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Crows in your craw?

January 14, 2002

Crows in your craw?



By ANDREW SCHOTZ
andrews@herald-mail.com


Bird brains? Don't believe it.

If we could crack the crows' code during their treetop chats, we might hear them derisively calling us "human brains."

The crows might cackle: "Look at those fools trying to intimidate us with sprays and pruning shears and shiny tape and recordings of us when we're upset.

"Caw. Pshaw."

If we humans think of it as a turf war, the crows are winning.

On the move

Crows, one of the largest and most urban "nuisance" birds in the Tri-State area, used to control the fringes of Hagerstown.

Then, bunches of trees were chopped down around Cannon Avenue and Dual Highway about 10 years ago.

Steven Sager, mayor from 1985 to 1997, recalled that a number of 20-year-old trees were removed in the early 1990s so the crows would have nowhere to roost.

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The birds fled, but not far.

One year, they went to City Park. Another year, to Doubs Woods Park across from South Hagerstown High School. Another, to Wesel Boulevard.

Now, Washington, Franklin, Prospect, Walnut and Antietam streets and Summit Avenue downtown roughly make up the "epicenter" of the roost, City Engineer Rodney Tissue said.

John Frantz, one of the owners of Wright Gardner and Tischer Insurance, said it's been a relatively new problem outside of his business, starting several months ago.

His employees are in the line of fire, as it were, as they cross West Antietam Street on their way to and from work.

"Some of the employees said they had to watch out as they were walking to their cars," Frantz said. "They could hear it hitting around them."

"It" refers to the splatter of droppings that seemingly turn parking lots - including The Herald-Mail Co.'s - into Jackson Pollock canvases.

For the Baltimore Street Station Car Wash in Hagerstown, "it" is good for business. The more crow residue on the cars, the more car owners come in for a wash.

"They just say, 'The birds got me,'" General Manager Larry White said.

This year, business tied to the droppings has dropped off a little, White said.

The acidic manure can eat through a vehicle's clear coat finish and paint if it's not removed within a few days.

Health

If we could forgive the mess, crows might not rankle us so much.

They pose no greater health hazard to humans than any other bird, said Kevin McGowan, a research associate in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., and a crow expert.

A few examples of potential health problems posed by bird droppings are salmonellosis, which is passed along through mucus membranes and can lead to an intestinal infection, and histoplasmosis, an inhalational condition that can cause anything from a mild respiratory infection to death.

The recent spread of the potentially fatal West Nile Virus from birds through mosquitoes has created more hostility toward crows.

It's incorrect, though, to link West Nile Virus, largely a summer and fall phenomenon in this climate, to the throngs of roosting crows each winter, McGowan said.

Battling the birds

Other birds - starlings, sparrows, gulls, geese and pigeons - have their share of human enemies, who consider them noisy, unsanitary or both.

Waynesboro, Pa., Borough Manager Lloyd Hamberger remembers how the borough attempted to rid itself of "street smart" pigeons about 10 or 15 years ago.

"We tried some mundane ways and some sophisticated ways," he said. "The mundane way was someone trapped them and then he had some folks who would take them.

"The sophisticated way was we tried corn impregnated with a birth control substance.

"That didn't work."

Solutions did not come right away. But borough residents and the government over time pigeon-proofed the place, and the birds left on their own, Hamberger said.

J.C. Ehrlich Co. in Hagerstown is a pest control business that some frustrated property owners and municipalities call for help.

Operations Manager Dave McMullan said a past practice was spiking corn with Avitrol, a hallucinogen. Theoretically, discombobulated pigeons would send out distress signals, keeping others away.

Critics say it's cruel.

In a letter protesting New York City's use of Avitrol on birds, former Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick wrote: "I have considerable expertise on the subject of mind-altering drugs, and I can tell you that Avitrol is not your run-of-the-mill hallucinogen. It causes violent shaking, trembling, thirst, nausea, convulsions, disorientation and a slow death. Wow, talk about a bad trip!"

The preferred pigeon control method now is trapping and "disposing," to which fewer people object, McMullan said.

To ward off the birds in Hagerstown, J.C. Ehrlich has been fogging the downtown trees with grape extract over the last few weeks. The birds supposedly don't like the taste or the way the extract sticks to them.

But the extract's success is limited. It reaches low-perched starlings and sparrows better than it reaches high-perched crows, McMullan said.

Trimming the trees can help. The birds have nowhere to hide.

A ruckus

The city has tried other ways.

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