DANVILLE, Ill. — In this Vermilion County town known for having what just might be North America’s largest winter crow roost, there are half the number of black birds there were a year ago.
That said, when the tallying was done at the annual Middlefork River Valley Christmas Bird Count on Jan. 1, the crows still outnumbered the humans nearly 4-to-1.
This season, more than 100,000 crows have roosted here at night, in the trees and on the rooftops, eaves, awnings, fence posts, parking garage, traffic lights and telephone wires. And folks in this town don’t like to — what’s the word? — crow about it.
There are no souvenir shirts to advertise this “Crow Capital’s" claim to fame, but through the years, there have been plenty of sidewalks and store awnings splattered with droppings, residents complaining of being bombarded and a whole lot of people who get increasingly tired of stepping around “it."
“It is the largest winter roost of crows that we know about in the U.S. and Canada," said Steve Bailey, of Mundelein, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.
Danville-area volunteers led by Bailey counted 121,500 crows during the bird census on New Year’s Day. A year ago, the count was 238,000. In the winter of 1999-2000, there were 267,000, the highest number recorded.
A resurgent species
The numbers fluctuate from year to year, and the recent numbers aren’t unusually low, but the reasons for the decline over the past 12 months weren’t hard to determine: West Nile virus and drought.
Crows and blue jays are the birds most vulnerable to the mosquito-borne West Nile, and the drought not only cut down on the seeds, nuts and berries available for wildlife, but it also caused a big resurgence of West Nile, said Mike Ward, professor of wildlife ecology for the Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois.
“West Nile thrives in hot, dry weather," he said.
Despite their vulnerability, crows seem to “rebound very well" from West Nile, Bailey said. That might not be good news to the humans in this town of 33,000, whose past attempts to keep the birds away have mostly proved fruitless.
Bob Jones, owner of the Danville Dairy Queen and mayor from 1987 to 2003, when the roost was at its largest, tried to wage war on the crows.
Jones had two of the city’s white pickups outfitted with “cannons" that sounded like a gunshot when fired. City workers drove through the streets shooting the cannons to scare the crows away. And it worked. Temporarily. Soon the intelligent birds got to know the trucks and would leave before any shots were fired, Jones said. Inevitably, they’d return.
Marilyn Campbell, editor of Illinois Audubon Magazine and a resident of nearby Georgetown, expected that.
“The mayor gave it a try, but the crows just moved from place to place," she said. “Crows are pretty smart, and when I heard the mayor was going up against the crows, I bet on the crows."
About 4 p.m. on a day earlier this month, small gatherings of crows started landing in and around Danville after feeding all day in the surrounding grain fields and landfill. Soon the treetops in town became speckled with black silhouettes. By 5 p.m., a striking pink sunset was offset by ribbons of black as the crows came in from all directions, and later when the sky was black, the trees limbs dipped with the weight of the large birds.
The hoarse cawing of the social creatures was penetrated only by the sounds of people in the distance shooting off fireworks or a pop bottle rocket, trying to scare them away. Noise is effective, but again, just a temporary fix.
Later, around 7 p.m., local bird-watchers say, large flocks numbering in the thousands respond to the call of a few, and swoop off to their main roost for the night. They may settle downtown, or near it, but they don’t always sleep in the same place. Some days they’re more visible than others.
Ideal crow country
Crows typically migrate this far south in early autumn, then stay put until late February or early March, when they fly north again into Wisconsin and Michigan, and possibly Canada, Bailey said.
While neighboring Champaign County attracts only a couple of thousand crows, Bailey said, Danville has the large roost because it offers a smorgasbord to meet the crows’ winter needs. The town is nestled in a warm valley, surrounded by grain and soybean fields, and home to the Vermilion River. A well-lighted downtown allows the birds to watch for their enemy, the great horned owl, and tall, old brick buildings with poor insulation offer warm roofs for sleeping overnight.
At pre-dawn, the crows will move out to the fields, the cottonwood trees along the river, the large local corn mill, and the nearby landfill again to feed. Scientists say they will eat anything, including roadkill.
“I don’t like them, but I’m also awed by them. They’re very intelligent creatures," said Shelly Larson, Danville superintendent of community improvements. “The problem is that these are not little birds, and these are not little drops they leave behind. They’re big, slimy and disgusting."
More than 100,000 crows are making Danville, Ill., their winter roost this year — about half as many as last year, but not an abnormally low number. Residents aren’t happy about the annual avian invasion, because it means daily power washing of sidewalks and trying to avoid the “white rain." But little can be done.