The trouble with crows is that they are so smart. Captive crows have proven capable of learning to mimic the human voice, match symbols with numbers and solve simple puzzles. As New York clergyman Henry Ward Beecher declared more than a century ago, “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”
Wild crows, on the other hand, sabotage gardens by collecting seeds, pecking into tomatoes or melons, or harvesting fruits a day or two ahead of humans. And crows’ winter roosting behavior is a budget-busting problem for many towns and cities, where thousands of crows often roost together to keep one another warm.
American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are talkative, territorial and devoted to their families. And although they can be garden pests, they do have their positive side. Crows eat lots of insects, help clean up roadside carrion, and their domestic lives exemplify an enviable level of cooperation. Males and females work together to build nests, incubate eggs and feed their young, all the while participating in crow community life. Extended families often share summer territory, and when a good food supply is found, a sentinel crow often watches from a high tree while its relatives settle in for a feast
What can you do when the site of that feast is your garden? The old standby, the scarecrow, certainly has merit, but crows will quickly become accustomed to a scarecrow that never changes. For best results, construct a scarecrow with a post up its back so it can easily be moved from one spot to another. Every week or so, give your scarecrow a flashy makeover by attaching dangling metal pie tins, compact disks or other shiny, reflective objects to its arms or hat. Movement makes sharp-eyed crows nervous, so giving your scarecrow a helium-filled Mylar party balloon is a good idea, too
Crows hear well, so the The Fund for Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center suggests adding sound to your crow-control arsenal in the form of a portable radio. You don’t need to keep it on at night — crows stay in their roosts after dark — but during the daytime be sure to periodically change the station. Crows will notice a difference between smooth jazz and contemporary country; although no studies have been done on their listening preferences, it’s reasonable to expect that talk radio would put them on edge
Crows also are skittish around owl effigies and balloons designed to scare them, though again it’s best to plan a bit of movement into the scene. You can use bird flash tape made of reflective Mylar as a tail for a bobbing balloon, or mount an owl effigy atop a post that includes whirligig blades that spin in the wind. Many bird-scare devices truly look nightmarish, so you may need to strike a balance between their deterrence value and how much terror you can tolerate in your garden
Where crow pressure is modest, you may get good protection with reflective tape alone, which can be tied to posts, tomato cages or plant supports. In a small garden, try tying string or fishing line, spaced several feet apart, between tall posts installed along your garden’s edge, so they form a wide overhead grid. Wildlife biologists are not certain exactly how such strings work, but they theorize that when crows hit the lines they decide that the site is unsafe for feeding. If crow damage is limited to the birds pecking into ripening ears of corn, placing paper cups or paper bags over the ears after the silk turns brown often gives good protection. When pilfered seedlings are the main problem, protecting seedling beds with any type of barrier — from bird netting to an old upside-down shopping cart — may do the trick
In dire situations, you may need to use bird netting to declare large sections of your garden off limits. If they are hungry enough, crows will feed through netting that is draped directly over plants, but they can’t penetrate through to fruits and vegetables secured beneath a tent of bird netting
An energetic dog also will do the trick. In Barnardstown, Mass., organic grower Elaine Morley solved a serious crow problem by training Tasha, her black lab/border collie mix, to chase any crow that dared to enter her garden
With all of these crow-control measures, remember that early intervention is key. Once crows find a patch of watermelons, they will return each morning to peck on the rind a few times. All too often, the crows will throw an early morning watermelon party on the day when a melon is perfectly ripe.
And don’t make the mistake of trusting crows that are obviously watching your garden, but not actively causing damage. Proving that patience and wisdom go hand-in-hand, crows don’t mind waiting for weeks until grapes or pumpkins are perfect for picking. When you know crows are watching your garden, the most important thing you can do is to watch them back and use your intelligence to counter one of Mother Nature’s smartest animals.
Margo Supplies (Canada)
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant shares her home in the mountains of western North Carolina with three pairs of crows. Visit her Web site here.