TERRE HAUTE —
Crows in Terre Haute are on a power play.
In hockey, a “power play” occurs when one team has more players on the ice than the opposition while one or two of its players sit in the penalty box. A power play can result in as much as a 5-to-3 player advantage.
In this city, the crows’ advantage is often 100,000-to-3. The Detroit Red Wings would be envious. The Terre Haute Crow Patrol, by contrast, needs more players to stop the power play by the archrival Terre Haute Black Wings (a.k.a. the crows).
Since the 1990s, the big, dark, smart birds have turned the city into their winter resort. Ornithologists speculate that the crows come here because of an ideal mix of water (in the Wabash River), food (in farm fields), nighttime light (at parking lots and streets), and heat (from urban pavement and buildings). The crow population fluctuates, but it’s ranged from 40,000 to six digits. For more than 20 years, the city had no coordinated plan of attack. Residents and businesses had to cope however possible. Then, early in 2010, a Crow Committee organized, with support of the Mayor’s Office, and the Crow Patrol was born.
With limited funding for pyrotechnics and lasers, which help scatter the birds, and some assistance from a professional wildlife service, the Crow Patrol relies on volunteer help. Typically, a handful or less, these folks labor in tough circumstances, trying to disrupt the crows’ winter-long routine of foraging west of the Wabash from dawn to dusk, and then flying east back into the city to congregate in warmth and artificial lighting to avoid their predators, owls.
For their morning rounds, between 6 and 7:30 a.m., Crow Patrolers don bright orange vests and drive to key locales to disperse murders of crows with green laser lights, just before the birds leave town at sunrise. (Most of us are sleeping, eating breakfast or getting dressed for work.) Around sundown, between 5:30 and 6:45 p.m., patrol members again drive to crow hotspots and fire pyrotechnic guns to shake the stubborn critters with the sparkling, noisy fireworks. (Most of us are eating dinner.) The patrol functions from October through March through wind, rain, snow, sleet, ice and falling temperatures. (Most of us find indoor activities during those months.)
This is their third winter of trying to outwit, outlast and outplay the crows. The members’ task is frustrating, wet, cold, but also important. Consider that, according to a New York Times report — yes, the nation’s most famous publication came here last winter for a feature story on the patrol — Union Hospital spent more than $100,000 two years earlier to clean up crow droppings. Since its formation, the Crow Patrol has made the hospital, Indiana State University, the downtown district and other heavily populated areas a priority.
When the project began, organizers hoped the teams of 20-plus volunteers would assemble daily. In reality, the number varies between two and five, according to Joy Sacopulos, a patrol mainstay and a co-founder of the Crow Committee. As a result, a couple of patrolers must focus on clearing a few popular crow hangouts, rather than a broader, sustained, systematic strategy to disturb the birds and persuade them to pick another town.
The Crow Patrol provides a valuable service. It helps prevent poop-splotched sidewalks, storefronts and cars, broken tree limbs (from roosting crows), and sleepless nights (from their endless “caws”). The diligent patrol members deserve praise and, most of all, assistance.
How can you pitch in? Volunteer by calling the Crow Hotline at 812-244-2709 or 812-234-2718. Better yet, show up at the parking lot on City Hall’s north side any evening at 5:30. The crows leave each March, so the season has reached its fourth period. Help the patrol finish at full strength and clean the city like a Zamboni.