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Here's Something to Crow About : 'Jeopardy' Contestants of the Bird World

December 17, 1989|EDMUND NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They're loud, they keep odd hours, they have kleptomaniac tendencies, and they've been known to vandalize other people's property. Who needs neighbors like these?

The worst part, says Ralph Berry, a retired auto worker from South El Monte, is their raucous disdain for people.

"Sometimes when I'm out on the patio, they'll sit on the wires up there, calling to each other, as if to say, 'Look at this stupid guy here,' " says Berry, whose house is on Farndon Street, a shady byway lined with 50-foot-tall sycamore trees.

He's talking about crows, of course.

They've been nesting in the sycamores, roosting on the telephone wires, holding riotous early-morning parties in back yards and--as in communities all around the San Gabriel Valley--generally getting on people's nerves.

"I've often remarked, 'I wish I had a BB gun,' " says Berry's wife, Lillian, shaking her head hopelessly.

Like them or not, crows are probably one of the San Gabriel Valley's fastest growing bird populations, say local bird watchers and ornithologists. In an annual bird count sponsored by the National Audubon Society, the average crow tally for the region in the past six years has been double that of an equivalent period in the late 1970s and significantly higher than the state average of an annual 4% increase.

For some, just the familiar appearance of the inky-black birds--with a hint of green or violet in their glossy feathers and their dark, impertinent eyes, which don't waver at the sight of human beings--is unnerving.

"It's frightening sometimes," says Juanita Ruiz, another Farndon Street resident. "You see so many of them, you think maybe they might hurt a child. If there's a big pack of them, it reminds me of that movie (Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds")."

The crows have their passionate defenders. There's something appealingly human about a crow, proponents say. Crows mate for life, they probably converse with each other, they use "tools" (hard surfaces to crack nuts), and they cooperate for mutual protection, calling out warnings and mobbing attackers.

Sure, they carry away shiny objects, like golf balls or costume jewelry, but they're hard to match for pure intelligence. Call them the "Jeopardy" contestants of the bird world.

"Maybe some people don't like them because they so readily outsmart us," says Kimball Garrett, ornithologist for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Those who conduct the bird census every December warn against drawing a lot of hard conclusions from the census, which is used to define long-term trends. It's a one-day endeavor, with results tied to the vagaries of winds and the whims of birds, says biologist Michael Long, director of the Eaton Canyon Nature Center, who heads the annual survey in the San Gabriel Valley.

And it's focused on a 200-square-mile circle near the center of the San Gabriel Valley. "The circle is somewhat arbitrary," Long says.

But many residents of cities along the Pomona and San Bernardino freeways say, yes, indeed, they've noticed an increase in their corvine neighbors.

"Over on Central Avenue, they have them by the hundreds," says Juanita Ruiz. "You can watch them pick up walnuts, fly real high and drop the nuts on the pavement. Then they'll zoom down to pick up the meat. It's like entertainment for the kids."

Bird watchers say it's a combination of the birds' opportunism and suburban man's predilection for shade trees and fruit trees, which brings the crows in large numbers to areas such as the San Gabriel Valley.

"Crows are woodland birds," says Kimball. "It doesn't matter if the woodland is a native oak savanna, a riparian woodland (along streams) or a more artificial woodland, with trees that people have planted, providing fruits and nuts."

The San Gabriel Valley not only provides nesting and roosting places, but it also offers grassy areas where the birds can find worms and enough scraps of human food to feed a nation of crows.

Actually, crows have been hanging around towns and villages for generations, says Daniel Guthrie, a Claremont biologist and chairman of the local branch of the Audubon Society. "It probably goes back to Indian times, with crows hanging around villages, eating scraps of food," he says.

Although longstanding, the relationship can be an uneasy one. In recent years, crows have pecked holes in the turf on the Azusa Green Country Club golf course, rifled through whole shelves full of plants at a Rosemead commercial nursery, dug up freshly planted grass seed at South El Monte City Hall and created a sometimes unpeaceful setting for those resting in peace at the Pomona Cemetery, where a big, garrulous flock of crows descends daily on a row of sycamores.

Down at the Whittier Narrows Nature Center, where dozens of crows roost in the surrounding eucalyptus trees, the attitude is one of grudging admiration.

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