Crows use city as dumping grounds; century-old oak could be casualty

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Crows roost in the branches of an oak tree next to City Hall on Tuesday night.

The city is under siege and has been for several years.

American crows have selected several trees in the downtown area to use as their winter roosts. These communal nighttime retreats can involve several hundred birds.

The problem with those several hundred birds is their droppings, which create a sticky, smelly mess on nearly every sidewalk, pavement space and parked car throughout the downtown.

Health emergency

Now, city officials say the droppings are more than a nuisance. It’s a public health emergency, said Joseph Gerardi, city codes administrator.

Pedestrians can carry avian feces into residences and businesses and may be a hazard if slipped on, he said.

Dried bird feces can contain a fungus known as histoplasma. If it is disturbed and inhaled, the fungus can result in a medical condition called histoplasmosis, which can be debilitating and last several months, according to the Penn State Extension and Gerardi.

The fecal bombardment beneath a 100-year-old pin oak tree near the front side of City Hall is particularly disturbing to Gerardi, who said he fears a lawsuit or someone developing an illness from the excrement.

He believes the best solution is to remove the roost site.

“The tree is coming down next week,” Gerardi said.

On Wednesday, city firefighters used a blaring siren at about 7 p.m. to frighten off the birds. It was an effort to save the tree from removal.

An onlooker said the birds did not fly away, only cawed and twittered.

Trees that size usually cost $1,000 or more to remove. Mayor Gabriel J. Campana said the city will use city Streets and Parks personnel to reduce the cost.

City officials have indicated a desire to place a portion of the felled tree in a “nature play” area at Brandon Park.

‘Doesn’t solve the problem’

But, the city administration’s decision to have the tree removed is a solution limited in scope, according City Councilwoman Liz Miele and others.

“I’d hate to lose that beautiful tree … and it doesn’t solve the problem,” Miele said

Eliminating that tree will resolve one issue, she said, but “It’s pretty much a given that the crows will just relocate somewhere else very nearby in downtown where they’ll be even more of a nuisance to Williamsport property owners.”

“All you are doing is moving the problem,” agreed Councilwoman Bonnie Katz, chairwoman of council’s public works committee. “Do you want to move the problem in an area in neighborhoods?”

Other trees near the Hepburn Plaza also are used by the crows as roosting sites. Gerardi inspected those trees last week but said the droppings do not yet pose a health hazard.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Katz, who lives near the UPMC Susquehanna campus and noticed how the hospital system several years ago used firecrackers to shoo birds from its parking lots.

One Halloween night, she watched the crows fly in a circle across a full moon. It was a beautiful, eerie sight, Katz said.

Pro-tree views

The councilwomen would rather see a long-term strategy put into place.

“This is a problem that we need to approach holistically, to resolve not just the City Hall issue but the issue for all of our downtown businesses and taxpayers — a kind of a side benefit, if you will,” Miele said. “It would be better if the city could relocate the roost outside of the city … then, we’d be able to limit our activity to keeping an eye on where the crows settle in October, not trying to scare them out of town all season.”

Miele said she also sees environmental purposes for keeping the tree.

“The tree (which produces acorns) is useful as a food source in our already scanty downtown ecosystem, which must support peregrine falcons and their prey, among others,” she said. “Crows roost only from October-February, so, tree or no tree, we’ll be rid of the problem shortly,” Miele said.

She believes Williamsport should consider related environmental issues.

“The city needs to lead the way on tree planting and maintenance as part of our increasing stormwater obligations — and removing the tree will create an additional stormwater load just when requirements are ramping up for us to reduce it,” Miele said.

Alternatives to the chain saw

Gerardi’s concern about lawsuits is legitimate, according to an expert on crows.

“Falls and slipping on the feces is most concerning,” said Dr. Kevin McGowan, an ornithologist with Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a division separate from the university in New York.

Crow feces can carry salmonella, the spread of which is preventable by proper hand washing.

However, he said, a single day in a day care center will spread more disease than any of the crow roosts in any state.

McGowan said the city has its work cut out. Relocating roosting crows is doable but requires manpower, proactive steps and technology — such as a pinlight laser, foggers, repeated firing of a gun with blanks and noises, he said.

Pyrotechnics may be used, such as starter pistols loaded with blanks, and shell crackers, a type of souped-up bottle rocket that can be lobbed as a firecracker into the middle of the roosting birds to frighten and harass them, McGowen said. Another tool is a powerful green laser pointed at the roost, creating a flash and motion that tends to scare the crows, he said.

Oddly, the crows, a considerably social species, aren’t frightened by repeated mechanical noises, such as the box on the tree trunk outside City Hall that simulates the screech of injured birds, nor are they bothered by the sight of the great-horned owl statue affixed to City Hall and facing the tree.

“Their ‘boogie-man’ is the living great horned owl,” McGowan said.

Crows congregate in towns and cities because they seek the warmth and light. Often, crows roost near hospitals, prisons, shopping centers and car dealerships.

In this instance, the flocks’ proximity to the movie theater gives them easy access to discarded popcorn.

“Sometimes, it is best to leave birds where they are because it takes a lot of work to make the crows move and, if they are merely a nuisance, leave it at that,” he said.