Politics Rochester Science

Is Rochester setting the right expectations in its crow removal experiment?

For the past few months, Rochester has been working on getting a handle on its crow population. But the program has been something of a mystery to a lot of residents and it begs the question: if the City doesn’t adequately set expectations, are they just setting themselves up for blow-back next fall?

“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.”

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.