- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - In some cultures, the crow is a symbol of magic and a representation of life beyond what we can see in the present.

For Jessie Griffith, property manager for 250 Douglas Place and Corner 365 in downtown Wichita, not so much.

“We have had a crow problem,” Griffith told the Wichita Eagle (http://bit.ly/1nZLw3c ). “All of a sudden you have a few birds, a few more, and then they have a wild party. Then you are having to power-wash all their lovely white piles of poo off sidewalks.”

Consider it a by-product of life in the city.

Each year when winter truly sets in, the crows come to Wichita by the hundreds of thousands. At night, they convene downtown along the Arkansas River, cawing and cackling as their friends, family and neighbors come soaring in.

They hang out at fast-food drive-ins, grabbing a cast-off french fry or half-eaten burger; they sit side-by-side on roofs of buildings, huddled together like an Alfred Hitchcock conspiracy, gazing at pedestrians who walk silently below.

They bomb cars and trucks, leaving their trademark calling cards - a sign they’ve been there.

“They don’t clean up after themselves,” Griffith said. “You don’t know it is a problem until they won’t go away.”

And, they are early risers.

“They wake me up every morning, cawing at 5 a.m.,” she said. “If we could get rid of them another way, I would. But they are protected.”

Indeed, the birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

However, under the act, the crows may be controlled without a federal permit when found “committing or about to commit depredations upon ornamental or shade trees, agricultural crops, livestock, or wildlife, or when concentrated in such numbers and manner to constitute a health hazard or other nuisance.”

As bird and animal migrations go, the crows are relatively new to Kansas and Wichita.

While most annual migrations are thousands of years old, some of the first recorded crow sightings in Wichita occurred in 1905. Since then, the crow population has grown steadily.

If you are a Kansan, you can blame it on your great-grandfather, or at least the early pioneers who cut up the grassland prairie and converted their farms to cropland. During the fall and winter, the downed grain makes easy picking for crows.

As Wichita was developed into a city, the trees, asphalt, fast-food leftovers and fresh water became the perfect environment to nurture crows.

Now, add the element of cold weather.

Between October and March each year, hundreds of thousands of crows leave the northern Great Plains and East Coast and fly like tourists on vacation, stopping at warmer cities along their migratory path.

One of those cities is Wichita. Look up at sunset and you can watch crows making a beeline for their roosting spots.

Like people, during the winter the crows seek heat and all the amenities a city can offer.

“Crows always seem to congregate in winter roosts, and those winter roosts can move around,” said Bob Gress, Kansas naturalist and retired director of the Great Plains Nature Center. “The populations change and move about, and the new birds may not find the old roosts as acceptable as the new areas.”

This winter, the crows are congregating in areas near Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, Exploration Place and buildings near the Sedgwick County Courthouse.

During the day, they go to nearby farm fields to loaf and feed, but come sunset, they return to the city.

“Cities have great densities of trees, buildings and windbreaks,” Gress said. “Unless a rural area is densely wooded, they seem to prefer the cities - right in the middle of downtown where there is tall buildings.”

Cliff Varner maintains a license for Nuisance Wildlife Damage Control.

Think of him as a crow wrangler.

He’s crafty and sneaky, never working by routine.

If you have been downtown at night in the winter, chances are you have heard and seen him - maybe even called the police on him.

Varner, owner of Rocking V Enterprise, draws a paycheck from Griffith by driving the crows away from the properties she manages.

Varner specializes in all kinds of wildlife management. For 26 years, he has taken calls about wildlife. For crows, he uses a propane-filled air cannon, four speakers the size of trumpets, fireworks and a hand-held spotlight.

In years past, he has used a laser system that, when aimed at trees, makes the crows feel like they are in an earthquake. He carries a federal license for explosive pyrotechnics.

He doesn’t use the cannon as much as he has in years past. The crows have become accustomed to his face and the noises he makes.

From his pickup, Varner blasts the sounds of crows in distress. He shoots screamer fireworks into the flock.

His area this winter is on Douglas to Main Street, south of Century II to the Arkansas River and then north to the Sedgwick County Courthouse and Jail. The flocks particularly like to roost on parking garages.

“There was a cold spell earlier this week, and when the birds fly across downtown, they can feel the heat coming off buildings and parking garages,” Varner said. “They have their scouts. They fly down in those areas where there are windbreaks.”

The flocks of birds he once patrolled are long gone. But their children and grandchildren are finding new roosts and places to hang out.

He considers what he does behavior modification.

“I change the behavior of the birds by what I do,” he said.

Within a few weeks, give or take, the birds will leave. Their seasonal calendars follow the signals of spring.

“They will start breaking up in the springtime when their hormones start kicking in,” Gress said. “Only in winter do we see this type of behavior.

“When the warmer weather comes, they know that breeding season is coming, and they start moving back to their historical nesting areas. They’ll pair up and get away from the flocks.”

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Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, http://www.kansas.com

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