A crow’s intelligence shouldn’t be underestimated. Crows are social birds that learn from one another and take lessons from their mistakes. Research has shown that not only can crows use tools, they can also make their own — for example, they can bend wires into hooks to grab baskets of food.
But for residents of Chatham, crows are nature’s drunken frat boys. During the winter, they form large, intimidating roosts in trees, on power lines, and atop flat-roof buildings. They provide unwanted wake-up calls. They toss around unsecured garbage. And they poop all over the place. Chatham’s contentious relationship with crows goes back more than a century.
As many as 100,000 roost in the area. To the crows, Chatham is a lovely winter vacation party zone. Attractions include the Thames River, warm buildings to roost on at night, and plenty of artificial light to spot predators. During the day, they can rest in the flat, open farmland surrounding the city.
The volume of crow feces creates slick sidewalks where seniors fear slip-and-fall accidents. It forces car dealers to hire full-time employees dedicated to cleaning the droppings off vehicles. Crow poop often falls into ventilation systems, leaving buildings with a foul odour.
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In 1909, provincial biologist C.W. Nash drove around Kent County to investigate reports of crows destroying corn crops. Accompanied by the local MPP, he encountered farmers who lost hundreds of bushels from the thick roosts. During the 1925 Christmas season, the Globe ran front-page stories for nearly a week on the debate between farmers and local officials who had suddenly embraced crows because of their healthy appetite for corn borers — a pest destroying crops around that time — and naturalists who felt the destruction the crows caused outweighed their benefits. A vocal opponent was naturalist Jack Miner, who argued that crows plundered the nests of other birds to feed their young.
As Miner succinctly put it, “Kill the crow!”
By the late 1990s, Chatham had reached a consensus: the crows had to go. Various techniques were tested throughout 1999 and 2000. Scare cartridges (noisy shells meant to scare off birds) and bright lights failed to frighten the crows away. Audio recordings of distressed crows briefly caused the crows to flock around the tape deck, but they returned to their roost once they realized nobody was hurt. A one-week trial using tethered eagles and falcons flopped. Crow carcasses were hung from trees in roosting areas, but the live birds just moved away from the stiffs to the next tree.
Then-mayor Bill Erickson proposed using live ammunition to solve the problem. “They’re harming the mental and physical health of many of our elderly residents,” he told the National Post in November 1999. “Humans and this rag-tag group of crows are not compatible.” While Erickson delayed a cull to discuss other options with the OSPCA, his brother Richard proceeded with a private cull, offering a $100 top prize (though an autism charity turned down a donation of the entry fees). The saga drew national attention via segments on CBC’s Country Canada and The National.
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In late 2000, the city hired Bird Control International who, in their first year, reduced the population in a 24 km radius from 160,000 to 147 by harassing and intimidating the crows nightly through techniques such as having horned owls swoop down on dead crows tossed into the air. The dispersal wasn’t permanent, as many crows temporarily boycotted Chatham in favour of the town of Essex. Within a few years, the roost counts rose again. Trucks equipped with noisemakers and infrared lights roamed through neighbourhoods at night, but the move had little effect. Artists decided to have fun with the issue by holding a “Crowfest” in October 2011, using the old “if you've got a lot of lemons, make lemonade” argument.
In January 2013, Chatham-Kent council cut its $57,000 funding for the crow control program. Instead, they focused on upgrading infrastructure to better withstand the infestation, through initiatives like distributing better-secured garbage bins. A report submitted to council in December 2016 outlined past efforts, and suggested that non-lethal methods continue to be used to regularly disperse the birds. Minimal lethal force would be a last measure and only in co-operation with police and provincial agencies. Deputations were heard from seniors who were afraid of going outside lest they fall or be pooped on, and from crow advocates who reminded councillors of 19th-century buffalo massacres. Councillor Trevor Thompson suggested methods such as birth control or, as he joked, “crowphylaxis.”
Mayor Randy Hope, who favoured shooting the birds, compared the clusters of crows seen during a typical afternoon to Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds. The issue has been set aside to be resolved later this year, but a century of effort has exhausted many of the options.
Responding to one councillor’s belief that it was too late to do anything new for 2016-17, Hope said, “it’s been too late for 100 years.”
Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer and researcher who specializes in historical and contemporary civic matters.
Photo courtesy of Sharon Drummond and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)