MANSFIELD -- You would think thousands of visitors coming to Central Park each night would be a blessing.
Not if they are crows roosting in trees -- leaving behind a gross, sticky coating of fecal matter that covers historical monuments, benches, artwork and sidewalks.
It's a literal nighttime aerial assault on the center of the city.
It's not a new problem. And it's certainly not particular to Mansfield. But neither of those facts make the problem any less stinky, nasty or troublesome.
"As reliable as the winter snows, the crows in Mansfield are as much of a tradition, though not as welcome, as the coming of the seasons," said Jennifer Kime, Downtown Mansfield Inc. CEO.
Just as the buzzards return each March 15 to Hinckley, Ohio, the crows return to Mansfield each winter.
"I’m not sure how long Mansfield has been a hot spot for these unique roosts, but over 100 years, at least," Kime said. "Some love them, some hate them, but either way they leave a predicable mess all throughout town, most notably in Central Park.
"They are messy murders," she said of the crows, big birds that average about 17 inches long with a wingspan that can stretch to three feet.
SMART BIRDS: The simple fact is American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are highly intelligent birds that take advantage of urban environments to gather together -- safer and warmer than they would be in their more rural daytime foraging areas.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, crows have gathered in large winter roosts for as long as people have been there to witness them. In the past few decades, crows began to abandon their traditional rural roosting sites to gather in larger towns and cities.
Gail Laux, founder and executive director of the Ohio Bird Sanctuary outside Mansfield, said there are several factors attracting crows into the nation's downtowns.
The birds enjoy a "heat island" effect during the cold, long winter nights since downtown buildings radiate more heat than the surrounding countryside. Lights help crows watch for natural predators, such as owls. Protected stands of trees in places like Central Park are constants, unlike trees in more rural areas that are often cleared for agriculture or logged.
She said north central Ohio is experiencing a colder winter than in recent years, perhaps increasing the numbers of crows coming to town to roost. The additional Christmas lights downtown this year may have resulted in a larger murder, as well.
There are two potential ways to combat the problem.
One is to find a way to keep the birds out of the downtown trees, which is the likely more difficult element of the equation. The second is to regularly clean the poop-impacted areas, which is likely the more expensive part.
SCARING THEM OFF: Let's start with ideas for convincing the crows to gather elsewhere at night.
Lots of cities have tried lots of different things, with varying degrees of success.
"If Mansfield could come up with that (solution), they could make a million dollars," Laux said with a laugh. "All cities are battling that."
The American Audobon Society recommends starting with tolerance, understanding the omnivore crows form communal roosts to help them survive harsh winter months. The society also recommends communities take steps to reduce human food subsidies by eliminating garbage and refuse that attract them.
It also recommends reducing outdoor lighting in the areas crows are not desired, or at least aiming outdoor lighting downward.
Communities also try scaring the wily birds with loud noises, blinking lights or the appearance of predators, though none of these have proven reliable, permanent solutions.
"The city could try hanging plastic owls in the trees," Laux said, "not strapping them to the branches. They need to be hung in a way that they they will move in the wind, offering a silhouette view to the crows. These birds are bright and will quickly notice a stationary plastic owl that is harmless.
"It would not be a difficult thing to do if the city wanted to try," she said. "The crows will likely continue to come as long as those trees are there, and I am not a proponent of removing the trees. We need the trees."
Mansfield Public Works Director Dave Remy said the city has researched different methods, including hanging ribbons and plastic owls in the trees and also blasting sounds.
"Nothing we have used has been effective on a long-term basis. Our plan in Central Park is to periodically power wash until the 'crow season' concludes," Remy said.
Former Mansfield Mayor Lydia Reid, who held office from 1993 to 2007, recalled her own administration's battles with the birds.
"We put up fake owls all around the park and City building. It helped some," she said. "Obviously, there was a lot of scrubbing walks and patios. I remember talking to a lot of groups about the bird problem, but as I recall all remedies were temporary."
Again, it's not a problem unique to Mansfield.
For example, the Rochester (N.Y.) Downtown Alliance and other agencies such as Rochester Public Works, the Parks Department, and Mayo Clinic are meeting to discuss more options for clean-up and prevention. Officials have some ideas, but welcome public input.
In Watertown, N.Y., wildlife biologists target nuisance crow flocks during the evening. They use loud noises and flashing lights from pyrotechnics, lasers, air rifles, and other devices to scare the crows away from city neighborhoods.
In Rochester, Minn., the Crow Patrol has tried to help. It's a band of city employees who each winter take on the job of chasing away the birds, using lasers, calls featuring distressed crows, and creating noise by firing guns with blanks.
In Amsterdam, N.Y., from 4:30 to 8 p.m. a team of four U.S. Dept. of Agriculture wildlife biologists wearing yellow vests marked “USDA Wildlife Services” use two vehicles to deploy a barrage of non-lethal harassment methods to encourage the birds to move, including: laser beams, loud pyrotechnics, spotlights and amplified crow distress calls.
In Portland, Oregon, laser-guided Harris Hawks are used in an attempt to keep the crows from specific areas:
"The goal of the project is for the hawks to scare the crows out of the project zone — just the sight of a hawk is enough to send crows skyward. Though Harris’ hawks have little interest in actually hunting crows, they’ve been trained to follow a laser beam; as their handler moves the beam from spot to spot, the hawks fly from perch to perch. Eventually, the handler will call the hawk back and give them a snack as a reward."
Sadly, the experts know moving the crows away is always a temporary fix and the wily feather friends will return to their favorite urban roosts.
So if you can't scare them away, cities are left with the task of cleaning up the mess.
Some Mansfield residents complain the city doesn't clean up the mess frequently enough, though the ongoing cold temperatures make it a difficult task. It's also not cheap.
Richland Source has written about this issue in the past, urging the city to do more than it was doing and saying the mess was hampering the energy being developed to revitalize the downtown.
Back in Portland, the city has tried renting the "Poopmaster 6000," a Zamboni-like street cleaner. But it's only good on sidewalks and streets. It doesn't fix the droppings on benches, monuments, artwork, etc.
Thus, trying to clean up an area as large as Mansfield's Central Park is a labor-intensive effort.
The good news is that the "crow season" is almost past.
Laux said as the days get longer, the crows will begin nesting patterns that will keep them in their more traditional rural areas.
"We probably have another month of (roosting) at this level," she said.