Attack of the crows

Annual nesting leads to reports of crow assaults in Old Town Florence

June 13, 2018 — As tourists begin to descend on the scenic avenues of Historic Old Town Florence this June, so too do the crows, swooping down on unsuspecting pedestrians in what can often be described as a terrifying attack.

“During the last couple of weeks, we have received reports from citizens about crow attacks in Old Town, particularly in the Laurel Street area between Bay and First streets,” Florence Public Works Director Mike Miller said. “The increased activity suggests eggs have hatched and some of the chicks may even be fledging from the nest, making parents especially aggressive because their young can’t fly yet and are helpless on the ground for a day or two.”

The crow incursions are a yearly occurrence in Old Town, transpiring in the months of May or June, the nesting season for the birds.

“Crows are territorial and they’re particularly protective when their young leave the nest,” Miller said. “If they believe that any kind of threat is near — cats, dogs or people — they will attack.”

He explained that the main reason for a crow attack is that “crows invest a lot of time and energy into their young,” spending several weeks building nests, up to 20 days incubating eggs and another 30 days feeding their young.

“Crows have very human like personalities and just like us, they protect their young,” he said. “They’re just being good parents.”

Warning signs of potential assaults have been posted in relevant Old Town areas for the past two years.

Aggressive crow behavior is a worldwide phenomenon. An entire Canadian website is devoted to tracking crow assaults in Vancouver. The site shows a map of the city bathed in a sea of red crow shaped icons that gets pinned to the map with every reported attack.

Some residents in Florence have asked why the city does not move the nests to protect the tourist areas, with some stating that the city should be held accountable for such attacks.

However, it is illegal to harm a crow or destroy an active nest, per the federal Migratory Bird Act of 1918. Some municipalities have attempted to deter attacks by destroying nests during winter times, but crows tend to rebuild nests each year, rarely returning to their previous roost.

The idea of crows dive bombing unsuspecting pedestrians is generally met with jokes involving Alfred Hitchcock movies or bands of plucky local theater kids. But for some, the pounces can be mortifying.

“While most people laugh when they first hear of a crow attack, as someone who has had a family member attacked and bloodied a couple of years ago, it is not a laughing matter,” Miller said.

Generally, the birds aim for the head, creating small scratches on the skull. Because of the large amounts of blood vessels hidden just under the skin of the head, even the smallest gash can create a gush of excessive bleeding.

“Being outdoors and hearing crows ‘talking’ usually isn’t a problem, but when the cawing is accompanied with a bird dive bombing you, it can be terrifying,” Miller said. “The attacks generally are from behind and without warning. They sometimes will smack the person on the back of the head and if your hair is long, they can get stuck in the hair and you can imagine how traumatic that is, both for you and the bird.”

If a person does face a crow onslaught, they shouldn’t panic. Fighting back will only make the bird more fearful, and lengthen the time of the attack.

“Simply turn around and walk away,” Miller said. “You shouldn’t flap your arms at them. Just keep moving and move away from them.”

While the crow offensive can leave a lasting impression, there have been no reported deaths linked directly to crows. According to a June 2016 article in Scientific American, death by birds is extremely rare. In fact, the only birds known to cause human deaths are cassowaries, ostriches and a chicken who stabbed a man in California with a knife at an illegal cockfight.

Wikipedia does add one more to the mix, attributing to the death of a fisherman by two swans who teamed up and overturned his boat.

Some fear that a crow attack can lead to the possibility of disease transmission, like West Nile Virus, which crows are extremely susceptible to. In fact, West Nile outbreaks in recent years have decimated some populations of American Crows.

However, the crows do not transmit West Nile, or any other diseases, to humans during an attack. Even if one were to literally “eat crow,” transmission is still rare, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. There is no evidence of human infections by consuming properly cooked birds, though there have been rare cases of laboratory workers contracting West Nile through accidental exposure to infected tissues and blood.

While death by a “murder” of crows may be unheard of, crow behavior can be particularly unnerving. They are exceptionally intelligent birds with the uncanny ability to recognize faces.

“If you anger a bird, it will hold a grudge against you,” Miller said.

This behavior was described in a 2008 New York Times article about an experiment at the University of Washington. In the experiment, two humans were fitted with two types of rubber masks, one slightly mean looking, and another one that would be considered neutral. The person with the “mean” mask trapped and banded seven crows for tracking purposes.

After the crows were released to their usual home, the university campus, researchers had multiple people walk around in the two different types of masks. The results were “quite spectacular,” the NY Times reported, with crows persistently screaming and attacking those wearing the “mean” mask. Those with the “neutral” mask escaped the harassment.

And it wasn’t just the crows that had been tagged that were exhibiting the aggressive behavior. The crows had communicated with their flock the dangers of the “mean” mask, and groups of birds joined to berate the one-time “trapper.”

“We have heard that when one crow gets upset with you, the other crows watch what is going on, and they will recognize you too. It can spread through their network rapidly,” Miller said.

If a person is assaulted by a crow in Old Town, it’s possible that they may be targeted again by the protective family. To prevent further attacks, Miller suggests avoiding the area all together.

“Change your [walking] route. If you have been marked as a target, it is best to change your route to avoid the birds and their nesting areas.”

The route change is only needed during the fledgling period. Once the little ones leave the nest, crows go back to avoiding humans.

For those who haven’t yet been blitzed by the birds, Miller gave a list of precautions.

“Wearing a hat or using an umbrella can fend off some swoops, but people should avoid areas with tall thick trees, where nests are likely to be hidden, or staying clear of trouble spots like those that we have signed in Old Town,” he said.

To discourage crows from continuing to nest in Old Town, Miller asks residents and tourists alike to help keep the city clean.

“Crows are scavengers and thrive on human garbage,” he said. “Fewer open garbage cans, fewer people intentionally feeding them and fewer food waste items left on outside tables means fewer crows.”

While crow behavior may seem unnerving during these four weeks, generally the birds leave humans alone the other 48 weeks of the year.

“Regardless of what people think, crows are not evil and are just trying to live their lives and feed their families, just like the rest of us,” Miller said. “We try to encourage people to enjoy the crows (but please do not feed them), as well as other birds, and to appreciate them for the fascinating and highly intelligent creatures that they are. When the nesting season ends, crows move to communal roosts and are much less likely to attack.”

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