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Green lasers to fight crow invasion? California city's plan facing pushback

The city of Sunnyvale is set to launch a pilot program by the end of January that will use green laser pointers to discourage crows from gathering by the hundreds in the downtown area.

"We love our birds here in Sunnyvale, but that being said, having so many congregated in one small location isn't good for our city," Mayor Larry Klein told CBS San Francisco.

The birds apparently forage for food across the South Bay during the day. But they choose to return to downtown Sunnyvale at sunset to rest overnight. It's unclear why.

Crows are seen in trees in downtown Sunnyvale, California in January 2022. CBS San Francisco

Klein said the city has dealt with the crows for years, but the population boomed during the pandemic.

The flock, estimated at over 1,000 birds, has grown into a considerable nuisance, often cawing well before sunrise and waking up area residents.

People dining outdoors reportedly get "dive-bombed."

And the birds leave wide swaths of droppings that require expensive, ongoing pressure washings, and that could be a health hazard, said Klein.

Crow droppings in downtown Sunnyvale, California in January 2022. CBS San Francisco

Over the years, the city has tried options such as reflective materials placed in trees and even the use of a falconer, with limited success.

"We had a falconry person with hawks here multiple years ago. It kept the crows away a little. But especially in the last two years, the crows have really become a problem," said Klein.

But in November, city staff began studying the use of green lasers to spook the birds.

Both the city and the Sunnyvale Downtown Association have purchased the laser pointers, which are offered on Amazon for less than $20. They'll be handed out to local residents and business owners for use before the end of the month.

"I heard from residents who have already started implementing it. And it actually does seem to work. It does have them scatter from the tree. We'll try that for a few weeks and ultimately we'll see if that actually works," said Klein.

But the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society opposes the idea, saying in a statement that, "We don't see the use of lasers as a reasonable way to address the problem of overpopulation among these intelligent birds.

"They may leave for a while, but will likely return. We question the legality of this tactic and believe it requires a permit if it is allowed at all.

"Additionally, lasers pose a threat of blindness to the birds which we cannot condone, as well as a risk to humans and aircraft.

"This should be avoided as a tactic against the birds' overpopulation in our area."

But Klein pointed to his own research, including from the Portland Audubon Society, which said "strategies such as use of sound cannons, lasers, pre-recorded distress call, and use of falconry birds can be effective but typically will require professional assistance."

The mayor also referenced the Humane Society of the United States' website, which touted the use of multiple techniques, including "lasers designed to harass birds."

Klein added that green lasers have been used in other communities.

For example, city employees in Rochester, Minnesota have been using them to disperse crows in their downtown since 2019.

"For whatever solution you come up with, you always have a certain amount of detractors. We will study it, and we'll evaluate it more. But from what we've seen, from reputable sources, it is a valid solution to deal with the problem," Klein said.

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