Clusters of crows were strewn throughout the treetops surrounding South Street and Alumni Hall as Professor Nancy Eberhardt exited her faculty meeting at 6 p.m. one winter evening. She stopped in confusion upon hearing a sudden “plop, plop, plop” in the distance.
Although she immediately knew the source of the strange noise, she was taken aback. ‘That can’t be what I think it is,’ she thought as she hastily began the journey to her car. She did not make it in time.
She said that ‘oh no, I’ve just been shat upon,’ was the only thing that could possibly go through her mind. Luckily, with her car not too far in the distance, she made it home and washed ofutthe crow feces stuck in her hair.
“Since then, when I’ve been going out, when I think there’s a lot of activity in the skies, I just open my umbrella,” she said.
Crows are highly intelligent creatures even though some people might see them as a nuisance. In the birds’ defense, a select few have grown quite fond of their presence. Professor Jim Mountjoy sat at his overcrowded desk in his tiny office and excitedly demonstrated his vast knowledge of the jet-black bird.
“Crows have been a feature of Galesburg for as long I’ve been here and I presume for many decades before that. The thing about crows is they’re omnivores like us. They eat a variety of things, but they like a lot of the same things that we like. And one of the things they certainly like is corn … and we have a lot of that lying around.”
With their love of the Illinois plains steadily increasing, they feed and fly into the city trees at late hours and roost. Mountjoy explained that “roosting” is sleeping or being perched. It is a safe space from troublesome predators such as raccoons and owls.
“We sort of think of crows as being the equivalent of primates, in terms of their intelligence and sociality,” he said.
Crows stay with their parents for a year or two to help raise siblings after hatching. As a family, they defend their breeding territory. Winter comes and they begin to roost; trouble ensues, for when you have a large number of animals in any area, there is potential for disagreement. But the crows do not pose a threat to humans.
“It’s probably less of an issue than people think in terms of health and such. Because birds have rather different physiology and body temperatures, there’s less risk of pathogens than from mammalian feces. I worry much more about people who don’t pick up after their dogs than the crows as a health issue,” said Mountjoy.
For centuries, humans used bird droppings as fertilizer. In high concentrations, the droppings can cause fungi to grow in the soil. It occurs naturally, by providing nitrogen to grow and fungal spores to produce. It has the potential to cause some problems for those with weakened immune systems, but Mountjoy has no arguable evidence that a problem such as that has ever happened.
A crow effigy hung on a pole on campus, sometimes upright as if perched or upside down, hanging, as if it were dead. Crows reacted strongly, sometimes so disturbed they gathered around similar to a funeral. During her study, Knox senior Elena Prado-Ragan found the effigy generally did not matter.
“The thing is, there’s incentive for the crows to come back. You can scare them; they are kind of skittish. If you walk out of a building underneath the roosting trees, you can hear them all fly up. But, they learn and one of the basic ways of learning is what we call habituation, which is becoming used to a repeated stimulus.”
Make noise. Clap, scream, or even fire off a gun. The crows come back, less frightened than before. The so-called danger is no longer dangerous. The Knox County Courthouse fires off alarms and bird calls; a starling cry is heard. The crows are still there.
Mountjoy said they play it at the same time every night, in the same location, but it does not work. Alarms scare off starlings, and the starling call does not mean danger. It plays and the crows fly into the trees surrounding the courthouse parking lot; they hear food.
“They’re just annoying sounds. You can use laser lights, you could use loud noise and such. Police in Galesburg have been known to fire shots at them … If it’s not something that really has much of a threat to them, they will move back,” he said.
Professors Sue Hulett and Amy Roth emailed each other back and forth on how to deter the crows. Roth did a Google search: “How to get rid of crows,” and sent the results to Huelett. Pages such as “Best Ways to Get Rid of Crows” or “Crow Control” entail how best to deter the bird by harassment.
“I am just a person who prefers sidewalks without bird poop for 3 months every year,” said Hulett.
The crows, though ominous and loud, have not scared everyone. Professor Sherwood Kiraly looked up into the sky in amazement as he walked to his car after a long day of work.
“I was hearing this sound, I didn’t even know what it was. It sounded like static or something. I didn’t get it, I thought there was something wrong with the car and I looked up and there they all are in these two trees,” he said.
When Kiraly was a Knox student, he never remembered the birds being so prolific. Over the years, the crows stopped migrating south. Rather, they roost in the trees knowing food will always be near. “I look up and I go wow. I’ve never seen anything like that outside of a Hitchcock movie,” he said.
Professor Liz Metz has vivid memories of the crows. Her husband and another Knox professor, Robin Metz, and his mother lived in an apartment at The Kensington. The apartment, with its west-facing windows, offered a wondrous sight.
“Watching the sunset and thousands of crows fly in against the flaming colors of a winter sunset with the various steeples and towers in the vista was actually beautiful – in an eerie kind of John Carpenter way…” Liz Metz said.