Downtown Sunnyvale, California has been buzzing since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. For nearly two years, more than a thousand visitors enjoy a night out on the town almost every night.
But they don’t come to slurp ramen or drink beer at the gastropub. They eat anything they can find outside. Then they poop all over the sidewalk. It’s the unwanted guests no one invited: crows. And now the city turns to an unlikely weapon to disperse them: lasers.
The city government has struggled to get rid of the birds for the past five years, but the situation became dire during the pandemic, when the crow population mushroomed, said Sunnyvale mayor Larry Klein.
“The streets are actually littered with crow poo,” he said on Sunday.
It’s not just the streets that are flooded in Sunnyvale, which is about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco. Crows have sometimes dropped sticks or leaves or droppings on outdoor meals, Mr. Small.
In an effort to disperse the birds, the city will use a tool this month that fits the Silicon Valley setting: a $20 laser. The city government has already tried to scare the crows away with a falcon, but it only had one. “limited success,” said the mayor.
It may sound like a futuristic solution, but lasers have been proven to deter crows. In upstate New York, Rochester and Auburn have used lasers to repel the birds with some success.
For three weeks, Sunnyvale employees will shine a green laser on crows for an hour every night, said Mr. Small. They will also use a boombox to play sounds of crows in distress.
“The most important thing is to bother them enough so that a large percentage of them find a new home,” said Mr. Small.
The crows gather in the center around dusk, having spent all day looking for food.
When crows see a green laser shine into the trees at night, they think animals are running across the branches, said Kevin J. McGowan, an ornithologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY. They will fly elsewhere to sleep.
But spreading crows is a tricky game because some birds don’t want to leave a place they’ve already settled in, said Dr. McGowan, who has studied crows for over 30 years.
He suggested that Sunnyvale authorities also aim fireworks and bottle rockets at the birds, causing them to “panicize,” he said.
Even after all that effort, the crows may not want to leave, said Dr. McGowan. He cited an example in Auburn, where authorities moved about 75,000 crows to less crowded areas in the 1990s. But they still gather in parts of the city.
“They’re like teenagers and Covid,” he said. “You can’t stop them from getting together.”
However, not everyone supports Sunnyvale’s laser plans. Mr. Klein said the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, a local environmental group, believes the laser could harm the birds.
Compared to swarms in other cities, Sunnyvale’s 1,000 crows are “a mediocre place to sleep,” said Kaeli Swift, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Washington who has studied crows.
Cities across the country have seen soaring crow populations in recent years, but such influxes have nothing to do with how the pandemic has cleared the streets, said Dr. swift.
“Hansten are moving — we’re not exactly sure why,” she said, adding that roosts get bigger in the winter, when crows migrate from Canada.
It seems that the crows can never quite leave Sunnyvale. The only methods of getting rid of them all are illegal, such as blowing up crows with dynamite, as the Illinois authorities did in 1940 when they killed more than 300,000 birds.
Despite the growing number of crows, Sunnyvale’s human residents don’t have to worry about their health, said Dr. McGowan.
“You’d have to lick all the crow shit on a park bench to even come close to catching something from a crow’s nest,” he said.