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Sunnyvale started spooking hundreds of crows with lasers. Will they stay away?

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 1/25/2022 By Andy Picon

As the sun set in Sunnyvale Monday, city parks worker Erick Delgadillo stood in the plaza downtown and flashed a green laser into the trees that line the square.

The green dot grazed the tree tops, and in that instant Sunnyvale got what its mayor has long desired: branches shook, dead leaves tumbled to the ground, and dark, fluttering silhouettes lept into the sky. Crows that had taken over the public square that night — as they have every night for years — had finally met their match.

The lasers, along with a handful of bird effigies hanging upside down on city trees, are part of a new strategy that Sunnyvale kicked off on Monday to spook the 1,000-plus corvids that have taken over Plaza del Sol, across the street from the city’s Caltrain station. Every day at dusk, like clockwork, the crows arrive by the hundreds, cawing loudly to their heart’s content and leaving sidewalks, cars and benches coated in a stinky white sludge.

Every evening, residents and workers near Sunnyvale’s Plaza del Sol bear witness to “Crowchella,” as one resident called it — a dazzling spectacle hosted by the swirling crows that in recent years has grown in its intensity, leaving Mayor Larry Klein’s inbox full of complaints.

“It looks so pretty, but it’s a problem,” said Sandra Zuniga, manager at The Don’s Deli, a sandwich shop in the plaza. “It’s not just 10 birds. It’s like tons.”

After years of unsuccessful attempts to get the crows to roost elsewhere, the bird problem needed innovative solutions, Klein said. Monday’s actions were perhaps the most bizarre, strategy yet: City staff hung fake dead crows around the plaza and pointed a $20 green laser from Amazon at the tree tops, all in the hopes of getting the birds to scatter.

The goal is not to harm or get rid of the crows entirely, Klein said. The idea is that the lasers and fake birds will act as deterrents to the crows’ enormous nightly gatherings by making downtown Sunnyvale unpleasant for them.

“We’re just trying to get them humanely to disperse,” Klein said. “We want the birds in our neighborhoods, but we don’t want them flocking to one location year-round, which is what it’s become.”

While the crows typically quiet down at night when they’re asleep, they can be extremely vocal around sunset and sunrise. Residents described the noise as a “ruckus” and a “cacophony.” And in large quantities, the crows’ poop can be hotbeds for bacteria and fungi such as Histoplasma that could make people sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The city spent thousands of dollars last year power washing poop-coated surfaces around the plaza in order to mitigate those health hazards, Klein said. Past attempts to diffuse the birds — from hiring a falconer to using light reflectors — have been expensive or simply haven’t gotten the job done.

“It makes sense to just go ahead and try it,” Klein said of the new strategies, which the Humane Society of the United States lists as possible solutions to problematic urban crow roosts, calling them “humane harassment.”

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Zuniga said she was glad to hear that the city was taking action against the crows because they were starting to disrupt business downtown, she said. One of her deli’s regulars brought his girlfriend to eat in the plaza one day, only to have her become the victim of a crow’s aerial bowel movement. A couple of residents told The Chronicle that they have learned to look for covered parking downtown, or park elsewhere, because of how much crow poop can end up on their car after just a few hours. At the chic Loft House apartments beside the plaza, the crows have started taking over the pool area.

“It’s kind of scary sometimes,” said Jonathan Turner, a Loft House leasing consultant, comparing the daily arrival of the crows to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” “It can be a little creepy.”

But for some residents, despite the mess and the noise, the crows have become a part of their city’s downtown identity. Roommates Shivani Kavuluru and Kamyab Mashian said they love watching the crows, but understand the city’s decision to try to spook them.

“I get it,” Mashian said. “But personally, I’m going to miss them.”

Kavuluru said that when it starts getting dark out, it’s “crow o’clock” in Sunnyvale, and the “entire blue sky just turns black.”

“There are less humane ways” to deal with the crow issue, Kavaluru said with a shrug as she watched the crows fly overhead at the sight of the green laser Monday.

The strongest opposition to the lasers, though, has come from the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, whose staff worry that the lasers could blind the birds. Shani Kleinhaus, an environmental advocate with the group, said she is skeptical that the lasers will be effective at all in the long-term.

Crows, one of the most intelligent bird species, can learn to adapt to certain challenges in their environment. They might be alarmed by the flashing green lasers at first, but they are likely to get used to them over time, Kleinhaus said.

The city might be able to get the crows to scatter temporarily, but the birds have settled downtown for a reason, Kleinhaus said. They appear to be drawn to the area by the warmth radiating from the streets; bright lights, which can offer protection from predators such as owls and hawks; and a relative abundance of food in trash bins or on the ground, especially as outdoor dining has flourished during the pandemic.

If the city wants the crows to leave, Kleinhaus said, it must address the conditions that have made downtown so appealing for the birds in the first place. That could include putting light shields over lamp posts or cleaning the area more often. She also worries that the birds will just invade other neighborhoods if they are forced to flee downtown.

“They will most likely not move very far,” Kleinhaus said. “Who will complain next?”

But with resident objections to the crows mounting in the past two years, Klein said he has found himself in a tough spot.

“We have the Audubon society complaining that we don't harass or hurt the birds, and then for the other solution like spray washing, we have residents saying, ‘How dare you spray wash the sidewalks when we're in the middle of a drought?’” Klein said. “We’re just trying to make our city better for its citizens.”

Kleinhaus argued that the best thing for both residents and the crows would be for the city to simply leave the crows alone. Yes, the birds are loud and make a mess, but what Sunnyvale has in the local crow population is special, she said.

“They should celebrate it! They should think: We have the smartest birds on Earth in the thousands coming to visit us and who sing to us and make these beautiful flight formations,” Kleinhaus said. “It’s unbelievably beautiful. They have something nobody else has, in Sunnyvale.”

“Why is that a problem?” she quipped. “Just clean it up a little.”

Andy Picon is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @andpicon


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