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Sunnyvale Looks To Fight Off Crow Invasion In Downtown With Lasers; Plan Faces Pushback

SUNNYVALE (KPIX 5) – 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 KPIX 5.

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

Downtown Sunnyvale Crows
Crows perched above historic Murphy Avenue in downtown Sunnyvale. (CBS)

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

The flock, which is estimated to number over 1,000 birds, have grown into a considerable nuisance, often cawing well before sunrise, and waking up local downtown residents. Customers have reportedly gotten "dive-bombed" during outdoor dining. And the birds have left wide swaths of droppings, that have required expensive, ongoing pressure washings, and could be a health hazard, said Klein.

Over the years, the city has tried options such as reflective materials placed in trees, effigies, and even contracted a falconer, all 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.

Downtown Crows
A flock of crows flies above Downtown Sunnyvale. (CBS)

Back 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 is offered on Amazon for less than $20, and will hand them out to local residents and business owners, to be used 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 and we'll try that for a few weeks and ultimately we'll see if that actually works," said Klein.

The Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society opposes the idea and released the following statement: 

"Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society is deeply concerned with the welfare of our local avifauna. American Crows are a native species here, as in most of the continent, and should be celebrated. They are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Annually, they form large flocks during winter and fall after they have nested. Because they thrive in human settings, the growing population in our South Bay communities makes a perfect environment for them. We have inadvertently facilitated their proliferation through our own growth. They benefit from our lawns, playing fields and most significantly by our active landfills. 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. We advocate for continued exploration of solutions that do not involve potentially harmful use of lasers, and hope Sunnyvale consults with the Department of Fish and Wildlife prior to using any harassment or harmful methodologies. Individuals who use lasers should be aware that they are violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and may incur fines."

Klein pointed to his own research, including from the Portland Audubon Society who 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" can be successful.

Klein also said 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," said Klein.

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