Every day at dusk, a murder of mad crows falls over the center of Sunnyvale, enveloping the sky over the main stripe in darkness like a black cloud.
With astute precision, they swarm from tree to tree and whiz down over the heads of startled diners at Murphy Avenue’s outdoor tables.
Like many Bay Area communities, the city has a growing crow population. But in Sunnyvale, they have become such a nuisance that crows are now the second most common complaint Deputy Mayor Alysa Cisners hears from residents, right behind motorists driving too fast.
She and the city have finally had enough of the birds.
So later this month, the city is rolling out a pilot program for crow fighting. Which means a worker is pointing a $ 20 handheld laser at the crows in hopes of scaring them away.
“I live in the center and my complex is adjacent to the Caltrain tracks, so it’s a noise problem, but often the crows that are immediately outside the apartment are a major noise nuisance,” Cisneros said.
And it’s not just the crow cows that have some people in the lead. The birds have set the residents’ lawns all over the city, resting in trees overnight, leaving benches and sidewalks covered with feathers and bird droppings.
Sunnyvale resident Ken Ibbs has seen the city’s crow problem explode in the last decade – especially downtown, where birds often pull garbage out of trash cans. Despite previous work as a laser researcher, Ibbs only recently discovered that he could use his craft tools to disperse the crows from the trees in his backyard.
“The reason it scares them away is the same reasons it’s useful for holding seminars,” Ibbs said. “It looks very bright. Green is especially light for things like crows. They have much more visual acuity.”
Sunnyvale is not the only city dealing with black crow clouds. Collar complaints occur everywhere in the Bay Area, and it’s not just people’s imagination. The crow population also happens to be increasing, according to Matthew Dodder, CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society.
“Where there are people, there tends to be crows,” Dodder said. “The population has grown as the human population has grown.”
In Oakland, Golden Gate Audubon Society counted 2,543 crows during the last annual Christmas bird count in 2019 – a record-breaking record for the species that topped the previous year’s record. Before 2001, more than 150 crows had only been counted once.
Dodder said audubon communities tend to get more calls about crows in the winter because that’s when their flocks are largest.
“In the winter and in the fall, when their nesting tasks are done, they really rely on the safety of the group,” he said. “They keep an eye on danger, they keep an eye on uninvited guests, they look for hawks, so they take advantage of that group dynamic.”
The crows have caused enough grief that some residents of the Bay Area have resorted to taking action on their own. San Jose resident Alex Sorci said his condominium complex in the Willow Glen neighborhood saw so many crows and pigeons in the past year that the homeowners’ association formed a “bird sanitation committee.”
The association hired a falconer to lay out bird traps and install spikes and nets on 12-15 condominiums, a repair effort that came with a $ 50,000 price tag.
Sorci said his biggest complaint about the crows is the noise they make, more than their jarring ways.
“Fortunately, our trash can is pretty safe, so we do not have that problem, but they can get in the trash from the Supermarket and the mall next to us,” he said.
In Sunnyvale, Mayor Larry Klein said he has also seen the problem gradually get worse in recent years.
“I think the biggest thing is that if you can disperse them, it’s not that bad, but we’ve had to spray wash our Plaza del Sol park primarily because of the smell,” he said. “The remains from their rest area have just been pretty unmanageable and a health risk at some point.”
The city has already tried to disperse the crows by using reflectors, but it only worked during the day with the sun up. City spokeswoman Jennifer Garnett said RiverRock, the company that manages the buildings next to the Plaza del Sol, was trying to use a falcon to scare the crows.
“However, the crows are very smart and come back when the deterrence disappears,” she said.
But lasers have been successful in crow-fighting, according to the Humane Society, and Klein said some residents are already using them to keep crows away from their lawns.
It is a tactic that the nonprofit organization for animal rights describes as “human harassment,” and cities like Rochester and Trenton in New York have used it. Other things possible solutions the group suggests using are crow-emergency calls, pyrotechnics and hanging pictures of dead crows.
If the laser approach does not work, the city can explore other options. But Cisneros is in doubt about Humane Society’s alternative proposal.
“I can not imagine our staff at Sunnyvale coming back with a proposal for pyrotechnics,” she said. “It’s a surprisingly complicated problem and something, there are a lot of requests that we have to address.”