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Crow season in Terre Haute: It’s murder out there

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TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Her Cadillac glides slowly through the rain-glossed streets of this traumatized city, her gat within reach. The ominous evening sky has yet to turn black, but it will. Oh, it will.

Her name is Joy Sacopulos. She is 72, bespectacled, and so small in her boat of a de Ville that she seems at eye level with the wheel. But don’t let her play you for a sap.

Crows. That’s right. Crows.

Sacopulos, of the Terre Haute Crow Patrol, eases over to 12th and Chestnut, a known hangout. Bingo. Hundreds of perps are getting all comfy in the treetops, cawing in mirthful defiance, unaware that they have just made her day.

She steps out. Loads her launch pistol as calmly as if she were adding milk to her tea. Leans Mannix-like on the hood. Fires, and fires again. The first shot sends a screaming firework over a housetop and into the trees. The second booms louder than the wail of the freight train passing by.

Black bits burst into the air, but soon return to where they were moments ago, like a jigsaw puzzle of a night sky reassembling itself. Then comes that taunt again: caw-caw, caw-caw.

Crows. So omnivorous, so opportunistic, so — like us.

Every fall, as many as 100,000 American crows choose to winter in this pleasant city of 60,000. It is believed that they are drawn to the closeness of the Wabash River, the bright warmth of the streetlamps, the variety of the cuisine. A hearty lunch in a rustic cornfield setting, followed, perhaps, by a light dinner at one of the city’s finer Dumpsters.

But Terre Haute would rather shed its distinction as a winter resort for discerning crows — one shared by Auburn, N.Y., and Lancaster, Pa., among other cities. That is why it has created a Crow Patrol, with a mandate to enforce a kind of avian nimbyism.

Murders of crows, and that is the term, have mugged the quality of life here. If they roost in your trees, their mess will cover your property and their racket will disturb your evenings; you will run, not walk, from door to car. And if they bless your restaurant, bank, or church with their presence and droppings, money is lost, faith tested.

Two winters ago, Union Hospital spent more than $100,000 to clean up after crows, an effort that included power-washing the parking lots. Last year, a crew shoveled 4,000 pounds of crow droppings from the roof of a building used by the Clabber Girl baking powder company. Trees have been chopped down. Recorded crow-distress calls have been played. Debates have raged between those who love all God’s creatures and those who say the only good crow is a crow that has ceased to be.

Finally, everyone from The Tribune-Star newspaper to City Hall said enough, and a "crow committee" was formed last year to develop a comprehensive plan. As Mayor Duke Bennett explained in his 2010 State of the City address: "We can’t shoot them. We can’t poison them. We’ve got to figure out a way to transfer them someplace else."

A leading organizer was Sacopulos, retired schoolteacher, grandmother and bird lover known for Getting Things Done. She has championed urban forestry, worked to preserve a historic church, and led a drive to recycle electronics. Now she is focused on the crow, motivated in part by one image she can’t shake: that of a car so thoroughly coated with droppings that its driver had to steer with door open and head peering out.

"OK," she recalls saying. "We have to do something."

But what? Humans have tried to keep crows away since forever. They have used scarecrows to feign human presence. They have hung sulfur-dipped rags to remind crows of gunpowder. They have mounted dead crows on sticks. They have sent out hawks, banged pots, laid out strychnine, shot off guns, paid bounties. Still the crows come, as if to peck away at our sense of superiority.

Crows are too intelligent to fall twice for most tricks. They care for their young and sick. They communicate through a vocabulary that goes well beyond "caw." They use tools. They take note of our behavioral patterns and, even, our faces.

"Who knows what they’ve got in terms of accumulated wisdom," said Peter Scott, a professor of biology at Indiana State University — which, by the way, has also had crow problems.

After several public discussions and many suggestions, including one to use the crows to feed the less fortunate, the Crow Patrol was established. Its costs would be covered by donations, collected mostly by Sacopulos, and its members would be trained in the shooting of fireworks. The intent was not to kill the birds but to launch a varied disruption so sustained that the they would move to dedicated zones: an empty field, say, at city’s edge.

All last winter, the boom of evening fireworks echoed through Terre Haute, with modest results. It turns out that crows don’t believe in zoning.

"We were naive, and so we’ve abandoned driving them to specified locales," said Jim Luzar, the chairman of the crow committee and an educator with the Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service. "This year our expectations are tempered. We’re basically just trying to disrupt roosting behavior and dilute concentrations of roosting."

Last week, with gold flecking the trees and black flecking the skies, the Terre Haute Crow Patrol mustered once again. An hour before darkness, volunteers gathered around two "crow harassment" experts, Tim Christie and his son, Matt, as they distributed bright-orange Crow Patrol vests, launch pistols and bags of small fireworks.

Tim Christie, 62, a wildlife-management veteran who works for the patrol at a steep discount, has chased crows for many Terre Haute businesses, including the Honey Creek Mall. But in recent years there have been almost too many to handle, he said. "They keep moving back in, and moving back in."

The Christies tutored the volunteers once more on the proper way to load and discharge their pistols, while Sacopulos advised wearing earplugs before shooting. The leaders then divided the volunteers into teams and sent them out into the gathering darkness.

So here was Sacopulos, prowling Terre Haute streets in her unmarked Caddy. In the back seat, her latest issue of Birds & Blooms magazine ("Beauty in Your Own Backyard"); in the front, her pistol, her ammo, her resolve. All that was missing was a police radio’s cackle.

As Sacopulos drove, she pointed out the places where crows loiter, including St. Benedict Roman Catholic Church — her church. She reflected on how crows always seem to be watching you. She whispered that they seem everywhere: "It gets so that you kind of feel they’re there."

And they are: a murder of crows spotted in trees along Liberty Street. Sacopulos stepped out of her car in her vest of bright orange. She loaded her pistol, aimed and — boom! Startled crows darted into the air, while startled people darted from their homes.

"Crow Patrol," she explained, matter of fact.

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