The Mercury News
CROW CONUNDRUM: THE BIRDS ARE BACK
City cancels green laser strategy that was used last year to keep them away
It's crows 1, Sunnyvale 0, after the city axed its green laser pilot program last month after the murder of cawing crows that has plagued downtown residents in recent years caught on that the shiny, blinding light poses no real threat.
In January 2022, the city began sending a public works employee out to Plaza del Sol in downtown Sunnyvale with a $20 green laser pointer to aim at the crows, which at first sent them flocking from the trees.
After a month and a half, the city deemed it a success. The crows, however, had other plans, and in October, Sunnyvale had to bring the laser pointer back as the crows returned.
Then last month, the city gave up. “The lasers seem to be less effective than they were last year,” city spokesperson Jennifer Garnett told the Mercury News. “Crows are very intelligent, so they get used to deterrents or change locations to avoid them.”
Crows blanketing the sky in flocks picturesque of an Alfred Hitchcock movie have become a more common occurrence in some Bay Area cities as the corvid population has ticked upward.
In recent years, the Golden Gate Audubon Society has been counting more crows as part of its annual Christmas Bird Count. In 2021, the group of bird lovers tallied 2,429 crows in Oakland as part of the count — 55% more than the average number of crows counted in the past decade and 25 times the average counted in the past 25 years of the 20th century.
At a priority-setting session last month, which helps guide the city in what projects to undertake in the upcoming year, the Sunnyvale City Council ranked researching possible mitigation measures for both
“The lasers seem to be less effective than they were last year. Crows are very intelligent, so they get used to deterrents or change locations to avoid them.”
— Jennifer Garnett, Sunnyvale spokesperson
crows and geese as one of its top priorities. The geese, which are known to be aggressive birds, tend to congregate around the community center.
Councilmember Alysa Cisneros, who represents the downtown area, has continued to receive complaints from residents over the past year — and is the reason she believes the council ranked it as such a high priority for this year.
“It's a little bit fun because it's not politics and it's not super controversial, but it is a real issue that is affecting our downtown areas,” she said.
Those complaints range from the crows covering the sidewalks and benches with bird droppings — which the city has deemed a health hazard — to awakening residents in the morning with their loud caws.
Recently, Cisneros heard one complaint that the crows committed grand theft auto as about 20 birds gathered in a tree above a resident's truck, and for several days would attack anyone who tried to come near it.
The councilwoman joked they were not detained by the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety for their crow crimes.
Along with complaints from residents, Mayor Larry Klein — the self-proclaimed “mayor of crows” — has received emails from people all across the country looking to solve the city's crow conundrum.
“I've seen mechanical birds that are like falcons that flap their wings to scare the crows away, and I've heard from a crow whisperer that was interested in communicating with the crows to move them to a new location,” he said. “I've heard all types of solutions, and I'll leave it with staff to figure it out.”
Along with green lasers, the Humane Society recommends playing crow distress calls, pyrotechnics and hanging effigies of dead crows as forms of “humane harassment” to move the corvids along to another location.
But until Sunnyvale figures out how to ward off the crows, the pair will have to learn how to live together.
“The wildlife urban interface is a huge issue for fires and crows,” Cisneros said. “It's a whole area of policy figuring out how to negotiate that, and we can't tear down Sunnyvale and give it to the crows, but we can learn how to work together with the natural environment and the built environment.”