It's an eerie sight – every winter, around dusk each night, a flock of between 20,000 and 30,000 crows gathers in the trees around the Black River in Watertown. They can be a neat sight against the white winter landscape, but the city wants them gone. That's because they squawk and poop and generally annoy a lot of city residents. The city has hired a wildlife management company to disperse the birds.
As I get out of the car in the industrial park near Watertown's Public Safety Building, the sound is overwhelming, and a rank odor curls around my nostrils.
I've always sort of liked the crows that come into the city to roost at night each winter, but this is my first time seeing – and smelling – them this close up.
"Thirty-thousand crows leave behind a lot of feces, and that can cause some health problems, and it's also just a terrible mess," says Elliott Nelson, assistant to the city manager.
"If your car's parked under a tree where there's a couple hundred crows, then you're going to be pretty unhappy when you go out to your car in the morning. So that's problem number one. Problem number two is they're extremely noisy."
Nelson says many residents complain that they're unable to sleep when the birds roost near their homes.
"It's more a quality of life issue than anything, but we really do want them out of the city," he says.
And that's why I'm on a deserted street at dusk in the industrial park, with Cody Baciuska, a wildlife biologist with Loomacres Wildlife Management. The city has hired his firm to send the crows packing.
Baciuska says many upstate cities have their own flocks of crows that fly in from the countryside to roost overnight. And he says there are several theories about why they do so.
"One is, it is usually a few degrees warmer in urban environments," he says. "The ambient light helps them see potential predators. And just, sometimes there's habitat, groups of trees that they like to congregate in."
Last week, Baciuska's harassment efforts moved the flock from the center of the city, along the Black River, to the edge of town, in this industrial park. Now, he's going to try to get them out of town entirely.
"We're primarily going to use pyrotechnics, which are kind of like fireworks, which have some light and they emit loud sounds, to scare the birds away," he explains. "We also have a high-powered laser, which isn't designed to hurt the birds, but they see the laser in the tree and they don't know what it is, so, when you don't know what something is, they fly away from it."
Baciuska pulls out what looks like a small BB gun. It's a pyrotechnic launcher. He loads it with blanks that will set off the fireworks, then the fireworks themselves.
"We've had quite a few crows move in, so I guess we're going to start our harassment effort," he says.
Baciuska points the launcher at the sky and pulls the trigger. First, there's a loud screaming sound, then the bang of an explosion.
The birds take off from the trees into the sky. And suddenly, it is quiet.
Baciuska says the key to keeping the birds away is persistence. He'll follow the birds for a couple of hours tonight, scaring them away from each new location until they've all fled the city.
And he'll continue his efforts throughout the winter.