why they were viewed as symbols of death. We simply carried that psychological baggage over here with us.”

It's possible crows have developed psychological baggage of their own, of course. In rural America, crows have long been considered a threat to agriculture and therefore have usually been shot on sight by farmers. McGowan believes that this centuries-long war to eradicate crows in the countryside drove the bulk of North America's crow population into urban areas. And not just America: “Other species of crows around the world are moving into urban areas,” McGowan said. “People think there's been a tremendous explosion in the population of crows, but this isn't the case. It's a worldwide phenomenon of crows becoming urbanized.”

Two other important factors help explain why so many crows have chosen to live in urban areas in the past several decades. One is owls—or rather, the lack thereof. In the nest, crows are vulnerable to everything from squirrels to raccoons. But adult crows have only one natural predator other than gun-wielding humans: owls. “For crows, the owl is the bogeyman,” McGowan explained. “That's why they like urban areas: less owls.”

The second factor is obvious to anyone who has ever visited a dump: other than dead animals, the crow's favorite food is trash.

Unsurprisingly, their eating habits have led people mistakenly to believe that crows help spread disease. But according to the Orange County Department of Health's vector-control district, crows are not disease carriers. “We only deal with rats, flies and mosquitoes,” commented one vector-control hot-line operator who spoke with the Weekly.

“There are damn few things you can catch from a crow,” McGowan agreed. “They are not a public-health nuisance at all.”

Unfortunately for Costa Mesa residents, while crows don't carry infectious diseases, they are highly territorial. Once they've adopted a local area, crows won't leave until they run out of food. Making matters worse—at least in the short term—is the fact that late summer and early autumn is when crows tend to stay put for their winter roost. “In Orange County, early March through June is when the birds are somewhat dispersed and don't tend to congregate in large groups as they do now,” McGowan explained.

McGowan has spent years observing crow behavior thousands of miles from Orange County in Ithaca, New York, home of Cornell University. But his observations are matched by those of local crow enthusiast Joey Racano, an environmental activist, folk singer and city council candidate who lives in his trailer in downtown Huntington Beach. Four years ago, Racano adopted an injured crow named Spike. Racano estimates that he's had a “family relationship” with at least 10 crows over the past several years. Even as he spoke with the Weekly, Racano pointed at a crow flying overhead. “That's Thor!” he exclaimed.

According to Racano, the best way to get rid of bothersome crows is to buy a fake owl. “You should buy a plastic owl and place several crow feathers in a prominent position, like on a rooftop or a fence, and this will scare the crows away,” he suggested.

But McGowan is skeptical. “Those owl things work for about a day,” he said. “Crows know that if it doesn't move, it's not real. Crows aren't stupid.”

On the matter of crow IQs, Racano agrees with McGowan. He says he first realized that crows were intelligent when Spike began attacking Racano's bedside alarm clock. To dissuade Spike, Racano bought a squirt gun and loaded it for crow.

“One day, Spike used his beak to peck the big hand off the alarm clock, then the little hand, then the number panel and finally the backing. He was trying to dismantle the entire clock,” Racano says. “So I pointed the gun at him. Spike immediately tried to put the number panel back on the clock. I yelled, 'No!' and pointed the gun at him again.”

According to Racano, Spike proceeded to pull the number panel back off the clock before carefully replacing the backing material and the number panel—in the correct order. Racano rewarded his friend by not shooting him with the squirt gun.

“That proves that crows are capable of logical scientific reasoning,” Racano concluded. “Not to mention how typical it is of humans to try to solve a problem with a gun.”

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