Editor’s note: This story was first published Feb. 3, 2014
When an Animals in Distress volunteer found numerous dead crows in the Caldwell Wal-Mart plaza, she feared it was the work of gunslinging teenagers or perhaps business folks fed up with the birds' sidewalk-coating droppings.
The latter guess came close. Caldwell police officers, responding to complaints, occasionally go out to the edges of the Wal-Mart parking area with shotguns in the middle of the night to disrupt the birds' roosts in hopes of moving the crows out of town, Police Chief Chris Allgood said.
"We don't like doing it. It's a real nasty job, " Allgood said.
But it's called for under a nine-year-old city ordinance spawned by the city's magnetic appeal to the big black birds.
"For whatever reason, 10 or 12 years ago the crows decided they wanted to hang out for the winter in Caldwell, " said Charlie Justus, Nampa-based regional conservation officer for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The city's allure for crows is mysterious and distinctive, apparently not shared by other communities in the area, he said.
Hundreds of crows roost in the trees lining the edges of the Wal-Mart parking area. In the daytime, most are out elsewhere, feeding, Justus said. At night, they return to the shopping center near Caldwell's eastern edge and deposit the results of their day's foraging on the sidewalk, pavement and trees.
On Tuesday, the animal welfare volunteer took four crows - one still alive but with both legs broken- from the parking area to Fish and Game veterinarian Mark Drew in Caldwell, who determined all four had been shot. He forwarded the case to Justus for investigation, and Justus found out the crow carnage was part of a police action - thus, Justus said, not something Fish and Game needs to take action on.
The volunteer also called police Tuesday and was told they'd look into it, she said.
The Caldwell volunteer asked not to be identified. But Animals in Distress board member Toni Hicks went on the record with her concern about the crow shootings - and later, when the source of those shootings was revealed, her anger.
"I can't believe the police are doing this, " Hicks said Friday. "It's not acceptable. Idaho has a bad enough reputation for everything we do to animals."
Not normal police work
Although not much publicized, Caldwell's wintertime contract on crows is longstanding, Allgood said.
The convocation of crows started out downtown, causing concern among merchants and city leaders. The crows' habit of "whitewashing everything" was the biggest source of complaints - and still is, the police chief said.
He said the city consulted Fish and Game and other agencies to try to find a solution before, finally, in 2005, the City Council authorized police to take lethal action against the crows when they create a major nuisance.
"We have tried so many different things, " Allgood said. "Firecrackers and bottle rockets. Lights. We considered talking to the fire department about using water cannons, but we decided against it because in this cold weather we could end up with big patches of ice (on sidewalks and parking areas).
"We've gotten calls from a number of businesses out there asking us to do something. It's not really a police function."
He said officers on crow duty "prefer to shoot up in the air and scare them ... because if they kill them they have to pick them up."
Told that the Animals in Distress volunteer reported seeing at least a dozen dead crows in that shopping area in the past two weeks, Allgood said police policy is to remove the carcasses.
But perhaps the officers didn't see some of those black birds on the dark ground, or the birds died in the trees and later dropped to the ground.
A Statesman reporter who went to the Wal-Mart parking area Thursday found ample excrement but no carcasses beneath the trees. One dead crow dangled upside-down from a tree behind a gas station, kitty corner to the KFC.
By Friday at noon, that crow had fallen to the ground, spattered by crow droppings.
Allgood said the city's aim is to convince the crows Caldwell is no longer a comfort zone. It has kind of worked, but too gradually for anyone's liking.
"We scared them out of downtown, then for the longest time they were in the area of Rite Aid and Taco Bell (along Cleveland Boulevard about a mile and a half west of the downtown crows' gathering spot), " Allgood said. "Now they're at Wal-Mart."
That's nearly two miles farther from the city's core, he said, so the hope is the crows' next wintering spot will be beyond the city limits.
"Maybe they need to take the trees out, " Hicks said. "They're not going to kill all the crows."