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Biologist Stalks Wary Prey With Cannons, Net : Bird Lady of the Basin

March 20, 1987|LYNN O'SHAUGHNESSY | Times Staff Writer

Carolee Caffrey, a biology student at UCLA, has not forgotten the response she got from city officials when she asked permission to study crows on the Balboa Golf Course for her doctoral dissertation.

"They said, 'kill as many as you want,' " she recalled. "Everyone here views them as nasty pests that have nothing to offer."

The birds, whose pesky habits inspired farmers to invent the "scarecrow," may not have many fans. But Caffrey, 30, is fascinated by the gregarious black birds, as documented by her car's license plate: CROWBIZ.

The city's Parks and Recreation Department let her turn the golf course in the Sepulveda Basin into a research laboratory two years ago. Biologists say her research at the Encino golf course since then represents a rarity in the field of ornithology.

Few scientists have ever studied crows. The reason is not apathy but the birds' uncanny ability to outsmart people who want to capture and tag them.

But Caffrey, using trapping methods that seem to be borrowed from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus, has had great success in capturing the birds. With the aid of a clown disguise, an Australian-style crow catcher and nets launched by cannons, she's been able to tag dozens of birds.

Then she studies their breeding habits.

What she is doing, said Thomas Howell, past president of the nation's largest ornithology association and a retired UCLA zoology professor, is "something that hasn't been accomplished before with crows in this country."

Howell and others believe Caffrey's crows are the only ones in the United States--and possibly the world--that are banded.

The research is tedious. Nearly every day, Caffrey drives her Toyota slowly around the golf course's utility road, stopping often to grab her binoculars and clipboard. She observes from her car because park workers fear she might get smacked by a golf ball.

Caffrey is able to stretch her legs when she scatters unshelled peanuts and hard-boiled eggs off the fairways as bait. Her car is filled with Bag o' Nuts peanuts, and she can cite the going price for her goodies at various grocery stores.

Caffrey spends up to 60 hours a week on the golf course watching about 100 crows in 30 "families." She's found that many of the birds she tagged have remained at the course as long as she has.

No end is in sight for the doctoral student from Venice. Caffrey figures she needs to spend two more years on the links to gather enough data to write a dissertation on crows' breeding methods.

After that, she expects to spend at least three more years on post-doctoral work while teaching part time at UCLA. Her husband is a free-lance director of television commercials.

Why bother with crows? Caffrey gives skeptics a stock reply.

"They are familiar to everyone, yet we know little about them," she said of the bird that can be found everywhere in the world except New Zealand, most Pacific islands, South America and the polar regions.

"The more we learn about their social system and behavior patterns, it gives a better understanding of the general evolutionary process," said Caffrey, who received a small grant from the Audubon Society.

The birds' intelligence and daytime habits also appeal to Caffrey. Previously, she studied lizards in South Carolina, altering her own sleeping habits to match the reptiles' nocturnal ways.

Trapping the birds has been Caffrey's biggest challenge, because the wary crows caught on to her intentions almost from the start.

When her car rolls onto the golf-course grounds, Caffrey said, the call goes out through the pines and eucalyptus trees: she' s back. She sometimes catches the birds off guard, but only for a day or so when she uses a different car.

Only the baby birds are easy targets. She hires a professional tree climber to take the infants from their nests and then replace them after being marked. With nylon pins, she attaches bright-colored paper swatches to their wings. She marks them with initials of her relatives and friends.

When she first began trapping the crows, she used a Australian bird trap that looks like a large cage with a ladder on top. There is no way out for birds that drop inside to eat hard-boiled eggs.

Caffrey used a different method this week, attaching a 60-foot-square net to three biology-department cannons. Early one morning, she and five friends set the net on the ground and placed several pounds of peanuts in two piles nearby. Golfers on the fifth and seventh holes were warned.

Hidden from view, the biologists waited until 20 birds flew in. With a hand signal from Caffrey, the cannons were fired by a jolt from a car battery hidden behind the golf-course snack bar. The net flew over the birds, catching eight of them.

The dress code for the operation is not in any birding books. Caffrey wore a blue wig and Groucho Marx disguise. She didn't want the crows to recognize her.

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