Community / News / February 4, 2010

Crows cover campus, Galesburg

They descend upon us nightly this time of year. Leafless trees swarm with warm bird bodies, shrill and visceral cries announcing dusk. Creepy? That’s crows.

Gathering together in large communal roosts at evening time, crows tend to seek the very highest places. Unfortunately for Knox students, some of the most elevated structures in Galesburg are located on or near college grounds.

Far less popular on campus than the weirdly docile squirrels, these roosts of crows are loud and messy. Their songs are more jarring than sweet, typically shrill “caaahs” in a minor key. Considered among the more intelligent birds, they have been known to also mimic sounds of other animals and have been observed using tools.

Still, no one likes bird poop, even from clever birds. The creatures’ very silhouettes against grey skies this time of year cut an ominous image. Galesburg crows have earned themselves a particularly bad rep due to recent outbreaks of bird flu. Most of the city considers crows a major problem.

According to Don Miles, Galesburg park superintendent, the crows “mostly hang out around Standish Park and downtown.”

Outside of the nesting season, the birds are loyal to their chosen hang out spots and stubbornly return year after year. Favored environments are small urban areas with light, heat, shelter from wind and a nearby water supply. Galesburg fits this description, but it’s still a mystery why the crows assemble in some places and not others.

Years ago, in an attempt to deter crows from congregating downtown, the city installed a device on the roof of St. Mary’s which blasts a recording of calls of great horned owls, the birds’ most feared predator, every 15 minutes. Apparently it worked for about a week.

On current measures, Miles said, “We’ve pressure-washed the sidewalks and are discussing other forms of prevention.”

Despite continued efforts, the skies are still blackened, streets still gooey and evening time announced with the grating chorus of crows. Nothing can move the crows.

Except one man once, but no one knows how he did it, and he has not since 2005. According to Gary Goddard, at that time City Manager of Galesburg, the City Manager of Bloomington, IL referred Jim Soules, otherwise known as “the crow whisperer,” to the City of Galesburg.

The then-83-year-old Soules had a reputation for successfully ridding many similarly plagued Midwestern regions including Bloomington, Joliet, Decatur and Springfield of their problems with starlings and crows in the past. The catch was he would not reveal how he did it.

Of his gig in Galesburg, Goddard said, “ His methods were very effective and the birds moved.” Just what his methods were, however, remain a mystery.

As part of his contract, Soules insisted that he perform his work, which was usually carried out in the darkest hours of the night, unobserved.

According to Goddard, “Mr. Soules’ methods are his secret and he indicated he would stop if anyone followed or attempted to follow him while he was doing whatever he did. He worked at odd hours and mostly late at night.”

Soules carried a black box with him when performing his duties, which he implied may or may not have been related to warding off crows. The birds did not actually leave Galesburg, but no longer lingered in the central business district and the park.

“We wanted them moved from the central business district and the park,” said Goddard. Whatever Soules did, the birds paid attention and “did not return for two to three years.”

This year, there is no news of the crow whisperer returning, and the crow problem is as bad or worse than ever. Perhaps Galesburg could embrace this. The town of Fargo, ND, has turned its crow crisis into cause for a Winter Crow Festival.

Galesburg too could celebrate its crows. Some people on campus even like the company of the crows; it adds a certain ambiance.

Sophomore Julia Ohman said, “We feel like Knox College could turn into an Alfred Hitchcock movie at anytime and this excites us immensely. It’s very Poe-esque.”

Fellow student Jesse Sindler said, “They seem like happy animals.”

Genevieve Crow

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