“Do you see them?”
It is 5:30 p.m. on a clear January night. Bobby Sanchez is pointing to a tree near the parking lot of Nampa’s Fred Meyer store. It is a tree with a thick trunk and sprawling branches covered in what appear to be dark leaves.
Sanchez points a neon green laser at the tree. The leaves start to flutter. They lift off the branches all at once and fly away by the hundreds. Because they are not leaves at all. They are crows — big, dark crows with wings compressing the cold January air with a sound like stacks of papers let loose in the wind.
For the last two years, the crows have made Nampa their roosting spot. Surrounded by farmland, Nampa makes a perfect home base. After spending their days munching on seeds in the surrounding fields, the birds fly into town at night to seek shelter. They huddle in large groups, called murders, usually near the Fred Meyer at Caldwell and Northside boulevards.
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“Crows are one of those species that actually do better around humans,” said Greg Kaltenecker, executive director of Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory. During food-scarce winter months, the birds become more social, traveling in even bigger groups, as they communicate with each other about where to find food. Birds also seek out cities in winter because they’re often a few degrees warmer than the surrounding fields.
The crows like Nampa. But Nampa does not like the crows.
From October until April, they descend upon the city in black clouds. They turn the landscape into a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock film. Their caws provide a jarring soundtrack. The worst part, perhaps, is the trail of white poop they leave.
Sanchez admits: Yes, he has been pooped on by a crow. Several, actually.
Scientists say crows can remember faces, and if there’s one face in Nampa these crows recall, it is Sanchez’s. Chief of staff to Mayor Debbie Kling, Sanchez was this year tapped to head Nampa’s crow management task force. He estimates the crow population at 8,000 to 10,000.
“Crow patrol” is what Sanchez, a former Army lieutenant, calls the group of six volunteers, two Boise State biology students, and assorted police officers and city employees who come together a few nights a week to scan the city for murders — the crow kind, that is. Once they’re spotted, the team creates diversions to drive the birds out of town. They hope the birds will find some other sanctuary, like the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge at Lake Lowell, where they can roost in peace, Sanchez says.
The task force has been called human scarecrows, but crow patrol is what they prefer. Some officers call themselves “CROW Team Six,” mimicking the Navy’s SEAL Team Six special operations command.
They take their job just as seriously.
“We have a reported sighting at Les Schwab,” Sanchez tells his teammates in the Fred Meyer parking lot. Sanchez is on every patrol, and he is usually joined by a group of about three people. Tonight, he has assembled an atypical group, which includes Nampa Communications Manager Amy Bowman, Executive Assistant to the Mayor Kristin Pudlow, and a Statesman reporter and photographer. “Officer Peper’s team has positively identified a roost.”
Officer Jacob Peper is not a regular member of crow patrol, but he leads the Nampa Police drone program. The $2,000 drone is loaded with high-tech features. But what makes it advantageous for the team tonight is that it is very, very loud.
Loud enough, perhaps, to scare off crows. That’s what Peper will test tonight once the team finds a crow roost.
The team takes separate cars toward Les Schwab Tire Center, 133 Caldwell Blvd. They’re too late. No crows. Sanchez keeps driving down the boulevard to a place where a woman the previous day reported another crow roost. He gets these types of phone calls a lot now.
There’s a thrill to the pursuit. As he scans the sky, he says, “This is a little bit what I imagine being a storm chaser is like.”
After a few minutes of driving, a call comes in from Bowman.
“Have you seen them?”
Slowing the car, Sanchez cranes his neck. Above, a cloud of black birds swarms against the indigo sky. The scene, of this plastic-signed city under the shadow of thousands and thousands of birds, would make even the most dedicated member of the Audubon Society gulp.
Rules of engagement
Two years ago, when the crows started to invade Nampa, the city was unprepared. The rules of engagement in the war against crows were simple: shoot to kill.
In December 2017, former Mayor Bob Henry decided the city’s crow problem merited an exception to a standing downtown rule that prohibits firing weapons there. Seeing few other options, Henry authorized police to gun down the crows.
“It’s a dilemma,” Henry said in a news release at the time. “At what point should taxpayer dollars be used to fight the crows? By doing nothing, the crow murders in the city, particularly in the downtown area, create a daily mess and can potentially cause health hazards.”
Animal rights activists objected. They noted that the birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a federal law enacted in 1918 in response to the near-extinction of some bird species. When Kling took office in January 2018, she vowed to handle the situation differently.
“This administration has been absolutely adamant on nonlethal means,” Sanchez says. “We want to be respectful of nature and our environment.”
Sanchez remembers when he was a member of the Junior Audubon Society himself. “I love birds,” he says. “However I’m developing a love-hate relationships with crows.”
Mr. Sanchez, where do crows come from?
There’s nothing on Sanchez’s resume that could have prepared him for crow patrol. He does have a Ph.D., but it’s in educational leadership, not biology. When he was chief of staff at Price Associates, a Nampa business advisory firm, he organized leadership training for Fortune 500 companies.
“I’m becoming a serious student of crows though,” he says.
The team comes back together in the parking lot of Fred Meyer, where crows are again gathering on the branches of nearby trees. As Peper sets up the drone, a Statesman photographer asks Sanchez: Have the crows always been in Nampa?
“They’ve been here long before Nampa was a city and they’ll be here long after Nampa,” he says.
Amy Bowman, the city’s communications officer, corrects him: “Well, they migrated from Caldwell.”
“Right, yes,” he says. “They’ve been here about three years. But this is our first full year with a management plan in place.”
The plan calls for displacing the crows by nonlethal means. Beyond scaring the birds out of Nampa, the city’s crow management team wants to collect data on what brings them to the city in the first place. Upon identifying a murder, crow patrol members take notes on the conditions of the sighting — time, temperature, wind speed.
“And we attempt to do what’s called a crow survey,” Sanchez says.
They are, literally, counting crows.
The team is also working with local businesses on strategies to clear out crows. Signs of their efforts are on display across Nampa.
On the roof of Fred Meyer, metallic deflectors spin, reflecting car headlights. From McDonald’s at 148 Caldwell Blvd., a desperate caw rings out — a fake crow distress signal to ward off the birds from dumpsters. Plastic owls, representing crows’ natural predators, perch on top of downtown buildings. Several Bird B Gones, reflective wind-powered spinning devices, hang in downtown trees.
The crow patrol has used bird-deterring sprays. They use infrared lasers, which crows interpret not as beams of light but as sticks flying toward them. The patrol has made use of a natural predator, bringing a falcon into infested areas to intimidate the birds.
And they have achieved some success. “Last year around this time we had crows that were roosting in the downtown area,” Sanchez says. “This year we’ve been able to keep them out.”
But that has just pushed the crows to the periphery of Nampa, to the parking lot of Fred Meyer.
Now they will see if a drone is any better than other methods at scaring crows.
As Peper powers on the machine, a curious Fred Meyer employee wheeling shopping carts stops to watch. “Hey, I want to check out this cool drone!” shouts the employee, Carla Traut. “Can you actually shoot something at them to —”
“It’s not that kind of drone,” Sanchez interrupts.
He wants to be clear on this, and repeats it several times: We use nonlethal methods.
“I holler at them sometimes just for the fun of it,” Traut says. “They just make a big mess. I have had to do some really nasty wipedowns. Customers’ cars get totally bombed.”
Sanchez gives Peper the go-ahead. Using an oversized remote with a live feed of the drone camera on an attached screen, Peper steers the drone toward the birds. They fly off, but not far — just across the street.
For the few remaining birds, Sanchez uses his harmless infrared laser. As soon as he points it toward them, the birds clear the branches. He aims the laser across the street and clears those birds away, too.
Scientists say crows are among the smartest birds, but you wouldn’t know it watching them scramble to get out of the path of a little green light. Where they go, the crow patrol doesn’t know — until they get word of another sighting.
The crows are gone tonight from Fred Meyer, but Sanchez is sure they will return. With their sophisticated lasers and drones, the humans should be able to outsmart them. But the fact that they haven’t so far is a little humbling, Sanchez says:
“Mother nature will remind us that just as we human beings are so complex, the American crow — I think — is equally as complex.”