Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Greg Jordan

January 10, 2013

Dreams of harnessing the power of crows and turning evil into good

A couple of weeks ago, I saw hundreds of crows flying in the skies above Bluefield. My gut reaction wasn’t fit for print, but my first coherent thought was “not again.”

Last year about a thousand crows decided to turn the trees fringing the Daily Telegraph’s parking lot into a nightly rest stop. We soon learned the term “mega roost.”

The crows routinely relieved themselves on our vehicles, the asphalt and our new roof, and the resulting stench could turn your stomach. Their incessant calls echoed through the evening, but the creepiest moments were when the crows were pecking at our skylights. They were trying to find a way inside. It was a moment right out of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds.” Hitchcock used seagulls, but I would have tried to switch him over to crows. Seagulls make me think of vacations on the beach and good times, but crows don’t have the feel-good baggage. They could have carried an evil aura the gulls just couldn’t have matched.

Crows get a pretty bad rap in folklore and the movies, and the mega roost experience convinced me that they deserved every bit of it! One crow was literally working for the devil in the “Omen” horror movies; people visited by the crow tended to suddenly die in some horrible way. In a movie version of H.G. Wells novel “The War of the Worlds,” crows followed the Martian tripod machines as they sprayed death rays at humanity. Then the crows pecked at the Martians as they died from common colds.

In the second “Lord of the Rings” movie, a flock of crows spotted the heroes trudging toward Mordor and rushed back to file a report with the evil wizard Saurman. They swirled around him and he immediately understood their message.

What surprised me later was the idea that the crow scene had an air of truth to it. Zoologists studying crows have learned that they are amazingly intelligent. They remember people who have harassed them and can actually describe these people to other crows. What Saurman had was a surveillance drone system that would be next to impossible to shoot down. He could have made a deal with the Pentagon. An enemy could shoot down an airplane, but bring down hundreds of crows? I doubt that would be easy.

It’s chilling to think that when crows are calling overhead, they’re talking about you.

This intelligence makes driving crows away a challenge. You can put up those plastic owls, but the crows will soon figure out that they’re inanimate. Hanging up shiny objects such as metal strips or pots may work for a while, but the crows figure those out, too. I understand there are also balloons that help scare them away; the balloons are covered with pictures of eyes.

One of the most effective deterrents has been what I’ve dubbed a “squawk box.” It emits a crow distress call at regular intervals. I think this call is made when a crow has been wounded by a predator; the noise alerts the rest of the flock.

Of course, you have to keep explaining this noise when visitors arrive in the parking lot. I remember one day when I encountered a visitor looking around with a puzzled expression on his face. The squawk box had just sounded off.

“Is that a duck?” he asked. I had to explain what was going on. I would rather do the explaining than go to the car wash and hose crow droppings off my car.

Another deterrent arrived last week. A red-tailed hawk found the roost and started picking off crows. Photographer Jon Bolt even shot a series of photos showing a hawk feasting on a crow. I hope the hawk enjoyed its dinner. We had to pick the picture carefully. The last thing we wanted was a hawk tearing out a crow’s liver. That’s not an image we want to give our readers when they’re sitting down to breakfast.

According to Wendy Perrone of the Three Rivers Avian Center, red-tailed hawks and crows feud constantly. They like to roost in the same areas and they frequently harass each other. The birds will even steal each other’s food.

The mega roost is gone from the Daily Telegraph now, but the crows have set up new airports around Bluefield. I’m just hoping they don’t decided to give us another try. If I’ve learned anything about crows, they’re survivors and they’re persistent. I see them pecking at scraps and trash around restaurants, and doing clean-up duty along the highways when there is road kill to be found. In a show I watch occasionally, “Life After People,” crows do very well when humanity isn’t on the scene; however, I think their numbers would fall when they don’t have trash and road kill to round out their diets. They have come to see humans as the managers of their grocery stores.

I’m not wishing the crow species any ill will, I just want them to respect our space and quit using our property as a toilet. I don’t shoot at them — though I’ve had fantasies of owning a shotgun when I see them over my car — so I would like for them to show some restraint, too. Why can’t they keep flying south for the winter? Maybe they can go to the beach and soak up some sunshine.

Maybe we can some day decipher the crows’ language and come to some kind of agreement. If we could put them to work for us, imagine the possibilities. A felon fleeing through the countryside would never stand a chance if hundreds of crows flying overhead were scouting for him. They could just as easily find a lost child or a lost hiker. If I had a computer program that translated English into crow, my first message would be this: Can’t we all just get along?

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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