SUNNYSIDE, Wash. (AP) — With a shrill whistle and brilliant flare, Sunnyside police Officer Jeremy Tucker fires and hundreds of black wings lift off train cars and grain silos to fill the foggy night air.
He reloads and repeats elsewhere in town, over and over, trying to keep Sunnyside’s infestation of crows on the move.
“What we’re trying to do is scare them out of the downtown area and redirect them out into the fringes and the county as much as possible,” said Cmdr. Scott Bailey.
Sunnyside has a murderous crow problem.
Every winter, the birds infest trees, wires and rooftops, making a mess of sidewalks and painting a spooky scene for the Lower Valley city of 16,000.
Business owners try honking horns, playing raptor call recordings or trimming — even completely felling — trees.
“I keep thinking they should do the Birds II movie here,” said Kenny Nelson, owner of DK Bain Real Estate in downtown. “It’s horrific.”
The crows now are giving Sunnyside a national reputation. Radio and television reports as far away as Seattle and New York have made wisecracks about horror movies, with one even playing Alfred Hitchcock music during a segment.
Trying to be good sports, Sunnyside folks laugh along.
“Maybe it will draw tourists,” said Theresa Hancock, deputy mayor of the city and a downtown liquor store owner. She suggested an Alfred Hitchcock night.
But their frustration is serious.
Droppings get so thick, public works crews use pressure washers on sidewalks two or three times each winter. Customers complain. The shrieks, especially when the crows swarm at dusk, are annoying and downright scary.
“Every night, the trees across the street from me would be alive with crows, it was just a mess,” Hancock said. She has seen few birds so far this year but the problem typically grows worse in January and February, she said.
Police tried counting them one year and came up with an estimate of 10,000, though Bailey admits that’s a pretty rough guess. The crows certainly didn’t hold still for him “and they all look the same,” he said.
Sunnyside’s problem is more than a decade old, but police are using new tactics this year, trying to keep the birds on the move so much they eventually give up and leave town — hopefully.
For one thing, officers are staying on top of the problem, scaring the birds away every night, instead of just once in a while. Bailey posted a news release in early December on the city web site announcing the abatement efforts and asking residents to call police right away if they see crows roosting.
Many callers beg police to just kill the birds, and Sunnyside did that from 1998 to 2005, Bailey said, but police began to think better of shooting guns over houses and businesses, especially when the birds seemed to come back anyway.
“We’re not looking to kill them, we’re just trying to get them to relocate,” Bailey said.
The effort may take time. Bailey is consulting with biologists and searching for environmental organizations that may want to help build habitat on the fringes of town, giving the birds someplace to go.
Unfortunately for Sunnyside, the evening infestations are pretty normal crow behavior, according to information from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Crows, one of the most adaptable bird species, search for food as family units during the day in the fields, dairies and streams of the Lower Valley countryside, eating everything from insects and grain to fish and road kill.
At night, they congregate in large flocks — called murders — for warmth and security. They swarm at dusk, communicating with their eerie “caws,” adhering to a hierarchal social structure and following leaders to roosts.
They often choose the same digs night after night, year after year. So, once a murder moves in, it’s tough to run out.
Why they picked Sunnyside is unclear, but the city shouldn’t feel too special.
The February issue of “Crossing Paths,” a Fish and Wildlife newsletter about wildlife interaction in urban areas, describes a roost of about the same size along North Creek in King County, just east of the University of Washington Bothell campus.
The massive crow roost started shortly after a 1997 stream restoration project, once newly planted deciduous trees grew large enough to provide nightly shelter for crows that migrate more than 20 miles from their feeding areas.
The newsletter actually gives tips for how to attract crows, not that many people in Sunnyside would want to.
However, they may want to simply watch crows for a while, suggests Andy Stepniewski, president of the Yakima Audubon Society.
“Among the 10,000 or so species, crows are probably the most intelligent,” Stepniewski said.
Research has shown crows recognize human faces, use tools, and share complex information about food and threats at their night roosts. John Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, has become one of the world’s leading crow experts, partly because of his studies at the Bothell roost. He writes that crows in some experiments have learned to exchange items such as rocks or metal trinkets for food from humans and then adjust the quality and quantity of their gathering based on the quality and quantity of the reward.
“Crows and ravens pay attention to what they are given, adjust their work effort to match the payback, and get disgruntled when they see others getting something for nothing or something,” he wrote in the March 2013 issue of “Avian Einsteins,” his column about bird intelligence for Psychology Today.
As for those bird droppings, they pose no particular health hazard, said Gordon Kelly, environmental health director for the Yakima Health District, though he sympathizes with Sunnyside residents.
Bird droppings, like waste of all kinds actually, can carry bacteria, but the chances of it making somebody sick, even if tracked inside a home, are slim, he said. Crows do not carry specific diseases like, say, pigeons, he said.
But Kelly agrees it’s pretty gross. “I wouldn’t want it in my house.”