Op-ed: The perennial invasion of crows

Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - 4:19pm

Rapid development in Ann Arbor and other areas of southeast Michigan has led to increasing friction between humans and their animal neighbors in recent years. Coyote attacks on cats and dogs are on the rise in the metro Detroit area. Despite both controversial culls and sterilization efforts, the Ann Arbor deer population has at best plateaued. And every few winters, as the sky darkens, students are left aghast as crows take to the skies over campus.

Every autumn, as other birds fly south for the winter, thousands of American crows make their exodus from the fields and forests of rural Washtenaw County and migrate to Ann Arbor for the winter. Their bodies create a black blanket spread across trees, historic buildings and anything else they can perch on. From the Huron River and Forest Hill Cemetery to North Campus, through Central Campus and the Diag, to the student houses on South Campus, the crows reign.

Their numbers fluctuate wildly from winter to winter. The National Audubon Society records nearly 30,000 birds some years, and barely 1,000 in others (during their annual Christmas Bird Count), with population booms and crashes often occurring cyclically.

The 2017 count was relatively low at only 3,133 crows, compared to the previous year’s 9,972. Though the 2018 Christmas Bird Count data is not yet available, it is safe to assume based on historical data and the opinions of anyone who walks along North University Street early in the morning that this year’s crow population is much higher.

Concern and interest surrounding these birds is nothing new. They have been the source of satire and news. In 1997, Cynthia Sims Parr, a University of Michigan alum and professor at the University of Maryland, wrote her doctoral dissertation on Ann Arbor’s crow population.  

Relations between humans and these avian neighbors have not always been kind. Crows are known to attack humans, particularly during nesting season. Though these attacks are rare, they are on the rise in many urban areas around the world. They are also thought to be vectors for the spread of diseases including West Nile virus and prion diseases.

Some blame crows for property damage, particularly to historic buildings. Others fear the eerie and foreboding atmosphere they create on long, unlit walks home late at night.

Some individuals have taken action into their own hands. These efforts have gone so far as to require Michigan's Department of Natural Resources to send officials to Ann Arbor to investigate mass poisonings of birds in 2008 and 2009.

The University of Michigan has used a variety of methods over the years to attempt to deal with crows, including the use of a flare gun analog, none with any real degree of success.

Many other academic institutions face similar issues with large bothersome crow populations. Penn State University employs loud speakers and fireworks to scare crows off their campus, with limited and often short-lived success. At the University of Indiana-Bloomington, students and faculty alike regularly attempt to dodge defecating crows as they walk across campus. The University of Pittsburgh uses speakers playing great horned owl calls to scare crows away from high-trafficked areas of campus.  

Airports and caretakers of historic government buildings have often taken a different approach: using falconers to scare away crows and other birds away from areas where they may cause harm. Unlike the use of speakers imitating birds of prey, having trained falcons, hawks, owls and other birds fly around has proven to be an effective way of dealing with this problem. While crows quickly realize that there are no predators when sound systems blare, they quickly fly from falconers, as they know death is imminent.

A more sustainable alternative to controlling the crow population would be actively aiding the rehabilitation of native populations of birds of prey. In recent years breeding peregrine falcons have started to move into areas by both Central and the Medical Campus. This could in part explain why the crow population’s peaks no longer reached the heights they used to. A potential side effect to increasing the local number of birds of prey, however, is that our campus’ beloved obese squirrels may turn into easy snacks for them.

LSA Student Government and Engineering Student Government passed resolutions in winter 2016 asking the City of Ann Arbor to investigate the issue of crow populations on and near campus. The Central Student Government also discussed the matter that semester. However, as far as is publicly known, no action has come following those initial efforts.

The way the city and the University choose to address this issue sets a tone and spirit for how to address other issues pertaining to local wildlife, the environment and the community at large.

To not address it establishes a laissez-faire attitude toward this and other similar issues. To use non-sustainable methods would signal an adversarial relationship with the environment at large. To use sustainable methods would signal a willingness to find long term solutions to issues that work in harmony with the environment, rather than against it.

Nicholas Fadanelli is a Rackham student and former LSA Student Government President.