Ever notice that whoever wrote the “12 Days of Christmas” song had a severe bird fetish? At least six of these 12 days of true love gift giving are bird related, and possibly more. History has debated that the fifth day’s gift of “five golden rings” actually referred to ring-necked pheasants, not fancy finger jewelry. So! There we have it. The first seven days of the 12 Days of Christmas are birds, equaling a grand total of 28 birds from your true love.

Um, thanks?

Culturally, we may not typically celebrate 12 days of Christmas anymore, but Rochester is certainly on board with Day 4, albeit perhaps unintentionally. Day 4 is another commonly misinterpreted verse to the 12 Days song, with many singing “four calling birds” when in fact, it is actually “four colly birds.” Okay, well that’s all fine and good, but what the heck is a colly bird? According to our good friends at Wikipedia, colly bird is the old-fashioned term for a black bird. Merry Christmas, Rochester, indeed!

The crows are back in town, and they’re back with a vengeance.  Earlier in the year, the city put forth extensive creative and technological efforts to disperse crows from downtown areas, however, the colder weather has brought them back, much to the city’s chagrin. Earlier this week, wildlife biologists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture began their most recent attempts to chase the overwhelming amount of crows out of Washington Square Park, which, on Sunday’s count, clocked in with over 25,000 crows.

The USDA has been working through the night using non-harmful techniques such as spotlights and pyrotechnics to rid the crows, however, these colly birds aren’t leaving without a fight. Several crows have flown away or moved to other trees while others have barely budged. Back in February, we reported that crows have an uncanny sense of memory – perhaps they’re calling our bluff?

According to USDA wildlife biologist Mark Carrara, these things take time and will decrease gradually, comparing the techniques to pet training, which may not be such a far-fetched comparison. For whatever reason, these crows do seem to believe they’ve found a home in Rochester. Perhaps Rochester should be more selective when choosing its “true love” next year, or at least one that blesses us with better gifts. In the meantime, happy eleven months of the fourth day of Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

One of the best aspects of being human is that we are the superior species.  We may not be the fastest or the strongest, but we are without a doubt the smartest, right? Not taking into consideration the many idiots we’ve all undoubtedly met, this is said to be true. So who would be a close second? Apes? Domesticated pets? Think again. Crows are just as smart, and in some ways, even smarter than many humans. Terrifying? You have no idea.

Mankind has a long, and at times, checkered past with crows. In ancient folklore, they have been regarded as symbols of death, and sometimes, even credited as creators of the world. Aesop wrote a story entitled “The Crow and the Pitcher” in which a crow, who wants to drink some water from a pitcher he can’t reach, drops pebbles into the pitcher until the water raises enough for him to drink it. Now Aesop, as talented as he was, was a fable writer and not a scientist; however, he was not that far off in his measurements of crow intelligence.

Aesop’s crow fable was later tested, and the results were amazing. The tested crows did get the water in the end, but not by some rudimentary method of trial and error. Instead, the crows exhibited knowledge of which stones (larger versus smaller) would achieve the desired effect. Most crows figured the trick out on their first try; the few who didn’t, got it on their second attempt.  Cool, right? Yeah, but not exactly what creature of death stories are made of. For that, chew on this:

Crows can remember your face. When was the last time you checked out a group of crows (which, for the record, a “group” of crows is called a murder of crows. That in itself is unsettling.) and could tell them apart? Chances are, they all just looked like a bunch of big, black birds with no real defining or memorable differences. You would think humans would also appear that way to crows, but not so. Recent research published just over 6 months ago explains the study of a masked man “terrorizing” a selected group of crows. Any time the man passed by without his mask, he was left alone, however, each time he wore the mask, he was attacked. The study concluded:

“Crows remember the faces of ‘dangerous humans’ with the memories likely lasting the bird’s lifetime. Crows may scold people who threaten them, bringing in relatives and even strangers to ‘mob’ the person. The crows within mobs then indirectly learn about the person, so they, too, associate the individual’s face with danger and react accordingly.”

Birds holding grudges – Alfred Hitchcock, much? In addition to their impeccable logic and memory, crows are excellent planners, extremely loyal, and most certainly do not take slack from anyone or anything.  Let’s just hope the authorities performing the harassment tactics to rid the Rochester crows don’t keep their faces visible while the procedures are in progress.

“Everybody gets cranky in February,” says Kevin McGowan of Cornell University. By this time of year, those pestered by crows all winter long are getting pretty sick of them. But is Rochester’s City government setting itself up for an unnecessary back lash by next fall, by not making the aim of the harassment project clear?

Rochester has a well-documented population of crows, with populations estimated well into the 20 and 30,000 range as far back as at least 1938. Reports stretching back 100 years and more mention the proliferation of our coal-black companions. Neither is that number at all unusual and meanwhile, crows are getting more and more used to being around humans. It seems clear that the birds are likely to stay for another 100.

But as Mike Wasilco of the Finger Lakes branch of the New York DEC points out, getting rid of Rochester’s crows is not the goal. Rather, the aim is to eliminate a public health concern that stems from the fact that crows are currently roosting in extremely large numbers along the river. Crow waste and debris littering those sites are a potential breeding ground for disease.

“The problem with the crows was the location of the roost and the size of that roost.” he says. “The harassment will likely cause the birds to move their roost to a more acceptable spot and may break the huge roost into several smaller roosts.”

Predicting what the end result will look like is not easy, however. One of the real challenges is that crows have very complex social lives and are adept problem-solvers. Whereas another animal can be expected to behave along some very predictable, instinctive lines, consistency in crows is about as unexpected as it is among humans.

Roosting behavior is analogous to human neighborhoods or even – dare I say it – social networks. Some birds will get together with the roost to sleep at night, others won’t. Some like to forage together, some prefer to do their own thing. And based whatever crow-specific preference, crows in Rochester seem to really dig roosting by the river. Its trendy, you might say.

This sets up a rather familiar theme for Downtown Rochester, as Mr. McGowan says, “Crows are a bit like teenagers. You can discourage them for a bit, but you can’t really stop them.” They’re going to do what they want to do, so we should all be glad they’re not roosting by the Liberty Pole.

Regardless, if the crows want to roost by the river, they’re going to roost by the river. This isn’t a problem that can be solved in a single season; handling crow population is management issue that will be with us a while. Says McGowan, its “like shoveling snow.”

Mr. Wasilco agrees, “Very often, there is a need to repeat the harassment program in following years if the crows begin roosting in unacceptable areas again.” But, he adds, “its much easier to discourage birds from a new site than from a well-established site.”

And therein lies the political problem: because Rochester started its program fairly late in the season, the crows have already established themselves in their preferred location. But, since they started late and crows typically do not roost together as much in spring and summer months, the short-term effect might make it look like the program has been effective.

With or without the harassment program, Rochester’s crows would likely be dispersed by March. With or without the harassment program, the roosts will return in the fall. And along with them, another $21,000 bill for harassment and the attendant howls of “wasteful spending.”

The extremely high population of crows may be big news in Rochester now, but it was one of the first things I noticed about the area when I moved here from Pennsylvania in 2005.

“Why are there so many crows here?” I remember asking at a gathering with my new friends at the end of my first week here. I was met with blank, what-are-you-talking-about/are-you-on-something  stares from the native Rochesterians and an uproar of “Right?! What’s up with that?!” from my fellow Rochester foreigners.  7  years have passed,  and now we’re all asking the same question: why are there so many crows here?

Aside from the fact that a large number of crows hails from Southern Canada, which is pretty much our next door neighbor, there really is no straight-forward answer for why they’ve chosen Rochester as their preferred hangout.  One fact is known for certain, though – they haven’t received the warmest of welcomes.

Last week, city officials proactively began the process of discouraging approximately 20,000 – 35,000 crows  from settling in the city (just to put that in perspective – in 2011, there were 17,652 students total enrolled at RIT. That’s a lot of crows!) Working with the help of the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services Division, crows will be scared away with methods including pyrotechnics, lasers, and amplified recordings of crow distress calls.

These harassment methods of evicting the crows have been met with very mixed feedback. While no one particularly enjoys the noises or messes the large numbers of crows produce, many regard the large crow roosts and flights as a beautiful natural phenomenon and worry about the fate of the crows.

According to Mark Carrara, USDA Wildlife Biologist,

“The one thing that you have to keep in mind is that [these methods are] not a cure. There’s no way to keep these birds out of the city. It’s too big of an area. There are too many birds. So what we have to try to do is find a balance that everybody can live with. The crows and the people.”

So what do you do when you have noisy, messy, obnoxious neighbor you can’t stand and moving isn’t an option for either of you? You can dwell, and make life miserable – or, you can make an effort to get to know them, and hey, maybe deep down, they aren’t so bad. Or, maybe they are.

This week, DragonFlyEye will be taking that extra step to learn all about Rochester’s crows, these pesky neighbors of ours so you can get to know them, too.  Love them, hate them, or don’t care at all about them, these creatures are truly fascinating, and this is not a series you’ll want to miss! Check out the Rochester Crows series as it happens!