AMSTERDAM -- Listening to the mobs of scolding crows, each blacker than the night sky, thousands roosting in the trees around city hall, can be an eerie and almost cinematic experience.
Having to park your vehicle under them, however, leads to more practical problems.
"Honestly, I can't describe the disruption in polite terms," City Engineer Mike Clark said. "In very specific terms, they poop all over the place."
The land and the trees around Amsterdam's city hall have long had a problem with roosting crows. At least 18,000, possibly more, of the migratory birds are believed to be currently living on the property. Clark said he thinks there could be as many as tens of thousands of the crows living around the home of the city's government between the months of November and April.
"I've had people tell me their grandfathers called this area 'Crows Hill,' so it's been going on for a long time, I guess," he said. "There have been complaints from citizens doing business at city hall and employees for many years. It just so happens that the number of crows roosting here has really peaked in recent years, and certainly this year."
City officials said the sheer volume and frequency of the birds' fecal droppings prompted them to seek assistance from the federal government to remove them.
"It's on cars, and if you arrive or leave at the wrong time, it's also on people," Clark said. "That's an unfortunate and disturbing event for employees and for some members of the public that are coming here earlier in the morning or in the evening."
Starting on Tuesday, at approximately 4:30 p.m. and continuing until 8 p.m., a team of four U.S. Dept. of Agriculture wildlife biologists wearing yellow vests marked "USDA Wildlife Services" will be using two vehicles to deploy a barrage of non-lethal harassment methods to encourage the birds to move, including: laser beams, loud pyrotechnics, spotlights and amplified crow distress calls.
Deputy Mayor James Martuscello, who serves as 5th Ward alderman and the city's budget director, said the city decided to invest approximately $8,000 in an intermunicipal agreement with the USDA for the federal agency to provide the crow disbursement service. He said he believes it will be worth the money.
"I've experienced it first hand, I mean when people told me about it, and it's really a disgusting health issue. It really is," he said.
Martuscello said Amsterdam has tried other methods of dispersing the crows in the past, including during Mayor Ann Thane's administration when the city placed machines on the roofs of its buildings that make crow distress call sounds, which are still being used. He said the distress call machines by themselves don't work.
"[The crows] answer the calls, then they move, but not even a hundred yards away," he said.
Fourth Ward Alderman Stephen Gomula said the crows don't discriminate between city officials and their loved ones.
"On the day I was sworn into office, my fiancee was [expletive] on on her way in from the parking lot," he said.
Martuscello said some city employees have taken to wearing boots on their way in and out of city hall, and then changing into work shoes, so they can wash the bird feces off them.
"That's how bad it is," he said.
Mayor Michael Cinquanti said he's hopeful the USDA service will prove effective and worth the cost to taxpayers.
"I believe the cost to get rid of the crows was just over $7,000, very expensive, but also very necessary, because their excrement [is] causing havoc!" he wrote in a text message statement.
Dispersing the roost
Ken Preusser, a USDA supervising biologist, will lead the effort to disperse the crows. He said while crows are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, non-lethal means are acceptable for getting them to move, and he's used these same methods to disperse crows in other upstate New York municipalities, starting in the city of Troy in 1999 and then in other cities, including Albany, Utica and Auburn.
"There are no permits required to harass migratory birds as long as they are causing damage, which could be from droppings on cars, sidewalks or from odor," he said. "The idea is to use these variety of techniques early in the evening, in the first few hours of darkness where we use pyrotechnics that sound similar to bottle rockets, crow distress calls, which are commercially available, and we play through the audio systems on our trucks, and non-harmful, handheld lasers we use to disperse birds in trees in dark areas, and we use spotlights."
Preusser said crows migrate in patterns, nesting farther upstate in April to raise their young over the summer and then return to the same place for their winter roost in mid-November. He said they like cities because they are "heat islands" that are a little warmer than forests; cities usually don’t have many horned owls, which are natural predators for crows; and because cities have lights that make it easier to navigate at night. He said the birds tend to forage for food up to 30 miles from wherever they are roosting.
The city issued a warning to residents Wednesday to be prepared for the sights and sounds of the crow harassment techniques and to be aware the birds will be dispersed, possibly into other neighborhoods.
"To reduce the possibility of crow damage, residents are strongly encouraged to place household trash in containers with lids to discourage crows from feeding," reads the news release from the city. "Residents may also use bright flashlights to disperse crows roosting in trees."
Preusser said the goal of dispersing the crows is to scare the birds away from their roosting area and remind them that it's too dangerous to be there, in this case, getting the birds to, hopefully, leave the city once and for all.
"We can't control where the birds go. There's a lot of crow habitats up and down the Mohawk, several islands on the Mohawk River, multiple areas adjacent to Amsterdam where there aren't thousands of people," he said. "We can't really control where they go, but we can control where they don't go."
But will it work?
Part of the idea behind dispersing crows is that the birds can essentially be trained to remember not to come back to a specific area. Scientific studies have shown crows have powerful memories, particularly concerning human beings who have threatened them.
John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington, wrote about a study he performed on crows in Seattle using graduate students wearing Halloween masks in the 2005 book "In the Company of Crows and Ravens." In his study, he observed that crows would remember the masks worn by students who harassed them, and that the birds would react in a hostile manner to the mask, even if it was put on a different student, even years after the initial harassment. Conversely, he observed crows were attracted to the masks worn by students who had fed them.
Marzluff deduced crows have the ability to distinguish between human facial characteristics, and to remember those faces for at least five years, possibly longer. He also observed that facial information was somehow passed between the birds within their flocks, which are sometimes called “mobs.”
Marzluff's study also showed that crows can live for 15 to 40 years.
Preusser said that while he's hoping this dispersal will teach the crows not to roost around city hall, he thinks it may take a few lessons to get the point across.
"Crows are a very intelligent bird, and they also learn from traumatic experiences, and they're a very long-lived bird, so you have to be persistent in your techniques, so I suspect the birds will return next fall and this will have to be done again," he said. "We liken it to plowing snow. We know it's going to snow — we don't know how much or when. We know the birds will return, but don't know how many or when."
Preusser said he's had discussions with city officials about the possibility of training city personnel to conduct the same crow dispersal techniques next year, and for as many years thereafter as necessary to put an end to the crows' annual migration to the trees around city hall.
At least two city residents said they are in favor of Tuesday's relocation efforts, given that they will not physically harm the birds.
"I'm at city hall often, and in a short amount of time, your car can become painted in excrement," said Christopher Carpenter. "They have a plan and I think it's a good one. The city engineer's office believes it will work and I support their efforts. If it was going to harm the birds in any way, I'd have a different opinion."
Carpenter said he's heard criticism from some that don't favor the dispersal strategy for the birds, but he said people should consider the number of diseases, parasites and fungi that have been found to exist in bird feces.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that large amounts of bird feces can result in diseases getting into the soil like histoplasmosis, a fungal infection that can affect anyone. Other diseases found in bird droppings include
"It seems like people are not aware of the facts surrounding the dangers that tens of thousands of crows concentrated in one location can bring, and just want a reason to complain without visiting city hall themselves, which I encourage everyone to do," Carpenter stated in a social media post. "I also suggest bringing an umbrella rain or shine because you will get popped on and crows [possibly] bring diseases like the West Nile virus and Lyme Disease."
Heather Lopez also approves of the nonlethal dispersal effort, given that the birds' droppings can cause serious damage to vehicles.
"Being someone who works in a building that is affected by this, I support it as long as it will not hurt them," she explained. "The reasoning is because the pH [balance of bird droppings is] between 3 and 5 and high in uric acid. The fecal matter ruins our car paint!"