For more than a decade crows have been roosting in Portland. During the fall and winter months, American crows will congregate in numbers from a couple dozen to tens of thousands, and make their way to urban and rural landscapes around Portland where they chat it up and camp out for the night, but by far the largest congregation takes place in downtown proper. At its peak, the crow roost in downtown Portland can exceed 15,000.
The spectacle, beautiful though it may be, presents a problem for downtown businesses that have often complained about the noise and the fecal matter. The city has deployed numerous efforts to combat theses problems including the Poopmaster 6000. And for four years, Downtown Portland Clean & Safe has worked with Integrated Avian Solutions, a group of urban falconers, biologists, and bird management professionals, to conduct something known as hazing. Avian Solutions works with a small team of trained Harris Hawks to assist with the moving the crows out of the downtown area toward other parts of the city. But hazing has not gone without it critics who contend the method is ineffective and potentially harmful to the crows.
Today on Footnotes, we dive into this yearly phenomenon in Portland, talk a little bit about the conflicts that have arisen during these roosts and to explore this convergence of wildlife and city life and what that says about our relationship with nature.
Hello and welcome to another episode of Footnotes. My name is Gabriel Granillo and I am the digital editor at Portland Monthly.
There are a few things I noticed right away wh en I moved to Portland about a year ago now—and what a ridiculous 12 months it’s been. The first thing I noticed was how moss. was. everywhere. I come from the Arizona high desert. Moss is an alien lifeform to me. But now I see it everywhere. Another thing I noticed was the streetcar. I used to live next to a station and I loved watching folks climb on an off it, daydream about their lives and where they were off to. And the third thing I noticed … [crows in downtown Portland] … were the crows.
For over a decade now, since the mid-2000’s or so, crows have been roosting in Portland. During the fall and winter months, American crows will congregate in numbers from a couple dozen to tens of thousands, and make their way to urban and rural landscapes around Portland where they chat it up and camp out for the night, but by far the largest congregation takes place in downtown proper. At its peak, the crow roost in downtown Portland can exceed 15,000. And there are a few factors biologists believe drive these roosts.
“There’s safety in numbers. There is warmth in numbers. It’s also an opportunity for crows to exchange information.”
This is Bob Sallinger.
“I’m the conservation director at Portland Audubon, and I’ve been working for Audubon in a variety of capacities since 1992—"
—Which is essentially the entirety of my life minus a year. And every year this is a topic of conversation, yes even during COVID, which hasn’t affected the roosts in any quantifiable way. But Bob says he never tires of that conversation, partly because the crow is a fascinating animal to him, but also because it’s a chance to talk about the wildlife that exists in our backyard.
And so today on Footnotes, we wanted to dive into this yearly phenomenon in Portland, to talk a little bit about the conflicts that have arisen during these roosts, and to explore this convergence of wildlife and city life and what that says about our relationship with nature.
[Footnotes music fade]
So let’s talk crows.
Crows are part of the corvid family, which also includes ravens, jays, magpies, and nutcrackers. That’s corvid, not COVID. You might recognize crows from their harsh [caw audio] while you’re trying to sleep in or from the nuisance they might cause digging into a nearby dumpster, but they’re actually incredibly intelligent. Here’s Bob Sallinger again.
“Crows are one of those species that everyone knows. One of the first animals that everyone learns as a kid. Often times under appreciated. It’s one of the species we take for granted because they’re around us. But they’re actually an incredibly fascinating species as well. They have really interesting life histories and behaviors and are incredibly intelligent birds.”
Crows have been shown to recognize faces, use tools, including oncoming traffic to crack open a nut, and complete a series of complicated puzzles. In some studies, birds have been shown to resemble the intelligence of a 5 to7-year-old.
Roosting, of course, is not unique to crows, but what is unique to our corvid friends is the fact that they’ve chosen Portland as one of their main hubs. And no one is really sure why, but we have a few theories.
“They may pick a spot like that because it’s warm. It’s lit to some degree. There may be food subsidies there. They can get into the dumpsters and the barrels and find food. There may be fewer predators there. You may not find predators like owls in that area. There’s a variety of things that may make that spot attractive to them.”
From all directions, crows will flock to the city for these annual roosts, bringing a spectacle to see and hear. But as the number of crows has increased throughout the years, so too have potential conflicts. Business and hotel owners have often complained about the raucous noise produced during the roosts, but the number one problem: number two. Fecal matter that is.
“There was concern that they were leaving behind this massive quantity of poop. Not just on the sidewalks and the streets but on outdoor tables and awnings and railings, and so that did create some conflicts when they first started showing up in really large numbers.”
And so the city’s response has been to clean up after the crows, most notably in 2016 with the [collective poop master 6000]. Yup, the poop master 6000, a zamboni like pressure washer that was supposed to clean up sidewalks in downtown. But after Poop Master 6000 proved ineffective in curbing the problem (such a shame, what a wasted name), the city resorted to something new.
For four years, Downtown Portland Clean & Safe has worked with Integrated Avian Solutions, a group of urban falconers, biologists, and bird management professionals, to conduct something known as hazing. Avian Solutions works with a small team of trained Harris Hawks to assist with the moving the crows out of the downtown area toward other parts of the city.
“And that has proven quite effective. Essentially, the crows, when they come into a portion of the city where they do not want them are pushed toward the waterfront. As long as they do that on a regular basis, they’re smart birds, they tend to adapt to that and they stay there. Interestingly, when they stop doing it for a few days they send in parties to the urban interior and they start to show up again. The crows are not harmed by that kind of activity, and it seems to have effectively resolved the conflicts.”
But not everyone is convinced that hazing isn’t harmful and that the conflicts have been resolved.
Gary Granger is one of the cofounders of Portland Crow Roost, a citizen-science project that aims to track and learn about crows and their roosting behavior in Portland. With his partner Rebecca Provorse, Portland Crow Roost has been documenting these roosts since 2017.
Gary says that he and Rebecca were having Thanksgiving dinner in downtown Portland when they finally decide to check out the crows they had heard so much about.
“We came out and said, ‘let’s go see if we can find these crows.’ It took us about two minutes of walking downtown to look up and see crows sound asleep in crows 20 feet above the sidewalk with the streetcar running beside us. At that point I was pretty much hooked, like ‘this makes no sense to me. Why? Why here? Why not there?
I’ve always got a notebook in my pocket, so I pulled my notebook out as we were walking around and making notes and drawing the streets on the pages of my notebook. We got home, took my calculator out and said, ‘Oh my god there were 3,500 crows we just sort of randomly estimated in a couple hours of walking around. That’s crazy.’”
And so Gary and Rebecca have been outspoken in the city’s response to the crows. He says the purported problem with “droppings” is really not that big of problem—that it all gets washed away in the rain anyway. He also has been vocal about the city’s hazing partnership with Avian Solutions and says it just pushes the problem elsewhere, places like the Pearl District or the Waterfront.
While hazing has support from agencies like Portland Audubon, the Humane Society of the United States and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Granger contends that there has been no evidence to support that frightening or displacing the crows cause no harm to the individual crow or collectively.
“There are a couple ways to approach something where you don’t actually know what the outcome is. One is to say well, ‘if you can’t prove it’s bad, then we’re going to do it.’ What you do when you do that is you take the risk that it might be bad and you wouldn’t know it until bad things happen. Another way to approach it is to say that, ‘unless we can demonstrate that it won’t do any harm, we’re not going to do it.
“So for example that’s what we do with vaccine development. We don’t say, ‘well, Until you can prove that that vaccine is killing people, we’re going to use it.’ No, no, no. None of us would take the vaccine. What we do instead is say, ‘We’re going to do all of these studies to try and prove that it’s not harmful before we use it.’”
But even if some resounding evidence comes out that supports hazing’s no-harm hypothesis, Gary says he wouldn’t support because, in his eyes, hazing doesn’t work.
“But more importantly, philosophically, because it’s a continuation of humans feeling like we can manage wildlife to our own convenience and not have an ultimately long-term negative impact on our habitat and our environment. Portland, in some ways prides itself on being ecologically friendly, can’t see their way past doing something that clearly disadvantages a currently common species simply because it’s a little bit inconvenient to some of us.”
Portland has put into place programs like the Portland Peregrine Program, Cats Safe at Home, Birdsafe Building, and Lights Out Portland, all of which promote wildlife coexistence strategies, and it certainly isn’t alone in its recognition as a hub for roosting crows. And while it isn’t as harmful as some of the more aggressive approaches in other cities which have used pyrotechnics and lasers to resolve their conflicts, Portland’s hazing practice still draws criticism, as well as nightly crowds who watch Avian Solutions release their hawks into the night sky. even while folks like Granger and Portland Crow Roost question the practice, Portland Audubon says it supports hazing because it’s a chance to humanly address a problem that effects businesses downtown and the health and safety of its pedestrians.
“And if we didn’t feel that way, we would not be supportive of it. And I say that as someone who has spent their entire career working to protect wildlife. I think part of the way that we create wildlife urban friendly landscapes is by being proactive in terms of protecting habitat, encouraging nature scaping in our yards and neighborhoods. Reaching conflicts, hazards. We have a lights program to deal with light pollution, we’ve gotten Portland to adopt regulation to reduce bird strikes. When you build buildings downtown you have to have bird-friendly windows. We have a whole lot of different strategies to make Portland and wildlife-friendly city.
And with that, we also include strategies to address real conflicts when they occur. And I think when you bring all that together, that’s what makes Portland a place that is recognized as being on the cutting edge of protecting wildlife populations.”
For now hazing seems to be the solution, one part of this large confluence of human interest and natural phenomenon, a yearly spectacle and a yearly debate over what’s right and what’s wrong.
And all you have to do is listen … and look up.
[“Crow Hop” by Skin Thieves]
Thanks so much for listening to this week’s episode of Footnotes. My guests today were Bob Sallinger of Portland Audobon and Gary Granger of Portland Crow Roost. You can learn about both through a few links in the show notes. You can find this and other episodes of Footnotes at pdxmonthly.com or listen to us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening, stay safe, and we’ll see you next week.