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Essay / Robert A. Jones

Winged Swamp Things : HEARTS OF THE CITY / Where dilemmas are aired and unsung heros and resiliency are celebrated.

November 01, 1995|Robert A. Jones

Time was, the crow bothered no one. It dwelled in sweet harmony with other creatures of L.A.'s suburban forests. Oh, a family of crows might invade your back yard for a week, taunting the cats, strutting their stuff on the telephone wires, but then they took off. The crow seemed to know its place, and stayed in it.

No more. Biologically speaking, something has gotten twisted in our urban woodlands and the crow has grown into the city's monster bird. Like a Swamp Thing, except with wings. The crow has now invaded nearly every neighborhood that has trees, driving out other birds, growing more brazen and rude each year. Its numbers have exploded. When the crow arrives in your back yard these days, it comes to stay.

In truth, no one knows exactly what ecological breakdown has produced this sordid development. It may have something to do with more trash being strewn around the streets and parks because, of course, crows love trash. Or maybe the crows, being smart, have learned to poach off suburban man in ways that have eluded other birds. Whatever the reason, the evidence for the gruesome rise of the crow can be seen everywhere.

Take Pasadena, where the crows have carried out one of their most thorough campaigns of avian cleansing and now sweep through the sycamores in huge numbers. One lady who feeds her pooch each afternoon in the back yard says she never turns her back on the crows until Rover actually starts to scarf down his Science Diet. Otherwise, she says, the crows will settle over the bowl themselves and gobble it up. A couple of times, she relates, they have even lifted the bowl out of its holder and tried to carry it off.

The crows intimidate her, she says. At one time they would fly from the yard if she walked out the door and waved her hands. Now, they just take one step backward and wait. They look her in the eye, as if announcing they no longer recognize her ownership of the property. She feels watched, scrutinized, as if they're sizing up her possible weaknesses.

Michael Long, the director of the Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Pasadena, says for years he refused to believe that the crows were increasing their numbers as dramatically as some of his friends claimed. After all, he says, how could you explain it? Nothing much seems to have changed in the avian world that would give the crow a big advantage. But now he does believe, explanation or no.

"Somehow, they're getting more food," he says. "We just don't know precisely how."

Long was convinced by the Audubon Society's Christmas bird count where volunteers tally bird sightings in a designated area on Christmas Day. The records of the San Gabriel Valley chapter show that the average number of crows has almost tripled over the past 15 years.

As the crow population has risen, the songbirds of L.A. have slipped into sad decline. Lloyd Kiff, former curator of ornithology at the Museum of Natural History, says L.A. once had one of the most diverse populations of songbirds in the nation. Now, he says, the city is down to mockingbirds and house finches.

"Sure, we've lost some habitat, but you can't explain the dramatic decline by habitat loss alone," Kiff says. "A major factor is predation by the crows. And squirrels. They're murder on the songbirds."

One man in Encino, who asked not to be named for reasons that will be obvious, found himself driven to near madness by the crows. A family of them settled into the trees of his back yard, building a large nest. All day long, the caw-caw-cawing went on. Meanwhile, he noticed that other birds began to disappear. The crows were turning his neighborhood into a biological desert.

So one Sunday he walked into his back yard and aimed a shotgun at the nest. He figured he was safe from the cops who, in modern L.A., would never roll a squad car on the report of one round fired. So he let fly with a barrel of birdshot. The nest exploded in a puff of twigs and the crows, non-resident at the time, nevertheless got the message. They exited the neighborhood.

Kiff, in fact, has his own theory about the rise of crows that relates to this incident. Homeowners in L.A. once shot crows all the time, he says, and kept the population in check. Now they don't dare, having been spooked by guns. And the crow has grown into a feathery Frankenstein.

Of course, that's only one theory among many. No one really knows why the crow managed to get a chokehold on the city. And most everyone despairs of doing anything about it. In the natural world, only the great horned owl and a couple of local hawks have the wherewithal to pick off crows. As for modern man, shooting is illegal and traps controversial. We simply don't have the will.

So it's likely the crow will win. And buried in that victory somewhere, there must be a message. But what message? That we are spawning monsters out of our rotting trash? That we've turned into wusses, no longer able to protect ourselves against a smart, fast, feathered competitor? That we are, somehow, slipping?

Or all of the above? As with so much else, we don't know. But the next time you see a big flock of them gathering in the eucalyptus, ask the crows. They just might have the answers.

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