Latest weapon in Portland's war on crow poop: more birds
With a whoosh, Clive, a 7-month-old Harris's hawk, spreads his wings and takes flight over the wet streets of downtown Portland. The skies are dark and cloudy on a chilly January evening, but Clive's keen eyes dart from treetop to treetop, scanning.
A few blocks away, Mars, an older hawk, is also patrolling the skies and, a few blocks from that, a third bird is searching the streets.
They're all looking for one thing: crows.
These hawks are not here of their own volition. They were loosed on the crows of downtown by Kort Clayton, owner of Integrated Avian Solutions, a Portland-based company that uses hawks and other raptors to shoo away problem birds from wineries, dumps and, in this case, business districts.
Clayton was called in after years of fruitless efforts at driving out the bothersome birds. Crows were eating the insulation from building walls. They created such a roar that hotel guests were jolted awake at early hours. Most notably, they left busy sidewalks slickened with poop.
Sheri Scali, senior property manager at a large building near the Keller Auditorium on the south end of downtown, heard them before she saw them. It was early January and as she was heading into work before dawn, she was greeted by the busy cackles of roosting birds.
They hadn't been there the day before and they were loud, but she didn't give the flock much thought until the sun came up. Under the light of day, Scali witnessed the mess a large group of crows is capable of creating overnight.
"When we looked down from above, it looked like it had snowed," she said.
During the day, crows spread out across the Pacific Northwest, scavenging what they can from sites urban and rural alike. But once the sun heads toward the horizon, they seek warmth and safety in numbers, gathering in flocks of up to 10,000 birds and descending on the trees and parks and rooftops of downtown Portland, Clayton said.
During the great snowstorm of early 2017, a Portland Police criminalist snapped a picture of a flock gathered next to headquarters. The crows were so numerous, and contrasted so starkly against the fresh blanket of snow, that the trees looked like mashed potatoes covered in pepper.
Their ubiquity, at least during winter months, makes them hard to ignore.
When flocks, known ominously as "murders," gather in these numbers, a cacophonous maelstrom announces their evening arrival. Crows are deft communicators and they waste no time telling each other about the exploits of the day. They squawk and bray and bleet from the treetops, drowning out the sounds of the city below.
The din is bothersome, but mostly harmless unless you're trying to sleep. The problems created by that many birds, fresh back from a day of feeding, is feculent. Or to put it more simply, it's their poop.
The roosting birds, drawn to the downtown core by warmth and an abundance of food sources, started to become a problem about four years ago when everything beneath their preferred trees quickly took on a sheen of avian excrement. Trees, cars, sculptures and downtown pedestrians all became targets of the droppings.
In 2014, more than 30 crows were found dead in Portland's urban core. An investigation by the Portland Audubon Society found the birds had been poisoned. Last week, witnesses in Northeast Portland reported seeing some crows "falling from the sky," while others were found seizing on the ground.
An investigation into the most recent spate of crow deaths is ongoing, but appears to be consistent with poisoning, said Bob Sallinger, conservation director with the Audubon Society.
When the crows began to congregate in such large numbers, complaints poured into Downtown Clean & Safe, a program that works in partnership with the city and the Portland Business Alliance to provide cleaning and security services to the downtown area.
Working with Central City Concern, the city hired crews to pressure wash the streets of the crow-created mess, but it was a sisyphean effort.
"We would pressure wash all night," said Lynnae Berg, executive director of Downtown Clean & Safe. "And then the crows would wake up and it would look like we had done nothing."
As it became clear they couldn't beat the problem with pressure washing alone, they called in a device called the "Poopmaster 6000," a motorized brick-scrubbing cart that resembles a Zamboni. The Poopmaster worked great on the ground, but did nothing for the bird poop that shellacked benches and newspaper racks and public art.
With all of the obvious solutions seemingly exhausted, Berg and the downtown business community had to get creative.
Enter the hawk.